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System Shock (PC) artwork

System Shock (PC) review

"It Belongs in a Museum"

Sometimes games should be played because they are timeless experiences; sometimes games are the infancy of greatness for future games with unforeseen potential and consequences to create new genres; sometimes, however, games can only truly be appreciated as artifacts that you can play for yourself to relive the history they created after experiencing what wonders they inspired for the future. The original System Shock feels like this last category, and the only way I could recommend it is if you are an enthusiast who enjoys the idea of immersive sims and want to play something mechanically outdated to modern games for the sake of it.

In what is perhaps a more confusing situation than the default control scheme, the original System Shock: Enhanced Edition occupies a weird limbo state of remakes. System Shock 2, a game that clearly was a do-over of the original utilizing the same ideas with better polish and execution, was the remake from the past. System Shock (2018) is a modern reinterpretation of the original that will be a remake for the future. The Enhanced Edition is a modern computer friendly marvel that keeps everything about the original with more accessible controls with no changes made to the core game.

Past, present or future, the legacy of System Shock is a series that encompasses its creators’ successors and other developer interpretations that all started with a hacker in space clutching a wrench against the horrors of the cybernetics and the future of technology awaiting him.

We All Live in a FPS-Submarine

If anything about the original System Shock has proceeded its legacy it’s the infamous control scheme that will baffle anyone who grew up on modern games. Creating a control-scheme is a bygone problem as the adoption of controllers and expected control set-ups have standardized games, some may say for the worse, that have trained players to expect a certain set-up across all games. In many cases, an FPS will play much like any other one except for deviations of speed, emphasis on hip firing and/or iron-sights, and weapons that make up the arsenal of a game. Having to relearn a new control set-up for an establish genre is not something most players are going to accept, and it has forever been a black mark on the namesake of System Shock.

The way the controls are designed is they’re a hybrid of point-and-click and FPS set-ups that share functionality with one another to make up for the missing components players would expect in one genre or another. By default, players move as well as aim with the mouse by moving the cursor across the screen and clicking in the direction as well as to turn the camera by the edges of the screen; the keyboard changes the position of players to crouch, to lean left or right, and to hug the floor with their face. Menus open from tabs alongside the viewport that looks like a submarine periscope, which opens the interface to access audio logs, emails, items, ammo and reloading screens, etc. These considerations are on top of the maze-like areas that uses realistic living quarters, which can be aided by a vector map hidden inside one tab that shows more of the layout the further the player explores each floor of the Citadel. Along with the constant threats at every corner and the vague minigames to breach the station’s security, having to worry about the controls is the beginning of a player’s concerns.

The Enhanced Edition streamlines some of these systems by utilizing a Mouse-Look button along with enabling full-screen to make movement conform to WASD standards; however, the menu system remains intact to the experience, which makes it easier to understand the more the player becomes familiar with the controls. Toning down the difficulty options for puzzles, combat and other options is preferable for the first experience as learning the unique controls is the first challenge the player must overcome, and it’s the only barrier of entry that the game possesses that would dissuade players from enjoying what elements hold up to modern standards.

One Is the Loneliest Number That You’ll Ever Do, Insect

If anything about this game has withstood the test of time across various games it is the narrative elements that are at work to enhance the atmosphere and immersion that comes with it being an immersive sim. Inspired by Ultimate Underworld, the exploration and player freedom to wander the various levels of a station to solve given problems at the player’s pace is the cornerstone of the experience in SS. Audio-logs, email reports, an omnipresent threat, SHODAN, onboard a station that insults you at every corner for your destruction in a soothingly unpleasant mismatch of voices spliced together on top of the general atmosphere of hostility from all present threats gives a sublime presentation of audio and visual quality that remains as hauntingly surreal today as it was back in ’94.

When it comes to the narrative itself, the original System Shock remains a threadbare story that relies more on its presentation than its themes or an overall plotline to enhance the experience. Even compared to the sequel, the character of SHODAN feels somewhat shallow than the sequel as her motivations cannot be contrasted with another threat such as the Hive to question the positives and benefits of AI. This is unlike the sequel which puts the player as the mediator of two vile extremes of philosophies that challenge the player’s states as a cybernetic human; the player is simply a hacker given an opportunity to clear his name to cause more ruckuses afterwards. Here we have an omnipresent threat at one extreme who we only get to have the perspective of it being the antagonist, and the lack of conflicting supporting characters to weigh on the matter or to offer insight other than the scattered audio-logs and emails makes the experience fairly limited compared to its sequel and spiritual successors.

None of this is to discredit the benefits of an immersive experience presented around the immersion of loneliness; however, the faults are more present as the result of having played games that have taken the basis of System Shock and made improvements in favor of telling an immersive story.

It Belongs in a Museum

Storytelling isn’t the only limitation with the original System Shock as the gameplay itself was designed to accommodate its awkward controls by stripping away any semblance of AI for enemies as well as making enemies with projectiles into hit-scan enemies. Even when it comes to the original DOOM, enemies possess some modicum of AI behavior as well as relying on multiple types of attack such as melee, projectile base and hit-scan weapons. System Shock feels threadbare as the result of making encounters based on keeping away and peeking around corners, which feels natural to an experience to instill fear into the player at every corner yet makes the core gameplay simplistic.

These are the aspects of a game that can only appreciated for what it was worth at the time that future iterations of System Shock are going to resolve many of its core problems to many audiences. However, if nostalgia is what drives you to play System Shock then the game will offer you a reason to go back into the past for a short while, then leave things where they belong as memories.


Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (October 05, 2017)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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