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System Shock 2 (PC) artwork

System Shock 2 (PC) review

"You travel within the glory of my memories, insect. I can feel your fear as you tread the endless expanse of my mind..."

I was 12 years old when I first played System Shock 2. I had just received some spending money at Christmas, and decided to go to a local game store to pick up something to play. It was there that I ran across an unassuming box, stamped with an "EA Classics" banner (which I still own) that had what appeared to be a sinister-looking woman hovering over a ship in deep space. Thinking it could be a fun little title, I took it home expecting to be entertained.

It wasn't long until I was reloading a save, practically wetting myself in terror as my character stood outside a cargo bay, listening to ambient chatter from robots that busted out of containers and were trying to hunt me down, and getting insta-sniped by a turret when I rounded the corner.

SS2 is a game that is absolutely dripping in atmosphere and dread. It makes the very act of walking down a hallway an unnerving, terrifying experience. Yet it remains one of my favorite games of all time, and one I've returned to many times over the years. It is an action-RPG that takes everything great about horror games and applies it to the sci-fi/cyberpunk genre.

System Shock 2 screenshot System Shock 2 screenshot

The game may seem a little dated and archaic now, but back then there was nothing like it. Everything from the interesting set-up (your four-year tour of duty is actually a class/skill selection process), the way the backstory is told through audio logs and final journals, the desolate and unnerving atmosphere and the variety of weapons/armor that could be found (and crafted) added up to a landmark experience.

I have so many fond memories of this game. Seeing my health whittled down to nothing and taking potshots at robots in a desperate attempt to stay alive. Failing to catch an escape pod and walking back through a hallway, only to have to retreat and start firing madly with a shotgun when a horde of techno-zombies appeared in front of me. Crafting a crystal sword and using it to great effect... on dangerous monkeys in a gym that were firing off bolts of energy in my direction.

I couldn't even finish the game the first time I played it, as I crafted a build that was way too reliant on tech skills. I then found myself low on ammo and medicine while trying to sprint through the Body of the Many as a horde of grotesque abominations chased me. SS2 is a game that definitely doesn't hold your hand, but rewards exploration and experimentation.

System Shock 2 screenshot System Shock 2 screenshot

And that's not even getting into the original queen bee herself, SHODAN. Everything from Terri Brosius' masterful performance to the worst-kept secret (and simultaneous best surprise) in the game oozes villainous appeal. You can be fighting off Machine Mothers while trying to dodge security cameras, and SHODAN will still be pushing you to continue on while simultaneously telling you that you're an "insect" and that you can't comprehend what she's doing. SHODAN is a terrifying but oddly reassuring companion throughout the game and a large part of what has made it so iconic.

This is a title I've carried the torch for over the years, via its CD version, an abandonware copy I turned to because it fixed a major bug and this most recent release from Night Dive Studio, who did a stellar job negotiating the rights to publish both this and the original 1994 title.

There's a reason why this is considered part of the late-90s "holy trinity" alongside Thief 2 and Deus Ex. The innovations SS2 pioneered are still being felt in large and small ways in the gaming industry, both in its influences for franchises like Dead Space and Bioshock and narrative techniques that fully immerse the player into the world without being preachy.

I highly, highly recommend the game. It's one you should play if you haven't done so already.


alexngregory's avatar
Community review by alexngregory (March 28, 2017)

I have only put 50 hours into KOTOR 1. My opinions are worthless.

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Nightfire posted March 28, 2017:

Now THIS is a game. The Dark Engine that was used in Thief and Thief 2 was put to good use here. The sound design and voice acting was incredible. It's hard to believe that such an amazing title was actually the death knell for Looking Glass Studios, and just goes to show you that quality isn't always enough to make sales.

This game would be on my top ten list if not for the fact that it took a swan-dive flat on its face at the very end. They could've come up with just about anything else for the final boss fight and it would have been more satisfying...

I did find an inaccuracy with your review; none of the weapons are actually "crafted", they are found, but some require research in order to use. Otherwise, this was a fun retrospective article.
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hastypixels posted March 29, 2017:

It's always a kick to look back at what got you into gaming, isn't it? System Shock is must look for anyone into corridor horror, especially with the plethora of lazy "story rich" gore fests that currently plague Steam. Thanks for this one. sells this one pretty cheaply with extras for anyone interested, and I'd suggest that's worth a mention. "Sharing the scare is caring" in this industry. Welcome aboard, and keep it up. :)
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jerec posted April 05, 2017:

I think our favourite games always bring out the best in us. It's a game I've known about for many years but never really found the time to sit down and play, and you make me want to. You do a great job describing the atmosphere of dread, and the game's legacy over time.

The writing could do with some tightening in places. "that were firing off bolts of energy in my direction" would probably be more effective as "that fired energy bolts at me", or even something like suggesting they responded to your crystal sword with a volley of energy bolts. Short sentences usually work better when you're talking about action, because it makes it read faster.

I liked parts of this review, where you really get into the game, but I don't really care about the circumstances of you buying it (unless this is a really unique and relevant story - going to a game shop, sadly, is not).

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