Developed by: Looking Glass
Genre: Horror Sci-Fi RPG
Rating: ESRB M (US)
Original release date: 31 July 1999
SoS mission date: 23 July 2006
Where to get it: Steam or GOG.com.
Squad Archivist Report
System Shock 2 was one of the first titles the Squad covered, even before we became the Squad formally. As such, there was no “briefing” published at the time we started exploring the intricacies of this game, only a general “call to arms” and encouragement for people to join in the experience and communally share what they thought of the whole thing.
The original System Shock, published under the Origin label, took many of the things that made Looking Glass’ earlier title Ultima Underworld great and placed them into a creepy sci-fi theme whilst stripping out all the number-crunching RPG elements. What remained was one of the earliest recorded examples of “survival horror” gameplay, involving a lot of crawling around in the dark, being scared and running out of ammunition at REALLY inopportune moments. While the original title looks extremely dated now, with its low-resolution textures and sprite-based enemies, it remains a fantastically playable and entertaining game featuring possibly the greatest video game villain of all time, the inimitable SHODAN.
Shock 2 turned up a number of years later, much to the delight of fans everywhere. Supporting a then-next-gen 3D accelerated graphics engine, more in-depth character development and the promise of more running around in the darkened corridors of a spaceship, the fact that this title was so woefully overlooked by absolutely everyone is nothing less than a tragedy.
To get us started, a comment from A.I_Impaired:
“I’ve been championing this game for years, and have failed to rouse the hype the game deserves. This game instills paranoia and an uneasy feeling like no other. It gives you chills. And beyond all that its got a really awesome RPG system behind its FPS surface, with so many cool abilities and different ways to play, you would be a fool not to play it. This is definitely one of my all time favourites, and for those who haven’t played it and are wondering about the legacy of the upcoming game Bioshock, this is a perfect opportunity for people to jump in. The game is a little dated, but there is no denying its cyberpunk brilliance.”
Essentially, the player wakes up from hypersleep after a “tour of duty” with one of three branches of the military - a cool, first-person way of generating your character and selecting your skill specialisms. Once the player is awake, inevitably, it becomes clear that something is very, very wrong, and of course everyone else is dead, and the player is the only one who can find out what the problem is and fix it... sure, you’ve heard it all before, right?
Perhaps you have. But the atmosphere of this game makes it a fresh and exciting experience. The developers absolutely nailed the feeling of being completely on your own in a dark, drifting spaceship with little hope of getting out alive. But the story of the game drags you along with it, willing you to continue through tantalising little clues as to what happened and what might happened in the future. For veterans of the first game, there’s also an absolutely fantastic “Oh my GOD!” moment partway through which elevated the experience, for me at least, from simply very good to absolutely excellent.
Part of the atmosphere of the game comes from the unexpected. One of the most striking moments for me was one point where I was creeping over to a damaged cargo elevator to grab some items which had been left on it. Upon stepping on the elevator, it began plummeting to the floor with me on it. I felt utterly helpless during this time - the inevitability of death at this point was particularly striking. There are a number of such moments during the course of Shock 2, and many of them come at completely unexpected moments. There’s also some genuinely chilling moments, with weird “ghosts” creeping around and odd disembodied voices talking to you.
The game isn’t without its flaws. Central to these flaws is an overenthusiastic gun degradation system - basically, the more you use a weapon, the quicker it will degrade until eventually it jams or breaks and requires repairing. Fair enough, you might think, there are loads of RPGs out there that do something similar. The problem is, however, that the degradation rate of weaponry is way too fast, meaning that very often you’re thrown into a difficult situation with nothing but the large spanner you start the game with to defend yourself with. This is, obviously, a Bad Thing - but fortunately, the patch allows you to customise the degradation rate of the weaponry, even to the extent of turning it off altogether. Make sure you check out the Readme file in the game directory after installing the patch for detailed information on how to do this, otherwise you may find yourself frustrated!
The second thing that some Squad members commented on was suffering from Gamer Space Ship Corridor Fatigue, which Bowley described thus, following Sinfony’s comments that he had officially Had It with running around darkened spaceship corridors:
“Sinfony here has a case of G.S.S.C.F. (Gamer Space Ship Corridor Fatigue). Many young adults that have been gaming through the 90's and that have been continuously heeding the call of saving the world through space ship hallways, have succumbed to this disorder. Unfortunately these brave soldiers, under the strain and claustrophobia of being squeezed into cramped practical space ship corridors, can snap under the pressure and be rendered unable to save the world thereafter.
Some symptoms include:
-Running through hallways emptying clips
-Shooting at friendly targets
-Firing at enemies even after they are dead
-Jumping into pits
-Jumping into extremely dangerous situations head first
-Excess of jumping
-Disregard for life meter
-Disregard for ammo meter
-Disregard for mission objectives
-Disregard for weapons altogether
-Trying to break windows that look into outerspace
any many more.
Pray for these poor souls, that they may find their way to a game with wide open spaces, where they too can save the world once again.”
It’s worth saying that although Shock 2 does the usual “darkened space ship corridors, occasionally with flickering lights” thing, it remains creepy, atmospheric and well worth persevering with. The endgame section in particular is very cool, especially to veterans of the original game.
I think Bowley summed up the experience of playing the game nicely, so over to him once again:
WARNING - SPOILERS FOR ANYONE WHO HASN'T FINISHED THE GAME!
Bowley looks back on System Shock 2
"They fear you, they fear you because you are my Avatar."
Shodan said that to me in her cold, constantly "rebuffering", schizophrenic voice, and I immediately felt as if my character was this glowing unstoppable projection. Never before have I felt so empowered to do the work of evil. I was a tool that channeled the malevolent will of Shodan through a high powered rifle; a religious armament that spat righteous indignation at high velocity in three different flavors. It didn't matter that I was just an "insect", a "speck", a piece of "meat", because I was connected to a metallic God, and all heretics were violently & fatally excommunicated before us!
"Shodan shouldn't be allowed to play God, she's far too good at it..."
System Shock 2 was a worthy game for the Pile of Shame indeed. I really thought the whole turn of the millennium graphics look would get me down, but surprisingly I was able to look past it. It never got to the point where, like Sinfony, I just had HAD IT with running around space corridors. I did get decently nauseous at times, but if a little nausea and dated graphics is all that stands between me and clearing some bad marks off the ole' shame credit report...then I will forge ahead with a mouse in one hand and a barf bag in the other!
So, after pumping an aging game full of adrenaline and subsequently working it to death, I have just a few things I want to say before I lower its decaying folder into the depths of my recycle bin; where it will inevitably become a part of future games, running its course through their veins and hopefully imparting a sense of what once was into what is now.
On the subject of choosing the lesser of two evils:
I really thought it was great how the only two choices for the protagonist (not the player) were to work with evil or to become a part of evil. The protagonist working with Shodan would be akin to Ripley joining forces with ASH and MOTHER to stop the Alien infestation (more on Alien next). This was a different idea than I'm used to. More often than not I'm usually playing the shining moral beacon in games. But here...instead of going it alone against Shodan & The Many at the same time, the character works with Shodan (unknowingly at first, and I'm sure reluctantly) to take out one evil and then, just like the three way duel at the end of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, they turn their guns on each other. If I had played the first game, working along side Shodan would have probably felt like even more of a risky endeavor. Anyway, my character did come out smelling like a rose in the end, of course, but up until that point I was a little worried that I had helped Shodan twist our universe into her own image.
On the subject of influences from the Alien/Aliens movies:
Speaking of Ripley, I mentioned it before but this game really borrowed a lot from the Alien series. That isn't a bad thing, I love those movies (except for Alien Resurrection, blech), but I mean, I was practically looking for Newt among those eggs. Not to mention, when you got close they would open up and a little parasitic worm would come crawling out after you. Worms that would use humans as hosts to turn them into something more sinister...which they called xenomorphs in the game. Thank god they didn't hug your face, burst through your chest, and have acid for blood...
How about parts of the story? Well, a corporation named TriOptimum *cough* Weyland-Yutani, sends a ship out to a planet. A team goes down to the surface to investigate, this team encounters an alien species. The team brings the species on board thinking they will profit monetarily and scientifically, but lo and behold the alien species instead uses said humans to reproduce. Does that sound a little familiar? Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of differences. For one, The Many are a much more interesting foe with much more interesting motives than the 2-dimensional killers in Aliens. Also, the Many transform you into a Borg like part of the whole instead of simply using humans as expendable embryo incubators. Still, I can't help wondering if all of this was some kind of homage to those movies.
On the subject of the game ending:
You know, after constantly being down trodden by Shodan virtually the ENTIRE game, it was good to finally stick it to her, especially after she turns on you. Taking her out was incredibly easy and that leached a little bit of the satisfaction from the whole ordeal. I did like the nod to Tron in the end with the spinning Shodan face...it totally reminded me of the MCP, that was great. I'd say that the home stretch was better than the actual ending. When I say home stretch, I mean from the moment you jettison out of the RickenBacker to the moment you "kill" Shodan.
One of the best parts of the game was picking up dropped recordings and listening in on what was happening before you got there. During the home stretch (in the Body of the Many) you listen to one of the most interesting recording series in the entire game. Some poor scientist got dragged in before you did and he decided to keep recording his observations of all of the amazing things he was witnessing. He was obviously very afraid, but fascinated at the same time and he even mentions that he flip flops between the two. His best recording is one where he muses over the superiority of Shodan's creation to Mankind.
"With only a few short years of evolution they (The Many) have been able to conquer this starship, mankind's mightiest creation. Where were we after forty years of evolution? What swamp were we swimming around in, single celled and mindless?"
Eventually you get to his last recording where he is dropped in a dark room and he knows he is about to die. It's very disturbing. He's breathing very hard, doesn't want to die, still making observations, then it happens... Tough to listen to.
This post is approaching Beige-territory so I'll finish this off.
So, the whole Shodan surprise was spoiled for me, I may have gotten a little motion sick, I may have had my problems with the retarded gun maintenance system, and the ending may have been a bit easy, but that is all water under the bridge because I enjoyed the atmosphere of the Von Braun, I had fun leveling up, I loved uncovering the plot bit by bit, and most of all I loved being Shodan's tool of wrath and despair, that is...until I "deleted" her ass!... I'd say my first foray into RPG-FPS territory was a successful one.
Maybe I should have thought of this back in 1999?