Gaming Retrospective: System Shock 2

Often times when you replay an older game despite all the love and nostalgia, you can’t help but realize that honestly it just isn’t as fun as it used to be. Why? Because more often than not what was new and innovative then has now been done a dozen times over and most likely done better as well. It’s a disappointing thing to suddenly realize that the game you once held so high and mighty is now little more than a faded memory of the past with a pleasant nostalgic sheen that makes you remember it as better than it really is. That’s not to say the old games aren’t usually still fun. Of course they are! It’s just they’re not as fun or grand as you might have expected or remembered it to be.

Why do I say this? Because I speak from personal experience and whenever I replay an older game it’s practically instinctual to prepare myself for that crushing feeling of gleeful shiny memories turned sour. And so it was when I recently set aside System Shock 2 to be replayed that I went about steeling myself against the disappointment and preparing for the worst.

Fortunately for you and I, System Shock 2 is one of the very few games which I can happily say has almost completely avoided the seemingly inevitable downfall that comes with being an older game held to modern standards. It’s that very reason I’m writing this right now, I want to stand high on the tallest mount and shout forth praise to the sky in wonder! But why you ask, WHY? Is my favoritism so great that I cannot see the faults? Am I blind to the truth? No! (Well I hope not!) The reason why is as simple as it is depressing: There just hasn’t been a single game since System Shock 2 that’s really strove to do what it has. It still stands unique, a strange relic from a bygone era, and as such it has managed to dodge the disappointment that plagues its fellows.

System Shock 2 was, and still is, one of the greatest games ever made!

Now with all that aside there’s two reasons you could be reading this right now:

A: You’ve played and loved System Shock 2 yourself and are reading for that enjoyable trip down memory lane that comes whenever you listen or read about something you already know, smiling knowingly and nodding your head at all the right moments. And for you I say “Sweet zombie Delacroix, aren’t those monkey’s freaky? I feel the urge to defend myself every time I go to the zoo on the odd chance a psychic monkey breaks loose and starts blowing the locale to pieces! Please tell me it isn’t just me!”.

B: You’ve never played System Shock 2 but have heard of it and are curious enough about it for whatever reason to read this article in the hopes of learning more about this ye-olden classic of the late 1990’s of which you’ve heard so much. Not old by normal standards, but in gaming years that’s all but a century ago! And it’s for you, dear reader of the B category, that I’m mostly writing this in the hopes of spreading the word that is System Shock 2. Don’t mind the people from category A, they don’t mind! They’re hopefully just enjoying the ride.

So what is System Shock 2?

System Shock 2 is a shooter/role-playing/action-adventure/horror game (I told you it was pretty unique!) set in the cold depths of space. Although it is the sequel to an earlier game knowledge of the first isn’t necessary to play the second although it undoubtedly makes the experience a bit more sweet. No, the game can easily stand alone.

Gameplay is from the first person perspective and in real-time, however combat as well as a slew of other details are all handled via your characters rpg-style statistics. Clicking a button brings up an interface with all the details you’d ever need such as a complete list of the journals, recordings, messages sent to you and any details learned from research throughout the game so far (All of which you are free to re-read or listen to again at any point throughout the game!) not to mention your statistics, inventory, and resources available to you. It’s worth noting that everything done via this screen is still taking place in real-time and as such you are always in danger, the wise would advise you always make sure to pay attention or find a fairly safe place to stop while browsing this interface. It can be overwhelming at first, no doubt about that, but with experience most such as myself come to appreciate that everything is so readily made available to you.

Click for screenshots of interface. WITH HUD UP and WITHOUT

Throughout the game you’ll have multiple options open for your skill advancement as a Marine, Navy, or OSA. The Marines acting as a ‘warrior’ type with Navy the ‘rogue’ equivalent and OSA the ‘wizard’! However how you choose to mix and match skills is up to you as at no point are abilities cut off from the player save if they do not meet the requirements, which themselves can be met by anyone willing to spend the points to fulfill them. ‘Leveling up’ is done via a resource named Cyber Modules you’ll receive throughout the game for completing tasks and through exploration. These modules can be put towards anything you wish so much as you have the requisite amount of them to advance the statistic in question. The Marine, Navy and OSA descriptions really only come into account early in the game when you are asked to choose one as a sort of starting platform towards what abilities you’ll begin the game good with.

It’s worth noting these are much more than cosmetic changes and WILL determine how you end up playing the game, so one much choose carefully! Specialize heavily into one aspect and you’ll find new options open to you, but might find yourself limited in other situation which call for a different approach. Meanwhile there are not enough Cyber Modules to become a perfect ‘jack of all trades’ type and so choosing to *not* specialize will have the same effect as though you had, with many talents simply out of your reach and as such options closed to you.

Exploration through the ship is done is a semi-linear fashion where typically you are free to go and do as you wish but are limited by how far you have advanced along the main plot, with new ship decks and areas opening up to you regularly. Maps are quite large and a single deck of the ship, of which there are quite a few, are often themselves divided into multiple large sections to explore. The effect is that you feel like you are truly wandering a massive space ship with living quarters, cafeteria, engine rooms, science sectors and everything else you would expect to find in a working ship. It can however also be confusing as you can get lost or turned around quite easily or are not sure where you need to go to complete a certain objective. There is a map available which can be quite useful but it does not point out things such as mission objectives and the like and as such its usefulness is limited. This can, and will, lead to much backtracking, a task made all the more dangerous by the fact enemies re-spawn after a certain time and so even in a level of the ship you’d already explored so you are never safe. It can be frustrating at times but it also helps add to the illusion you are moving through a real place as opposed to simply a series of corridor or shooting gallery.

Now that all that is aside there’s something that needs to be said.

There are three reasons really that System Shock 2 is so well loved. One is it’s complexity which I think I’ve done a fair job of explaining; System Shock 2 is a game that treats its players with respect and in return demands you pay attention and act intelligently. Indeed it’s unfortunate that today so many gamers find that such complexity is a thing of the past because so few new games employ it, as while this complexity can and does make the game difficult and even intimidating at first, it also allows for a much deeper and enjoyable experience in the long run. Something that System Shock 2 excels at and which has helped give it such a lasting appeal over its more simplistic brethren.

Two is the story, which I’ll get to next. The story like the gameplay mentioned above is something that treats the player with intelligence. While those that choose not to dive deeply into the games labyrinth tale are given a very basic experience, those that delve into the massive library of journals and logs you’ll find throughout the game as well as those who pay attention to the details and who read the information provided will find that System Shock 2 has a surprisingly in-depth story that covers a variety of mature themes most games try to avoid out of fear of controversy.

Allow me to start at the games story beginning, simple as it is; You are a random slob in the streets joining the military. No detail is given of the main protagonist and any past experience is for you to come up with. You walk into the recruitment station and choose which branch of the military you will follow. After choosing a military branch you are given a series of options to flesh out the class you just choose through a selection of assignments you can accept. You do not play these assignments, but it’s a fun bit of background information that gives your mute protagonist a bit of a personality. Three years worth of experience later you are assigned a position aboard the UNN Rickenbacker as one of the military staff present for the launching of the newly designed launching of the first faster-than light-speed spaceship; The Von Braun.

Then the nightmare begins!

I wont give away much since like I said early on in this retrospective I’m trying to appeal to those B readers out there (Remember that?) who haven’t played the game yet. But I’ll tell you this much… the story advances through voice recordings and transmissions you are given or find throughout the game. These logs are from a variety of different people and staff aboard the ship. Some will progressively tell tales of love and triumph, others the fall to madness and death. You will never meet most of these people, indeed through most of the game you will never encounter a single living soul. But despite that they are given a clearly defined personality which most games would envy! The voice acting is but for a few examples absolutely perfect and the moody sound of the ship around you and the yells in the distance and of your enemies help create and atmosphere that’s incredible.

This might sound boring, just reading and listening to logs, but what makes System Shock 2 stand out is the strength of the writing and the skill at which these bits of information come together to form a cohesive whole and an experience like no other. An example is that while most are in the past tense, you will (And this is a slight spoiler, although not enough to ruin anything!) eventually come across logs that grow more and more present, and eventually, you might even stumble across a few which mention that there’s rumors of a UNN soldier fighting his way through the ship with the aid of some unseen force. Here you pause for a moment and think “Wait, I’m a UNN soldier! They’re… they’re talking about *me*!”. And suddenly the world around you grows a little less distant, a little less lonely, and yet at the same time so much more so in a different way as you think that other people are alive on this ship. Somewhere. Maybe just right ahead! And yet you can’t reach them!

This helps create a sense of loneliness, a feel that you are being manipulated by forces beyond your control, that this is all of it, a setup and that there’s a *reason* you haven’t met any other survivors yet. And THAT, among other things, is the brilliance of System Shock 2’s storytelling as it both manages to make other characters in the game distant and yet still make you care about them. Most characters you’ll find will represent a theme, a particular type of story and tale. A pair of Romeo & Juliet style lovers trying to unite and escape the ship! A scientist slowly falling to ‘the dark side’ and praising his transformation! A resistance fighter, refusing to give way to the very last breath against an overwhelming force! All stories told throughout the game, all helping to make the Von Braun come alive with excellent voice acting and just enough information to keep you interesting in the crews myriad personal experience.

But wait, you ask, I mentioned three things that made this game brilliant. I’ve gone over gameplay and story, what else could there be? To which I reply with a single word, a name in-fact; SHODAN!

You will eventually meet her, SHODAN, the genie of Citadel Station as called in one particularly memorable recording. And although you might think she should fall under the story category, and she does, she’s simply such an all pervading part of a game; A single element that stands out so strongly and which is so memorable she effectively is a category of her own.

I’ve mentioned each character throughout the game tends to have a theme, right? SHODAN has one as well, and hers is easily the best written and most controversial of them all. SHODAN’s is religion, and as the story progresses you’ll discover that you, the main protagonist, have gotten tangled into her personal story and her ultimate strive to do something none before have done: To become a God!

I will go no further than this but if you’ve played System Shock 2 I recommend you read this extremely well written article by Kieron Gillen called The Girl Who Wanted To Be God! It goes far more in-depths on the story than I have or will here. Be warned though that those of category B will want to avoid this as it’s spoilerific in the most spectacular way.

Link. Extremely Spoilerific!

If it seems up to this point I’ve yet to have mentioned any real faults for the game, there’s a reason for that. System Shock 2 is not without its problems, this was the troubled offspring of a new developer working on an untested early-stage engine after all. There are problems! But simply put what faults the game has are not nearly enough to come even close to ruining the experience nor are enough to harm the amazing atmosphere the game sets. If I must list the problems with this game, and I do, I’d say first and foremost that the visuals are lacking. Even with mods which allow for better graphics than the default it is still far from a pretty game. Similarly the level design in places can be a bit cluttered, with objects blocking your path and making advancing difficult in places. Mission objectives as mentioned earlier can be frustrating to locate at times and the games overall difficulty can be extremely unforgiving to someone who’s never played the game before, weapon degradation (Fire a gun too often and without maintenance it can jam and become useless!) and limited ammunition adding to the games difficulty.

And so that’s System Shock 2! A game of amazing complexity mixed with excellent writing and featuring perhaps the most memorable gaming villain of all time. It is ambitious in its gameplay as it strove to touch upon multiple genres we’d normally never throw together, and innovative in how well it managed to succeed at blending those features. Immersive almost beyond compare, and with an amazing story full of interesting and believable characters.

System Shock 2 truly is one of the absolutely best games ever made, and if you’ve never played it and have read this far I suggest you try to find a copy now and play it. You might have trouble running it unfortunately on many new computers, but there are workarounds to get the game running.

If you have windows XP download this fan-made patch and in most cases it alone is enough to get the game running.

If you have another operating system I recommend trying various compatibility modes and if those do not work, go to this site and see if you can find a solution there. The community is quite friendly, fear not!

Once you’ve got the game running I would also recommend these mods which improve the visuals a fair bit. The Texture Upgrade Project and the SS2 Rebirth Project.

So go, go and play this classic immediately. Play and enjoy one of gamings most memorable classic experience.

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One Comment on “Gaming Retrospective: System Shock 2”

  1. […] but realize that honestly it just isn’t as fun as it used to be. See the original post here:  Gaming Retrospective: System Shock 2 « Dreamscape css, dreamscape, gaming, irrational, restrospective, retrospective, system-shock, […]

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