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System Shock (PC) artwork

System Shock (PC) review


"It's true that the interface is clumsy, with far too much dragging and dropping going on. But away from the peripherals, here remains a game of survival horror resource management, careful RPG stat-planning, and basic but tactical first-person action. It weaves these threads together into something so wholly representative of developer Looking Glass' style that, even above Ultima Underworld and Thief, you'd point to System Shock as the prime example of what this wonderful studio created."



It really is, you know.

A shock to the system, that is. Returning to System Shock more than 16 years after its release shouldn't still provide such an enormously absorbing, enlightening experience. But it does, and that's remarkable.

Shock 2 got the bigger plaudits. System Shock was released in the aftermath of Doom, when id Software reigned supreme in the newly emerging first-person shooter market. People around the globe were being wowed by the frenetic hyperspeed of games with a gun pointing out of the bottom of the screen. System Shock, meanwhile, was slower: more thoughtful.

And Shock 2 arrived at the right time: at the end of the '90s, when space paranoia was at the heart of the pulp entertainment industry. It told - let's be honest - a far more iconic story, too. I suspect, generally speaking, people remember SHODAN for her return, rather than her introduction.

And yet, there's that line, isn't there? "Look at you, hacker," she stammers through icy cool digital breath. "A pathetic creature of flesh and bone, panting and sweating as you run through my corridors." Those words - perhaps the most immortal spoken by gaming's most immortal malevolent AI - appear in the first System Shock. And they create the sort of moment the game's full of: the sort that makes the hairs stand up on every part of your body, even now, in the year 2010.

This was a game so staggeringly ahead of its time. It's a game of the type so few developers manage to get right even now: essentially a first-person action adventure, with RPG elements that run far closer to the game's core than you might initially realise. System Shock was a game outside the point-and-click or graphic adventure genres that dared to put story first. And to quite an interesting extent.

The System Shock legacy passed on to its sequel and then to the BioShock franchise. BioShock, you might remember, featured regeneration modules called Vita Chambers, which operated essentially like the ones found in Shock 2 but with a notably less devastating price to pay for their use. People complained viciously about these. They made the game too easy, they said. The game had been dumbed down, they said. The real System Shock wouldn’t have done anything of the sort.

But here's something: in System Shock, if you choose to play in a certain way, it is absolutely literally impossible to fail. In a system I've not seen repeated since, different difficulty settings affect different aspects of play. Set the combat difficulty to its lowest, and enemies don't shoot until you shoot them. So you can happily waltz straight past if you don't feel like a battle. Similarly, puzzles can be quite entirely turned off. So you can merrily bypass a hundred locked doors and go for a sprint finish. Importantly, what this means is you can enjoy System Shock purely as a narrative should you desire. And that the narrative stands up so strongly is one of the game's great achievements.

Obviously, many of the game's mechanics now feel rough. Controlling the thing - without the absolutely wonderful mouselook mod, of course - is a nightmare: here's a game that regularly requires you to assess the vertical axis, yet asks you to drag a slider in order to look up and down. That grates quickly. And clearly, as dictated by the ageing process of all things in life, it's not the beauty it might once have been. It's blocky, and filled with primary colours. You'd think it'd struggle to convey an atmosphere.

It doesn't, though. Not at all. The amount of tension System Shock still manages to conjure up is nothing short of astonishing. The sound design is spectacular, with haunting moans and groans creaking out of the metallic walls (you should probably turn the music off, incidentally). And even though the visuals are primitive, it's what they show that counts, rather than how they show it.

Which means there's still nothing quite like turning a corner to come face to face with the words "STAY AWAY," scrawled in the blood of the Citadel Station's former crew members on the wall opposite. And, more fundamentally, it means Citadel still feels like an extraordinarily real place. Some of the level design is disappointingly maze-like - that's something that stands out as a real flaw today - but it never forgets to be authentic and convincing. Black Mesa, City 17 and Rapture would later win even more acclaim as grand virtual worlds, but Citadel still often gives them a run for their money.

The game itself is just gloriously complex, without ever truly overburdening. It's true that the interface is clumsy, with far too much dragging and dropping going on. But away from the peripherals, here remains a game of survival horror resource management, careful RPG stat-planning, and basic but tactical first-person action. It weaves these threads together into something so wholly representative of developer Looking Glass' style that, even above Ultima Underworld and Thief, you'd point to System Shock as the prime example of what this wonderful studio created.

And you can play it today. That might sound like a strange thing to point out, but consider this: you practically need a computer released on a very specific date in history to get System Shock 2 or Thief working, not to mention hundreds of brains' worth of technical know-how. With this, there's System Shock Portable, which takes the original game and makes it run on modern machines. You can even run it from a USB drive. And there's something else as well, something I can't quite recall... Oh yes. It's free. Completely and entirely free. One of the most important games in history.

And really, think of the legacy. Without System Shock (which itself, arguably, might not have emerged without the success of Ultima Underworld) there'd be no Shock 2, Deus Ex or BioShock, no Thief, and quite possibly no Fallout 3. System Shock was the first truly cerebral first-person shooter; the first game to incorporate an antagonist quite so frightening. Its hybrid mashup of so many genre forms into something so cohesive, so manageable, is a special feat indeed. Try it out, insect. For all its aged quirks, it really is an immortal machine.

Rating: 8/10

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (July 08, 2010)

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