System Shock 2 (PC) review
"You could talk for hours about the way System Shock 2 plays - the way its controls feel so human, the way every action has a tangible weight, and the way its many optional approaches are so finely balanced from start to finish - and still not really approach why it's one of gaming's exemplary moments. The shiningly perfect mechanics keep things plodding along nicely, sure, but it's all rather incongruent to the meat and bones of this miraculous FPS/RPG. This is background materia..."
You could talk for hours about the way System Shock 2 plays - the way its controls feel so human, the way every action has a tangible weight, and the way its many optional approaches are so finely balanced from start to finish - and still not really approach why it's one of gaming's exemplary moments. The shiningly perfect mechanics keep things plodding along nicely, sure, but it's all rather incongruent to the meat and bones of this miraculous FPS/RPG. This is background material we should be able to take for granted. System Shock 2 exists in a world where playing well is just something that games do, and the real importance comes from somewhere deeper inside.
It's feverishly tense - that's getting rather nearer to the mark. There's a sense of urgency to System Shock 2 that games are often guilty of neglecting. The game opens with a mad dash for an airlock before you get sucked into outer space. Whether or not this would really happen if you were too slow is irrelevant - you don't stick around long enough to find out. In System Shock 2, you run - and if you can't run, you bloody wish you could. These stretches of pacing limitation are as terrifying as any of the hideous monsters: you're forced to move carefully, when really you want to run for your life. But, of course, there's nowhere to go. Youíre trapped onboard a gargantuan space station, stranded in the middle of oblivion, every survival instinct taking over and collapsing your reasoning that reallyÖ well. It doesn't look like you're going to see a happy ending.
Immediately, it's scary stuff. From this introduction, to the frequent bumps-in-the-night and occasional jumps-in-the-face, System Shock 2 is masterful in its presentation of unadulterated dread. This is as atmospheric as games come, with only a mildly irritating techno soundtrack - easily disabled - standing in the way. You creep around corners, sickened by the thought of what might be waiting when you finally muster up the courage to take that extra step.
And then you meet... her.
For the first few hours, you're vulnerable, but there's hope. You're guided by a friendly voice, communicating via intergalactic walkie-talkie, as you attempt to restore some order to this terrifying hulk of floating metal. It's good, old-fashioned teamwork, as you and Dr. Janice Polito assist each other from afar, struggling to regain control. But with the reappearance of SHODAN, the first game's ungodly computerised antagonist, the hope fades to pitch black.
Then System Shock 2 does something really clever.
Though SHODAN is clearly your primary foe, she's also your only chance of survival. But equally, you're hers. She's been reduced to a crumbling wreck of binary, a shadow of her former despotic self. But she holds answers, and the key to your escape. To survive, you have to help her regain the fierce power she once held. Your only option is to completely ignore your rationality, to go against every moral bone in your body, every inch of your instinct. You have to sell your soul to the devil.
SHODAN re-emerges as the poster girl for millennial horror. Since the dawn of the technology age, man has feared machine. It's not a new concept - SHODAN most immediately points towards HAL from '2001: A Space Odyssey' - but it's fiction we can all subscribe to. SHODAN epitomises our modern fear: that, one day, we will be ruled by the very things we strived to create. But she's also the microcosm of the technology age itself. Any additional power she gains will not be enough. She can always be more powerful and more encompassing. She will always strive to improve herself, for no reason other than because that's what technology does.
She's impressively terrifying. And she's your only friend.
With her (or in spite of her?) you'll fight The Many, an enhanced alien race, nestled away inside their hosts: the former crew of the Von Braun space station. No videogame has conveyed an enemy so tragically, so humanistically. Though they'll viciously attack you on sight, there's an intrinsic part of your former friends that is still alive, still fighting through torturous agony. You kill these foes out of self preservation, but there's an element of benevolence about your actions as well. As these creatures, these people swing at you with wrenches and fire at you with shotguns, they're crying, begging, apologizing. They're in pain and they want out. It's hauntingly disturbing, and ensures System Shock 2 creeps into your shivering mind more than any game that relies on pure shock tactics ever could.
If there's an issue with these encounters, it's that neither melťe or ranged weaponry feels quite as fluid as you might expect. There's a clunkiness to flailing a wrench around, and a few of the guns feel a little plasticky. These guns jam and break as well, forcing you to fix them with your ever-increasing skill set - a superb idea in theory, but in practice it happens far too frequently, resulting in some of System Shock 2's only frustrating moments. It's never really explained why this high-tech gadgetry is so hysterically hopeless, either, which removes a bit of the atmospheric gloss. Surely, in an age where space travel is mastered and computers are sentient, we'll have grasped the basis of reliable weapons manufacture.
Tellingly, you never really care. It's a minor problem for a minute amount of time. The truth is, System Shock 2 is so engrossing, so thought-provoking, so adept in every way that matters, that the tiny inconsistencies and gripes are meaningless. It feels preposterous to do anything but lavish System Shock 2 with unmitigated, salivating praise. From the delectable tension, to the sections of non-linearity, to the tight and streamlined character development, it's of the absolute highest quality throughout. First-person gaming simply does not get any better.
A thought to leave you with. I thought I was going to take longer with System Shock 2 than most, because I'm generally a bit of a wuss when it comes to horror. This is a game so relentlessly chilling that at first I found myself instinctively tabbing out every few minutes for a breather. But after a while, I couldn't do it. Every time I went to exit, something compelled me to keep going, fighting against every primal urge in my feeble little brain. That's System Shock 2. In so many ways. Pure, visceral, pulp-fiction fear, and one of the finest games in the world.
Featured community review by Lewis (April 16, 2009)
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