Publisher: Night Dive Studios (originally Origin Systems)
“Man, there’s this really great game you should try. It’s called Bioshock, and it—”
“BUT HAVE YOUUU PLAYED SYSTEM SHOCK TUEEE THOEEE???”
It is rarely possible to talk about the greatness of Bioshock without someone interjecting with System Shock 2, a game that has been on my backlog for the past two years after Night Dive Studios acquired its rights for a 2013 re-release. When presented with an opportunity to review an “enhanced edition” of the franchise, I accepted without hesitation, then not understanding that there is no “enhanced” version of System Shock 2 (though there are mods). Not one to back down even after having made a mistake, I still still looked forward to experiencing the roots of the franchise with System Shock Enhanced Edition and the realizing the impact that its legacy has made upon the entire industry.
New Atlanta, 2072: a hacker is doing his thing, accessing unauthorized databases on TriOptimum corporation’s servers (think in terms the pastime of hacking megacorporations found within games other cyberpunk games that we have reviewed here). Said hacker penetrates the firewalls of a space station called Citadel Station, and TriOptimum responds by sending its militarized security to apprehend him.
Instead of facing trial, the hacker is brought to Citadel Station by Edward Diego, a TriOptimum executive, who makes the promise that in exchange for “a service,” all charges would be dropped, and the hacker would be granted a military grade neural interface. The hacker removes “all ethical constraints” from the AI known as SHODAN, which reexamines its purpose. The hacker is placed into a six-month healing coma after the instillation of the neural interface only to awaken as the last survivor on Citadel Station where SHODAN has taken total control, and the sapce station has been overrun with deadly robots, mutants, and cyborgs. The renegade AI threatens all life on earth with an orbital laser…
Warren Specter and co. were certainly fans of Terminator‘s Skynet and replicants from Blade Runner.
Violence: System Shock was developed and released during the pre-ESRB Doom era when developers were exploring the tolerance thresholds of their customer(‘)s (parents) in terms of what could be shown on screen. Decapitated and dismembered bodies decorate Citadel Station, as do cyborgs and mutated crewmembers whose deaths are animated in an gruesome fashion.
Language: Besides d— and a—, I did not notice much in the way of language.
Alcohol/Drug Use: It would appear that the Fallout franchise derived the adverse-side-effect-for-using-buffs (addiction status) mechanic from System Shock. Some drugs cause hallucinations in the form of horrible a RGB effect. Other side effects include extreme fatigue, or
Spiritual: I did not experience anything that I felt would be of spiritual influence.
System Shock Enhanced Edition resembles an FPS but is actually an adventure game. While structured as a traditional corridor romp with linear progression, players are free to explore the majority of the eight-floor Citadel Station up to level 6 before having to conquer main objectives—that is, after the player has reduced the security level by destroying cameras and CPU nodes. Still, it is recommended to stay on the track, because the enemies scale in proportion to the intended sequence.
I generally do not focus on the controls of most PC games because are usually adjustable (rebindable) to the player’s comfort. In System Shock however, I recommend that players become well-acquainted with the “E” key for the game’s multiple-function display (MFD). “E” effectively toggles between the camera and the menu in the HUD without changing screens. This is difficult to describe and it is equally odd in function. A modern comparison is EA’s Dead Space: the game is “live” even while players browse through menus and sort through items, so it is best to do so when an area is clear. Picking up an item with a double click auto-toggles this effect, and there is most certainly a learning curve involved in making the adjustment to this unconventional UI, because later-acquired augments to the neural interface such as increased speed, shields, and rocket propelled boots must be toggled by releasing camera control with “E,” clicking the buttons to the sides of the screen, and hitting “E” again.
There are no friendlies to interact with on the Citadel Station, so it is safe to shoot practically everything that moves. The initial weapons are boring, including a lead pipe and tranquilizer/needle gun. I had a “blast” with energy weapons, especially once I found the recharging stations on a floor for unlimited “ammo” as I set them to “max” and kill most things in a few hits. Standard weapons like the Magnum and Flechette sub-machine gun are fun, but weapons such as the rail gun and riot gun do not make sense. The rail gun feels more like a rocket launcher with a slow-moving projectile when I was expecting something like the famous Quake 2 weapons, plus the earlier-acquired magpulse outclasses it. Similarly, the riot gun is a mid-late game pickup that does hardly any damage. Long live the Ion Rifle!
Should players find themselves dead, they will either be introduced to a CGI Game Over video where they are assimilated by
SHODAN or, if the cybernetic conversion chamber has been previously discovered and reversed, the player will revive. Indeed, it is the precursor to the vita-chamber in Bioshock. Here, they feel balanced, because health is often rare, and not every chamber revives to full health. In fact, it is often wise to search for a surgery unit and energy recharge station for a “full revive.”
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the minimap map that would fill in as I searched different levels. This feature facilitated exploration, and made it easier to backtrack or go to a place that I might have missed before. My thoroughness is often rewarded with a new weapon, upgrade, or data file updating me on what SHODAN has been up to.
Of special note are the fully 3D cyberspace rooms. Here, players will find themselves in a grid-based arena collecting items and destroying programs that SHODAN has erected as security measures. I did not completely understand what I was doing (one collectible that I picked up included “games,” but I had no idea how to use it/them), but for the most part, I knew that I needed to get from one end to the other and collect as many rotating blocks as possible.
The most disappointing aspect of System Shock Enhanced Edition is the realization that Night Dive Studios did not intend to create a remaster like every other company this generation, but instead simply made System Shock playable on modern systems. It should come as no surprise then, that the graphics in this game are practically paleolithic in 2015. If it were not for tooltips which point out to me “secret” doors and buttons that can be pressed, I would have certainly had trouble finding them blended into the low-resolution flat walls. Believe it or not, options for 854×480 and 1024×768 are actually improvements over the original game’s eye-gouging 320×200. The pixelation is extreme to the degree of detail distortion—I swear that more than once, I could discern a smile on one of those severed heads!
Still, the art direction in System Shock Enhanced Edition possesses a certain appeal. The graphics maintain themselves as an organic element which feels genuine. I never found myself lamenting that the graphics are ugly; they are simply old. Enemies are easily distinguished even from distances, and the environments of the Citadel Station convincingly portray the kind of visual variance that I would expect from a vessel of that size.
The music is certainly a disappointment for modern standards, and I would have expected an attempt at an updated or remixed version of the original MIDIs. At least some of the tracks were dynamic, changing depending on the section of ship that players may enter. The composer also had a sense of humor: elevators play “elevator music” even deep into the 21st century.
That said, I noticed that the voice acting for collected log discs differed from the written text therein. I discovered that System Shock was originally released on floppy disc, later to be re-released on CD-Rom with the added voices. I felt like a kid on Halloween who had found the block of 30 houses where everyone gives out 2-3 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups whenever I collected one of these files or SHODAN would send me a taunt via “email.” I could not wait to find my next tidbit of story or lore, many of them serving the purpose of foreshadowing or dropping hints concerning the next objective. These days, we tend to roll our eyes at the tapes in Bioshock or the PDAs in Doom 3, but these files feel as natural and immersive as the answering machine messages in F.E.A.R.
Make no mistake; it may take thirty minutes to beyond an hour for players’ eyeballs to adjust to 1994-era art direction. Some might even be completely alienated by them. For those who are willing to endure the kind of graphics that could run on a Radio Shack brand computer and music synthesized for a time before motherboards were manufactured with legitimate sound processors, System Shock Enhanced Edition will impress in surprising, unanticipated ways. This is the kind of game that reinforces the argument that eye candy games will quickly be forgotten in the next generation, if not the next iteration within that franchise or genre, but games that exhibit mastery in game design, such as emergent narrative and limited non-linear options, are timeless. I strongly recommend giving System Shock Enhanced Edition a try, especially for fans of any of the number of games I have mentioned throughout this review. After all, they would not have existed had it not been for this contribution to the industry. Night Dive Studios was wise in their choice to make this game accessible to wider audiences.
The Bottom Line
System Shock Enhanced Edition is a reminder that good graphics are temporary while great game design lasts forever.