System Shock 2
Irrational Games/Looking Glass Studios/Electronic Arts
Genre: Horror First-Person-Shooter
There are always games that sound like they will be right in your gaming sweet spot that will somehow turn you away from them. It took me a while to try out Final Fantasy XII and once I did, it became one of my favorites in the series. Another game that I’ve warmed up to but still haven’t completed is Bioshock. A little known fact about me is that I really enjoy first-person shooters and based on what I’ve heard about the Bioshock series, it seemed like a bunch of games I’d easily be able to sink my teeth into. Sometimes, it’s worth taking the chance to overcome your hesitations and just try a game if you can.
Oddly enough, another game that is closely related to Bioshock called System Shock 2 had been on my radar for a while. I was told it was a cyberpunk horror first-person shooter with RPG elements. Literally, nothing in that description does anything to deter me. Looking up the game, though, it looked like a very basic FPS and between the fans online having such fervent positive reviews of the game and the fact that its marketing in the current day felt all over the place, it was tough to get excited about giving it a whirl.
It was the connecting threads from Bioshock to System Shock 2 and the suggestion of a friend (who I will publicly thank “anonymously” as ‘The Horror’) that finally pushed me to install the game. Seeing that Ken Levine and a handful of others were involved with both titles helped me feel like the atmosphere from Bioshock could easily have been translated from System Shock 2. It’s also been rare that Horror has suggested a game that I didn’t enjoy once I got into it.
Eventually, as I was sitting at my computer one day browsing through games in my backlog, I mentally threw my reluctant hands into the air and said:
“Y”know what? I’m gonna give System Shock 2 a go.”
It’s the year 2114. Placed upon the Von Braun, a starship constructed to travel faster than light, is heading off on its maiden journey after a series of incidents had caused its manufacturer, TriOptimum, to cease operations. Under the guidance and supervision of a companion ship, the Rickenbacker, the launch of the Von Braun goes off without a hitch.
Five months into their trip, the ships receive a distress call from a nearby planet, sending a team down to offer their aid. When the rescue team returns, however, there is something different about them; something unsettling. They appear to have found some strange eggs- or something like eggs- on the planet and have started talking in about some surreal and outlandish ideas.
Of course, everything is a blur for you. Without even remembering so much as your name, you wake up from your pre-departure cryostasis to what appears to be an empty compartment in the Von Braun. The voice of one Dr. Polito summons you to find her somewhere in the ship. You’ve been ‘enhanced’ with some illegal cybernetic upgrades, and your ability to survive may be vital to saving the crew left alive.
There’s also another voice- many voices, in fact- telling you to help them.
Telling you to join them.
The echoes from down the hall, though, don’t sound terribly friendly…
Following in typical FPS fashion, System Shock 2’s general mechanics should be familiar to anyone who has played around a bit in the genre. Moving around with the WASD keys, you’ll maneuver through the halls of the Von Braun, aiming with the mouse and firing with a click of a button. There are buttons that allow you to jump, sprint, and crouch (which is very effective while attempting to hide from those who would seek to end your life. Something the game isn’t super clear on is if you dash and jump toward a ledge, it can act almost as if the character has grabbed the ledge, allowing just a bit more height and length toward the player’s destination.
Like an RPG, though, the game has stats that you can level up at certain points in the game. By finding cyber-modules- small bits that are strewn throughout the ship and given by clearing objectives given to the character- and utilizing upgrade hubs in designated areas. For a certain number of these modules, you can upgrade your character’s base Stats, their hacking and maintenance abilities through Tech, their Psionics like telekinesis and other mentally spurred abilities, or broadening their offensive capabilities via the Weapons skills. The game does a great job with letting the player customize the style in which they would like to attack the upcoming obstacles- though from what I have been told, playing as a Psychic makes the game incredibly difficult. Not all paths are recommended for first-timers, to be sure.
From there, there is a host of minutiae you can indulge in. By researching certain objects, you can gain attack boosts against certain types of enemies or find weapons that you can equip. Hacking will allow you to open many doors and storage crates with ease (though there are items that can compensate). Should you load points into your Weapons abilities, you’ll be able to use a myriad of powerful- and possibly alien- tools to clear the way for you to proceed. Given the fact that weapons tend to deteriorate with use, you can either choose to continuously replace your jammed weapons with new ones you come across or invest in the ability to maintain and repair them.
The interface is convenient, as well, with a map at your disposal and the ability to save at any time. This may also mean that you can find yourself trapped in an unwinnable situation should you save in the wrong place, but there are multiple save slots, too, making it easy to keep a few ‘bookmarks’ to jump back to should you need to. With limited inventory space and the stock of ammunition and healing items becoming more and more scarce as the plot unfolds, these additions are welcome to those of us who don’t want to backtrack blindly or through the same twenty minutes of game and story over and over.
The Good, The Bad, And…
System Shock 2 shines in its story and how it’s presented. There are some great twists in the plot itself and the more you explore and find data disks with voice logs detailing what has happened with the crew while you were in stasis (or sometimes even just a few minutes behind), the more intriguing and interesting it gets. While it may be a bit tough to get a moment of quiet to actually listen to them and read through them all unless you absolutely need information from them to proceed, it’s well worth looking for that sanctuary where you can listen through them and piece together the plot going on all around the ship as you’re proceeding.
The game also handles really well. It’s not perfect by any means- there are a couple of glitches here and there with shots clipping through the edges of walls every so often- but for as difficult as the game can become, it has a strong learning curve and creates a lot of really cool ‘organic’ moments for players with its design and enemy AI. While not as sophisticated as plenty of games of the genre in the market currently, it should be acknowledged that the behaviors of all of the enemies you’ll run into is well integrated and “makes sense” for them in a narrative way, making a number of encounters much more interesting than they really have a right to be.
Where the game breaks down is somewhere after the ‘third act’ opens. Without spoiling anything, the care and craft that was devoted to the beginning of the game ceases to be in the final quarter, resulting in poorly devised level planning, a metric tonne of cheap deaths and generally unpleasant gameplay that mars an otherwise fantastic experience. The final bosses are also fairly lackluster with one being much easier than expected and the other being somewhat unfair in how it has to be approached. Others may disagree, but the whole thing feels like it falls apart at a certain point which is unfortunate since the concept it is trying to achieve is really neat.
The cutscenes that bookend the game look great and for its time, the game’s visuals are great. Have they aged well? Not particularly, but they aren’t hideous. The environments are still nice to look at but the character models are showing their polygons. It’s no worse than the first generation of Playstation games, though, so it’s palatable and a lot of the game actually holds up.
Listening to the game is pleasant enough. The music ranges from cool atmospheric tracks to thumping ‘cyberpunk’ arrangements and they all fit really well. Once again, where the game shines is in the voice acting and how it is used. The data logs you find as you explore are great, but the noises and talking you hear from other sources as the game goes on are well implemented and really bring the horror aspects of the game to the forefront.
System Shock 2 is a classic with good reason. The atmosphere is heavy and the story is incredibly immersive. It handles smoothly and while it has a few kinks in the hose it’s not hard to see why it has such a strong following. All of the elements are handled really well and the game remains ambitious and fun whether you want to go in guns blazing or sneak your way through the Von Braun.
With rumors abound since 2015 that System Shock will be receiving a third installment, running through System Shock 2 is a great choice for horror of FPS loving folks. In the end, it only ran me about 10-15 hours (including a lot of deaths) and with the ability to save anywhere, it’s a great pick-up-and-play game. As an avid fan of horror gaming and its roots, I definitely appreciated playing through this game even if I had to push to finish through the last twenty minutes. If it seems at all interesting to you, you can pick it up on a few different platforms at a fairly affordable price so it’s certainly worth the effort and investment.
Plot Discussion, and Therefore Spoilers
An interesting piece of information regarding System Shock 2 is that the ending does not accurately reflect what the team had originally intended. There’s a really interesting piece on the polarizing final sequence here.
As the story plays out, you are informed fairly early on that your actual savior and guide is not Dr. Polito as you believed her to be but SHODAN, the prime adversary from the original System Shock. Due to the AI of the Von Braun, Xerxes, supposedly going rogue after integrating with The Many (the group of aliens that have invaded and taken over the bodies of the other crew members), SHODAN appears to offer aid in the form of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. From the beginning, it is an uneasy alliance as the plot recap of the first game before System Shock 2 begins outlines the nefarious deeds committed by the AI. Despite that and her constant talking down to the protagonist, SHODAN appears to be the only true ally the player can count on. All of this was supposed to lead up to a well-orchestrated double cross on her part, most likely winding up with the protagonist’s demise.
This ending was replaced, however, by the main character being offered a truce once SHODAN pulls a fairly trite betrayal to which he replies “Nah” and shoots the screen the AI is speaking from. His next action is to contact the only two people he knows must be alive due to seeing their escape pod blast away from the starship in his ventures. Tommy and Rebecca, a pair of lovers who managed to survive the onslaught, receive the hail on their escape craft. While Tommy responds and says that he has corrected the flight path to return to the Von Braun, Rebecca awakens from her slumber nearby, very clearly inhabited by SHODAN judging by her new look and voice. This would imply, then, that she is returning to the Von Braun to exact revenge and making a perfect button to end on for another sequel.
Plenty of people seem to be just fine with the ending that the game received. It’s unfortunate that the team’s original vision wasn’t recognized, but aside from the strange break in character on the part of the protagonist- his reaction feels a bit cheesy compared to the rest of the game’s tone- it feels dire enough without all but confirming that the villain has won. The original ending certainly reflects the feel of the game as a whole more, though, and while offing the protagonist in the final moments may feel a bit like it renders the entire game moot, it could have established SHODAN as an amazing antagonist for another entry in the series if it were to be handled correctly.
While neither ending is inherently ‘bad’, they both have their positives and negatives and neither are particularly uplifting. Among the many changes that happened to System Shock 2 from paper to screen, the final sequence appears to be the one that divides the fanbase the most.