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System Shock 2 (PC) artwork

System Shock 2 (PC) review

"So An Untethered AI and a Hive-Mind Alien Organism Walk Into A Space Station…"

System Shock, the original, is a game that has forever impacted the gaming landscape whether or not you have played the original as its influences have expanded beyond its spiritual successor, Bio Shock, or other games that have taken its core ideas of immersive sims such as the Deus Ex games as well as PREY (2017). Exploration-based storytelling through interactable objects such as emails, audio-logs and mixed in with heavy RPG elements that impact the player’s navigation through non-linear environments with multiple entrances and exits are all the cornerstone of System Shock, and unlike the original System Shock 2 is still as playable today as it was when first released--if you are willing to put up with a mechanically dated, though functional, system.

Second Verse, Insect, Same As the First

In my previous review of the original System Shock, my main issue was not that it didn’t hold up to modern standards as those aspects remained timeless but that the enemy behaviors/difficulty and narrative had issues as a result of designing its gameplay around its convoluted interface. These aspects are the main sources of improvement of System Shock 2 as it’s not so much of a sequel as it is a reboot with all the same core ideas.

For starters, the interface is much less complicated by making an entire FPS with an inventory button that doesn’t pause the game but allows players to use items, repair weapons or exchange different sorts of ammo that is more intuitive than Ultima Underworld-inspired periscope view with tabs of the original. This design has largely stayed the same for these types of games as PREY (2017) incorporates the same general idea with a pause menu instead/quick-wheel rather than an overlay. As a result, the gameplay holds up to standardized controls which is a godsend because the game is difficult.

Unlike contemporary games that have taken the spliced the DNA of System Shock this game is heavily influenced by its RPG mechanics on the core gunplay that will make for an experience that becomes better the more player is familiar with it. While cyber-modules are plentiful as well as the resources in every level, the scarcity between levels as well as the high damage outputs keeps players from ever feeling safe or over-powered unless they know how to create builds to make them feel godlike.Maintence of the player's tools is one additional means of balancing out the destructive capabilities of the player while also adding tension that a gun may jam or degrade with every confrontation that could be avoided. All these aspects of fighting and of evading are core to what makes System Shock 2 the defintive immersive sim experience.

This is similar to Deus Ex, yet even the worthless skills like Research yield far more usefulness for the player than the useless skills like Swimming. The new additions of ammo types as well as implant-boosts helps make an RPG/FPS that isn’t about looting or the numbers themselves but how the player uses their tools to create their own solutions in a given situation.

So An Untethered AI and a Hive-Mind Alien Organism Walk Into A Space Station…

Tell me if you have heard this one before: The player wakes up in the aftermath of a mass catastrophe in an isolated area full of madmen and security threats while also following multiple voices telling the player where to go and what to do along with confronting the player with extremes of an ideology that has led to the devastation in the first place. This set-up has been codified into these types of immersive sim experiences that always use the 0451-callback reference as a reference to the original System Shock, yet this standard was solidified more so in the second game than the first.

In the original, the Hacker was the avatar of the player as they navigated Citadel station against the taunts of an unshackled AI, SHODAN, who modified the technology to secure the station as her home as well as create cybernetic minions to do her bidding. The TriOptimum corporation was simply a research megacorporation that while nefarious in their influence of Earth’s government never truly made them into an opposing viewpoint on the benefits of AI whereas SHODAN was an extreme with no remorse. The result was a storyline that favored one side greatly as the other side was monstrously malicious to the player.

System Shock 2 improves upon this issue by putting the player play a soldier in the power-grab between two destructive influences on the experimental vessel, Von Braun, between the returning egotistical AI within the mainframe of the ship and the influence of an alien threat with mental omnipresence referred to as The Many. The way in which both sides are presented are one as a technologically based egocentric tyrant and the other as a hive-mind collective consciousness that seeks the destruction of the individual for the will of the many. Both threats retain their influence on the player by having total control of the station as they seek the destruction of one another with the player serving as the ethical, human intermediator of their demise. The result creates an uneasy alliance between the enemy of the player with a far greater threat much like how the Vox Populi are as bad, if not worse, than Father Comstock, and the experience of that truce creates some basis of understanding with an opposing viewpoint as the player plays as a cyborg; one part man, another machine.

The narrative within System Shock 2 is far richer as a result of this minor, important change even though the narrative tricks used from the first game (audio/email logs, environmental storytelling, etc.) are retained in their entirety in the sequel with a little more polish. What wasn’t improved, and perhaps is more jarring here than the original because of its darker themes, is the ending as it is mechanically and narratively at odds with the whole game. In System Shock 2, the cybernetic deconstruction of reality leads to a final showdown with SHODAN that is only difficult because of how long of a fight it can be for players who do not expect it. This issue with the finale is not limited to the Shock games but also with immersive sims as a whole as the only games where the ending felt tailored to the gameplay was Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and PREY (2017).

”We Die. Beware the Machine Mother; She is a Stranger to Everything We Cherish.”

Similar to how Deus Ex’s themes remain timeless such as individual liberties at the risk of ever encroaching national security concerns promoted by the advancement of technology, System Shock 2’s themes will make the game ever more relevant to modern times. Not only is the conflict of individualism versus collectivism an eons old human struggle but the advancement of our own technology questions the responsibilities as well as the barriers of how far humanity will have to go to prevent our extinction by our own artificial creations or by our discoveries into the unknown of the universe that can only be stopped through our technology. What do we gain? What do we lose in the process? In the aftermath, will we remain human, cybernetic creations manipulated by one construct’s will or the domination of an alien organism that controls our thoughts to rob our own identity?

Whereas Deus Ex explores its questions in the limited scope of a mass conspiracy with as many philosophical quandaries as technological problems, the questions for System Shock 2 are not something the game ever attempts to provide all the answers. Instead, players are placed into these conflicts at the tipping point where humanity must decide how it must survive, and it’s through the player’s own resolve that he or she can surmount the menacing loneliness of space surrounded by as many machinations of life as of death, taunted by their voices seeking to rob the player of his or her humanity through the subjugation of the flesh or through the domination of our technology.


Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (October 15, 2017)

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

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