System Shock 2: An introduction

System Shock 2 is an FPS/RPG hybrid from 1999 co-developed by Ken Levine‘s Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios (his former studio, coincidentally), and published by Electronic Arts. It is considered one of the all-time classics by a lot of people I know, and yet until yesterday I had never so much as tried the game.

A little ominous. Just a little.

I have no good explanation for why the game slipped me by. Since 1995/96 I was into most things on the PC, and considering I loved Half-Life and Deus Ex I have no clue why I never picked up System Shock 2. I can understand the first being before my time, since I didn’t really have a proper PC in 1994. But now, with the help of my friend Arron I have gotten a copy of the game that works on modern computers (with only some minor tweaking from me, he did most of the work) so I fully intend to dive blindly into the game and chronicle my thoughts and impressions.

Since it’s a busy time, I reckon it could take me a while to complete it, so I’ll upload chapters on my progress from time to time. I will investigate whether there’s a possibility for taking screenshots (Fraps doesn’t seem to work well with older games). I have so far played past the basic and advanced training, and picked my posting: In the Navy. I might hum that song to myself while playing.

Despite having heard a lot of people mention System Shock 2 in many circumstances, I don’t really know anything about it. The only thing I’ve heard about the plot is that it involves an evil computer called SHODAN. I know it’s supposed to be rather difficult, so I hope I won’t regret having picked the normal difficulty. I know it’s supposed to be very complex, and just from what I’ve seen so far I can believe it. And I know it’s supposed to be rather scary, which could be a problem for me. Horror is one of my weak spots.

So should anyone be interested in a fresh look at a 13-year-old game, you are in luck. I will not be playing with any texture mods. I’d rather experience the game as it was, and maybe install mods for a second playthrough if I have the opportunity.

Though I haven’t gotten far in yet, and the plot hasn’t started at all, let me still offer some initial impressions.

I went right into the game without looking at the options, though it wasn’t long before I had to go into the options menu and start messing with the key bindings. Which I could thankfully do within the game, instead of needing to go back to the main menu like certain modern games require.

I stepped right off of a tram, which brought back memories of Half-Life. The environments seem a lot more sterile, though I’d say they’re still better than Deus Ex’s were, at least from what I recall. Then I saw my first NPC humans hidden inside a booth behind some glass, and the character models were less impressive than the environments. Especially the faces, which were really not as good as Half-Life‘s in my opinion, though arguably they’re better than Deus Ex‘s.

I won’t make a big fuss out of the graphics though. They are good for their time, and they do the job. If there is one thing that did impress me, it was the item models. Everything looked distinct and easy to recognise, even from a distance. So I imagine that as soon as I learn what the different things look like, I’ll be able to easily spot them from a ways off.

While I am a little confused as to why I couldn’t bind any of the function keys, I did feel like the controls were pretty good, at least once I got the bindings set up right. There is everything you’d expect from a 90s shooter: Walking, crouch toggle, strafing, jumping and even the ability to lean left and right, which not many games bother with, now or then. The controls also seemed to allow for pure keyboard play, but I’m quite happy with my mouse, thank you.

The way the inventory and character menus work are a little intriguing. You hit the Tab key to alternate between fire and use mode. You can still walk around in either mode, but when you toggle the use mode you bring up your inventory screen where you can manage, use and combine your items, and also access any character and skill menus. It is also brought up automatically if you search any containers. I feel certain that the lack of pausing while checking your inventory will lead to some tense situations, though hopefully not too tense for me. And I appreciate that you can look up extra information about anything in your inventory, sometimes with quite humourous descriptions.

I also quite liked how the tutorials were set up. If you wanted to, you could skip them entirely, and they made sense within the world as well. I like when games put such attention to detail. It makes me quite optimistic for what is coming.

In the combat training I noticed that it doesn’t seem to matter where on the enemy you hit, so long as you catch the hit box. No location-based damage. Which is fine by me, to be honest. I will probably still aim for the heads, as that is what shooters have trained me to do, but at least I won’t feel like I get penalised for hitting elsewhere.

PSI powers have an interesting risk/reward thing going. While you can simply click for regular blasts, you can also hold to charge up for added effect. However if you push it too far you suffer feedback, get blinded for a moment and take some damage. Considering how powerful they seem to be that is probably a decent way of balancing things out, but I guess that might be too early to tell.

As it is both cyberpunk and RPG, there is of course a hacking minigame. I must confess that while I seemed to do rather well at it (it was only the tutorial though) I really had no clue what I was actually doing. I just clicked stuff till I won. We’ll see if I gain a greater understanding later, or whether I’ll just stick to the formula and remain ignorant.

And those are my initial thoughts on System Shock 2. I am tempted to focus on hacking, which is why I picked the Navy, but any suggestions on character build are welcome. Please don’t spoil anything though, I’d prefer to keep going blind. Stay tuned for future installments.

Final note: It’s a shame the game isn’t up for sale anywhere. When/if it comes on Gog (or any other digital platform), I will buy it.

~Wulf 

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Posted on September 1, 2012, in Games, Retrospective, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. It would indeed be a good thing if Ken Levine/Irrational Games/EA got together and set up a PayPal-driven licencing scheme where we give them £5, and they grant a licence to own a copy. I already have one that I got off my brother (and I have the CD and packaging to prove it) but it’s basically too good a game to be forgotten. it either needs a modern re-release or better still re engineering so it will run on modern platforms including mobile/tablets.

    I’m not going to spoil the game as it’s a fine vintage piece of survival horror that’s worth savouring and playing over several times..but the one thing they got right in this is the sound. Pretty soon you’ll hear something and wonder where it comes from. The whirring of cameras..the hissing of steam. When you’re playing late at night on headphones and you suddenly hear the cracking of glass far off in the distance..you’ll jump out of your seat. Or the panic when you hear the chirping and the familiar yellow light at the end of the corridor as you are spotted. It’s like the poison head crab in HL2. When you hear that rasping death rattle – your stomach just knots as you desperately look around for it.

    You have that sense of edge and isolation throughout the game. No-one is going to help you and the situation if anything is getting worse the longer you play.

    I know people who compare this lazily to Dead Space as several of the people who worked on System Shock II had a hand in Dead Space. There’s absolutely no comparison. Dead Space has some of the atmosphere, but they’ve made the mistake of making all the creatures space zombies that you just cut up. Secondly they try to inject a sense of terror by making the areas very dark, which fails in illustrating what is going on basically. It’s also extremely linear and scripted so you feel like you’re a element in a story that is very paint-by-numbers.

    System Shock II is surprisingly brightly lit for a horror game, and there are few sections without lighting. Trust me, this doesn’t make it any less terrifying. It has very few scripted sections and they’re mostly to give story. You see what I mean when I play it. You also have a lot of choice in what to do as the game isn’t linear for a couple of sections of the game. Having choice doesn’t help, if anything it means you have to work out what is going on, investigate and take risks and then deal with the consequences. How you augment your character also gives you a lot of choices in how you play.

    I loved how the original game almost seemed to know what you were thinking and the antagonist would move her pieces on the chess board in anticipation of catching you out. In this sequel, the game seems to know what would scare you and reduces you to crawling nervously slowly around a ship anticipating threats as the sound of a flickering fluorescent light puts your nerves on edge. Then when your confidence starts to recover, it allows you to blunder into a trap of your own exuberance. The people who designed this game know how to build a emotional roller-coaster. It’s even got humour in certain pieces (like the item descriptions) which help to take the edge off the grief party you’ve arrived late to.

    I think the worst thing of what happen to the Von Braun is that is (like Bioshock) it was a tragedy of the human condition. Greed, isolation, lust for power,a need to belong, paranoia, conflict – all the enemies that face you are basically born from those desires. Unlike Dead Space, they’re all pitiful creatures that were tainted and have paid the price. I never felt bad about killing Necromorphs, but the people on the Von Braun were sucked into their fate. Some accepted it. Some rejected it and some couldn’t cope. If Bioshock hadn’t been a simplified game that you couldn’t really die in, then it might have been another System Shock. Unfortunately it’s just a shadow of what once was and it could have been.

    Anyway, I hope you enjoy your System Shock experience and look forward to what you think of it when you’re all done 🙂

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