Editor’s Note: This review was originally written for Review Anything, which was absorbed by Nerdy, Inc. shortly after posting. With the recent news that System Shock would be receiving a remake, we thought you might be interested to see what all the fuss is all about, at least with its beloved sequel.
The video game industry still has much to learn from System Shock 2. Released back in 1999, the sci-fi first person shooter/RPG hybrid still holds up extremely well thanks to impressive gameplay mechanics and a heavy emphasis on atmosphere that combine to create a unique experience unparalleled by any game released since.
With an obvious influence from classic horror movies, most notably the Alien franchise, System Shock 2 places you in the role of a soldier who has just woken up on the starship Von Braun, having no recollection of the horror that has befallen the ship. Using a collection of conveniently placed audio logs left around the ship, you make your way from deck to deck, exploring the interstellar vessel and piecing together the narrative. It’s easy to see the threadwork that would become the likes of Bioshock and Dead Space throughout the game, but having played them all, I can safely make the argument that System Shock 2 is still better than any of them.
This is mostly because the integration of gameplay and level design is so tight. Those familiar with Deus Ex, released a year later, will feel right at home with the mechanics. How you decide to level up is extremely important, and knowing where to dump your skill points requires an understanding of what skills you need and what skills you want. I’ve never played an RPG that has made me so closely budget where I spend my points, and sometimes you may find you have to plan two or three skills ahead of time to make sure you are comfortable with the kind of character you want to create that will also help you survive comfortably. Each skill has benefits that may help you immediately, or down the line, with the drawbacks being your giving something else up now and potentially later.
The level design is another core facet of the game that deserves a lot of attention. Each deck of the Von Braun has its own flavor and different threats you’ll have to overcome as you navigate what is essentially one large puzzle. Each area has you finding key cards, access codes or a particular item in order to progress farther. These levels are huge and almost overwhelming at first as your string of objectives becomes longer and longer by the minute. However, over time you become comfortable with each deck and the entire ship, finding your way around using landmarks and your own memory. Before long you’re traversing the ship fluidly and start to see the Von Braun as a complex, functional starship instead of a string of disconnected levels. This is coupled with exceptional sound design, especially for the creepy machines and brooding, genetically modified annelids that haunt the ship. Because certain enemies respawn, you can never entirely clear the ship from things that want to kill you, giving your exploration and puzzle solving a sense of urgency and excitement. Couple this with sparse ammunition and unsettling audio logs, and you have yourself a survival horror RPG that has yet to be rivaled in the industry.
The world of System Shock 2 feels complete and well thought out. Quite like how the level design is married to the gameplay, so to is the story and lore. You are caught in the middle of a war between machines and the flesh, being manipulated by both and made to feel insignificant by what are basically omnipotent deities. The feeling of helplessness is pervasive, from hearing the heart stopping click of your last round being fired off to the constant reminders that you are nothing more than an insect, even when you perform tasks pleasing to the AI. While I didn’t feel these themes were wrapped up well during the end game, that didn’t take away how complete the game feels for the 12 or so hours I spent traversing the halls of the Von Braun. System Shock 2 is thematically unique, aside from some very familiar looking alien eggs, and I was very impressed with its ability to make being caught between machines and the flesh feel not only literary, but like a part of science fiction history everyone should experience if they are fans of the genre.
The game also still holds up well on a technical level. While you’ll definitely have to rebind the controls, the weapons feel like they have a lot of weight and are satisfying to shoot. The sense of discovery and exploration is only heightened by the timeless atmosphere, and the game still looks great with the help of some neat mods that make everything from goop hanging on the walls to your arsenal of weapons look detailed and sharp. I wish the inventory management was a little cleaner, but with the proper bindings it’s not bad at all.
While System Shock 2’s level design and gameplay may seem too complicated for some, I much prefer them to Bioshock’s cartoony style and Dead Space’s linearity. Finding that elusive key code or item that opens up a new area is extremely satisfying, and the feeling of being utterly lost on a ravaged starship is something you just have to experience yourself. If you’re a fan of Bioshock and are curious about where it came from, or if you played Dead Space and want to see what it started out as, or just like good sci-fi altogether, System Shock 2 should be at the top of your list.
Steve kicks around the wreckage of Review Anything. Now he’s on Twitter.