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Look at any top ten list for sci-fi games and you’re guaranteed to encounter System Shock 2 at every turn. Being someone who loves RPG/FPS hybrids as well as science fiction, I’ve been looking at this game for a few years now, but I didn’t get around to it until recently.

In every misfortune there is some good, as they say, and this past August my laptop’s graphics card melted and dripped all over the other inner workings of the machine. I also needed a quick and cheap replacement for study, so my current machine can only run games with very low system requirements, which put SS2 right on my radar. Even so, it took a steam sale putting the game under a Euro to push me over the edge. My advice?

Don’t wait.

Hell, if I weren’t the one writing this, I’d tell you to stop reading and go play it if you haven’t already, but I am writing this, so please don’t stop reading.

The game in question dates back to a time when I was 2 years old. Thanks to my brother I’ve had some previous exposure to retro games, though I was “raised” on modern titles, which made me become accustomed to different mechanics, different styles, different difficulties. I was initially doubtful of this relic, thinking that it would be much too outdated for me to enjoy. Thankfully I was wrong.

Modern games throw around buzzwords like “cinematic” and “immersive” with so much fervour that they have nigh lost their meaning, and yet most titles of our day would have you sit through a pre-rendered cutscene and leave it at that. That’s immersive?

For those of you who were on the fence like me, I urge you to give System Shock 2 a chance. I promise you won’t be dissapointed.

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System Shock 2 takes place in a far-off technologically advanced future. We start the game at a military recruitment/training facility, where we go through some cyberspace simulations showing us how the game works. Pretty standard tutorial stuff. After this we are whisked away to a space station, where the “character creation” part of things happens.

As a recruit we have to go through 4, year-long assignments which, given the mission context, award us with stat bonuses. Work as a scientist in a quarantine zone? Your research skill is increased. Work as a mechanic aboard a starship? Repair skill increased. These assignments aren’t playable; they’re nothing more than fancy fluff, glorified box ticking; but it is this fluff which makes it so… immersive. This might not be of mind-boggling depth, but it is leagues more effective than the kind of immersion that shows off every individual pre-rendered strand of hair.

Sure, essentially it is basically assigning points to different stats and nothing more, but the way it is framed, the little reports before and after each mission, the little snippets of world-building, fascinated me.

This interactive frame for stat assignment with a bit of world-building is something that impressed me more than it probably should have.

Fast forward a few years and we are woken from cryogenic sleep, finding ourselves on a large spaceship where mutants have killed most of the crew, the robots and security systems have it out for us, and the lights… surprisingly don’t flicker. Hrm. My first thought was “cliché,” but considering the age of the game, it probably wasn’t as tired a trend at the time. All that being said, I absolutely love games set on derelict spaceships, so no complaints from me.

A wrecked spaceship far from civilization, upon which a rampant alien infestation drove the crew insane and turned them into murderous monsters? Oh, and the loading screen is a blue-ish circle design with the ship’s insignia in it? Now where did I see that before?

Living in a world of Crysis 3 and The Witcher 2 and v-sync this and anisotropic filtering that, one would assume that System Shock 2 assaulted my senses with it’s visuals, and yet I found that it had charm. Not once did I stop somewhere just to look and enjoy the visuals, and I never encountered anything that made me go “wow” from a graphical standpoint, but the visuals induced childlike joy, as being so far from realism, they managed to blend to very different sensations. Every moment of playing I was actively aware that this is a videogame, and yet I also felt drawn into the world.

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The environments look surprisingly good, but the character models are where the game shows its age.

The gameplay and controls took some time to get used to, as when it comes to FPS games I was used to a different style, but thankfully due to some previous encounters with retro shooters acclimatizing was relatively easy. I automatically assumed the right mouse button would aim down sights, shift would be sprint and E would be the interact key, and these old instincts did cause a few silly deaths early on. While mouse-look, left click shooting and WASD movement was there, right clicking interacted with objects, and shift brought up the inventory menu. Then again I could have fiddled with the controls, since they’re fully customizable, so don’t let this frighten you. Initially I was slightly intimidated by the various menus, but later on I realized that it really is quite simple; just not as neatly organised as what you might encounter today.

The weapons are pretty standard, but there are a few slightly interesting pieces, like a jagged crystal for a melee weapon and an alien virus dispenser which needs to be loaded up with worms. Most weapons can be loaded with different kinds of ammunition for different effects depending on what type of enemy is on the receiving end, and the weapons can be modified and improved given you have enough points in the required skill. There’s also a weapon deterioration system in play, but it happens so slowly that it isn’t even a nuisance (then again I had a high repair skill; maybe in other cases it can be problematic).

There are also RPG elements, wherein one can spend cyber-modules to increase stats, upgrade weapon and tech skills, or buy psi powers. Along the skill upgrades, throughout the game there are four “one-time bonus” stations which grant the player a significant upgrade, such as instantly revealed map or additional inventory slots. I ran my first playthrough with a primarily tech-build, so all I experienced of the psi powers was from the tutorial, but based on the power-menu its a pretty extensive system, and I’m definitely running a psi-build on my second playthrough.

Something that was a bit of a let-down was the difficulty, or more specifically, the lack thereof. System Shock 2 is notoriously unforgiving, and yet there was only a single encounter which I considered difficult. Saving is available even during combat, and in each location there is a genetic-replicator-thing which, once activated, will respawn you with all your items and quite a bit of health. Even before activating the chamber in your given location, save-spamming makes death meaningless. The revive-stations might have worked better if they were a secret to be discovered, but you’re bound to just bump into them as you pursue your objective. Plus if you choose the map-revealing upgrade then you’ll know where it is immediately upon entering any given area.

So while the combat works well, the weapons don’t feel like they have any weight, and death is meaningless. However the variety of ammo and weapon options do spice it up a little, and the varied gameplay styles of the different specializations allow for at least two fresh playthroughs.

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I’m not going to say a lot about the story here. You’re on a derelict ship full of murderous mutants and need to find out what is going on. If you haven’t been living in a cave for the past decade or so then you also probably know that someone called “SHODAN” will pop up eventually as well, and that they’re not necessarily the nicest of fellows. To find out about the events that transpired on the ship before your awakening you’ll need to listen to crew logs, of which there will be an abundance. The writing is pretty solid, if a little dry, though there are a few memorable lines, and one quite expertly executed scene that is fondly remembered by fans to this day.

While the overall story isn’t the most original, it works well and feels quite natural and easy to flow with. The objectives are usually just “go from A to B, collect security card, go to C, press button, repeat,” but it does occasionally mix things up. Further on in the game, on deck 5, there is a curious little puzzle section covering the whole deck (though after I figured it out I happened upon a crew log which pretty much tells you exactly what you need to do), and there is a bit of back-and-forth in the latter sections of deck 6.

The slow narrative and strictly structured first two acts of the game had me slip into a comfortable routine (go to deck, push some buttons, shoot some dudes, next deck). The third act, however, sped things up and added excitement into the mix.

Despite the game’s age I found it wholly accessible, even as used to modern games as I am. I particularly enjoyed the level design, and while the combat was a little stale, the exploration was great. The story seems basic and tired at first, but given a little thought it is slightly nuanced. If any of you gave System Shock 2 a pass from a fear of its age, I can assure you that you’ll have fun.

This masterpiece of game design can be enjoyed today, and will be enjoyable for generations to come.

I feel I have made my point quite clearly, but if you’re okay with some spoilers, read on for a little bit more insight to the game. Again, let it be known that there are spoilers beyond this point.

The scene of which I was talking about previously, to no-one’s surprise, is the SHODAN reveal. While Polito was highly suspicious from the get-go, SHODAN was an unexpected turn. I knew it (she?) was bound to appear sooner or later, but I went into the game assuming the crazy AI will be set up as the main villain by default. When “the Many” was introduced I assumed it was some sort of under-boss proxy-villain on the sidelines while we hunt for SHODAN, as opposed to spending most of the game following SHODAN’s orders. At first I thought of this as a weakness of narrative, as before I got around to playing System Shock 2 I kept hearing of SHODAN as being the crown jewel of the game, cited as one of the best video game villains of all time; the figurehead of the franchise.

However as I progressed through the game I was intrigued by the idea of working with an egomaniacal artificial intelligence who thinks she’s a god, who once before sought to enslave the human race, who views me as nothing more than an insect doing her bidding and has committed multiple atrocities, not because she is the lesser evil, but because she is the one of the two not trying to assimilate and/or murder me. Here we have the aforementioned murderous AI and a hyper-evolved organism which, incidentally, was created by SHODAN. “The Many” form a harmonious hive-mind and, based on a particular crew-log, might not have necessarily been evil, but had to adapt to defend themselves from an overbearing threat.

The crew log in question pertains to the initial discovery of the annelid eggs on the surface of Tau Ceti V when the senior officers, already under the influence of the many, begin loading the eggs on a transport. Anatoly Korenchkin (who becomes the chosen avatar of the Many to interact with us during the game) calls the Von Braun to clear the whole of the hydroponics deck, which causes the captain to call him by name, asking whether or not he’s crazy. To this he replies, “Oh Captain, we aren’t Anatoly anymore,” with a smile. While thoroughly creepy, this, along with some snippets of other crew logs, paint the Many as possibly one of the least evil assimilative hive-minds in popular science fiction, though admittedly still troubling and terrifying.

Both villains are beyond humanity, but one believes herself to be a god and wishes to enslave all life, while the other strives for unity and harmony through force. Naturally I’m not saying that the Many should be looked upon in a positive light, but of the two evils, it is the lesser. Disregarding this, the player character does as SHODAN commands despite (presumably) being aware of the Citadel incident. Sure, we’re preventing an alien hive-mind from assimilating all human life, but still; are we truly the “good-guy” in this story?

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After we destroy the Many from within its own body (I went into that fight against the über psi-reaver and infinite rumblers with barely any ammo and low health. The frustration from that was almost enough to make me hate the Many with such fervour that I’d consider SHODAN a pretty swell gal) SHODAN betrays us, because of course she does. Even when the final battle (which took a whole of 2 minutes) is over and the puckish AI snivels for mercy at our feet, which might have been handled in a way that shows our character redeeming himself, he manages to make himself feel like an absolute ponce. In a last ditch effort (or so it would seem at the time) to save herself, SHODAN offers to “improve” us beyond anything the cybernetic implants could do. To this, all the protagonist says is “nah” in the most arrogant and non-chalant way humanly possible, and then moves to shoot the screen (which kills SHODAN, somehow?) with the flick of his wrist, cementing his status as a complete and utter douche.

For some inexplicable reason, I found that final scene on the escape pod extremely terrifying. The way Rebecca/SHODAN is vaguely shown from behind with that freaky wire-hair-head-thing and that abhorrent sound effect just chilling my soul through and through. An absolutely terrifying and very memorable ending.

Wait, why isn’t there a third one of these? Oh right, EA… *shakes fist*

Overthinking may give deeper meaning to even the least creative story, true, but I feel System Shock 2 does indeed provide the player with more than just the bog standard derelict spaceship run. While I do enjoy most new AAA releases, and think progress is necessary in the industry and games are generally changing for the better, many times I happen upon an older title which makes me wish that the developers of today would take to heart the merits of these retro games.

System Shock 2 is available on Steam and GOG.

Next up on Back in Your Day : Crusader : No Remorse

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