System Shock 2 review

Written by Julian Schoffel on . Posted in Role-Playing

System Shock 2 game image

Released back in 1994 the original System Shock was an excellent first-person sci-fi RPG, perhaps let down only by frequent and often frustrating sojourns into the game’s wire-frame depictions of ‘cyberspace.’

Five years passed before the game’s developers Looking Glass Studios – the incredibly talented design studio also responsible for PC classics like “Ultima Underworld” and “Thief: The Dark Project” – decided that the time was ripe for a new installment…

While System Shock 2 undoubtedly borrowed plot elements from many sources, a touch of “Aliens” here, a spot of “2001” there, the end result was an enthralling and often very creepy tale involving an ill-fated excursion into deep space.

Welcome to the “Von Braun” starship

After being assigned a tour of duty on-board the “Von Braun” (a gigantic starship), your character awakened from cryogenic slumber only to discover that the ship had become infested with a strange alien life-form, and to top it all off “Xerxes” (the Von Braun’s central computer system) also appeared to have developed a rather antisocial personality.

Suffering from amnesia, your character became totally reliant on a mysterious figure known as “Dr Polito” who communicated instructions via your com system. Interestingly enough “Bioshock” used a similar plot structure – this comes as no great surprise as Bioshock was heavily influenced by System Shock and is in a sense the series’ ‘spiritual successor.’

Your mission, if you chose to accept it (short game if you didn’t…), was to find out what the hell happened to all the unfortunate folks aboard the Von Braun. Thankfully while you were in sleepy land, some kind soul had taken the liberty of giving you a set of cybernetic implants which provided some very nifty special abilities. Yes – more Bioshock similarities…

Customize your character

At the start of the game, the player could enlist in one of three military organizations – the Navy, O.S.A. or Marines. This choice dictated what sort of skills your character possessed initially, with the basic categories consisting of technical (hacking, modifying etc.), weapons (standard, heavy, exotic etc.) or psionics (which included a whole slew of unique mind powers). As the game progressed you got access to additional cyber modules and software upgrades, allowing you to further beef up your character’s skill levels in any chosen area.

Early parts of the game consisted of performing various tasks assigned by the enigmatic Dr Polito. Apart from being downright bossy, she directed you around the ship and warned you of impending danger.

You also came across numerous e-mail logs from the ship’s missing crew scattered about the place. These further fleshed out the story and provided important information on various level goals. Yes Doom 3 ripped this off five years later…

The game used a few key scripted events in a similar fashion to Half-Life, and while these added a touch of drama to proceedings there was virtually no direct interaction with any of the crew members themselves (at least not while they were still human…). At the risk of divulging a major plot spoiler, “SHODAN,” the deranged sentient computer intelligence from the original game also made a return appearance.

Deep and involving gameplay

System Shock 2 deviated from the usual 3D shooter game mechanics in a number of ways. For starters, the skill system permeated every aspect of gameplay forcing you to take a more multi-dimensional approach. Say for example you needed to conserve valuable ammo for a weapon you were particularly skilled at using – why not hack the security system instead and reprogram that handily placed gun-turret to kill your enemies for you?

The game rewarded more lateral or innovative strategies, and players just couldn’t rely on the usual ‘run around and frag everything that moves’ approach.

Using an enhanced version of the “Thief: The Dark Project” game engine, System Shock 2 did a great job of simulating the cramped interiors of a massive starship. While the 3D graphics weren’t quite cutting edge, the gaming environment was far more detailed and interactive than the likes of “Quake II” or “Unreal,” and whether it was a Shopping Mall, Hydroponics Lab or Reactor Core: each area felt distinctive and authentic.

Oodles of atmosphere

Like Thief, System Shock 2 used sound to generate huge wads of atmosphere. In fact I would go so far as to say that when I first played it (back in 1999) I had never before been quite so freaked out by the audio in a PC game: everything from the deranged and sinister ramblings of a prowling “Hybrid,” to the maniacal howls of a berserk “Psionic Monkey” – System Shock 2 could make you reach for ‘Mr Teddy’ and plonk your thumb in your mouth on a regular basis!

However the game was not without its flaws and the initial release version I played crashed on a number of occasions. Apart from the bugs, save-games also took ages to load and the auto-save slot was irritatingly written over whenever the player entered a new level.

Another annoying feature was the way monsters constantly re-spawned: I was often rather bemused to see a “Hybrid” or a “Rumbler” seemingly warp in from nowhere. However, Looking Glass subsequently released a patch addressing these problems – this patch also added support for multiplayer cooperative play.

All in all System Shock 2 was a vast and extremely entertaining role-playing/action hybrid reminiscent of Half-Life with more than a splash of Ultima Underworld and Thief thrown in for good measure.

Review Summary
Score: 97%
Info: System Shock 2 was one of my favourite games when I first reviewed it back in 1999. It successfully veered away from the typical ‘run and gun’ mechanics of other first-person perspective offerings and added loads of depth and atmosphere. In fact System Shock 2 was so fresh and innovative we are still seeing its influence in many games to this day – Bioshock, Deus Ex, Doom 3, Halo to name but a few.
The Good: A storyline that sucked you in from the word go. Amazingly creepy atmosphere. Gameplay with real depth. Great audio heightened the suspense.
The Bad: The original release was plagued by a variety of bugs and an annoying save-game system.

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Julian Schoffel

From 1994 to 2007 Julian was a contributing editor for Australian PC User Magazine. He has also written for numerous publications which include Australian Personal Computer, PC PowerPlay, Hyper, Ralph, Megazone, The Disc, PlayNow, TechLife, The Sydney Morning Herald and IGN.

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