System Shock review

Doom was a modist success that established first-person shooters. It was such a phenomenon that within a year since it’s release, there were more first-person shooters coming in 1994 trying to compete in the PC gaming market like Alien vs Predator for the Atari Jaguar, Doom II, and Heretic. Each of them played exactly the same; you wield a weapon, enter a room, kill enemies, and find keys to progress through the end of the level. However one game that had a developer that was amazed at the Doom technology that he wanted to do something completely different with it. In 1994, developer Warren Specter got his company Looking Glass Studios and made System Shock. This was a huge follow up from their previous game Ultima Underworld where the company came up with their own 3D technology and made games for it. So let’s see how did turning a fantasy dungeon crawler in first person executed well into a sci-fi.

Premise

Back in 1994, the idea of a first-person fight to the depths of space was something that was fascinating. There are two ways you could play this game back in the day, you either play it with 9 floppy discs or play it on a single CD-Rom which has superior graphics and offers voice acting. The premise of this game is that you’re a nameless hacker that managed to hack in to a corporate network and unfortunately since you’re not good at covering your tracks. But the nameless hacker is given a chance for freedom when they assigned you to go to a space station and disable an artificial intelligent called Shodan. Once that’s done they put you to a coma where you military program implant where you are a better hacker. 6 Months later you awaken up in the ship’s medical bay and the whole citadel is haunted by robots and mutant lifeforms that has begun a genocide on all human beings on the ship. And it’s up to you to fight against these creatures and indefinitely shutdown Shodan.

Gameplay

System Shock is an interesting and original idea for a game where it basically mixed many genres into one. This is a first-person, point and click, action role-playing, survival horror game (try saying that 3 times fast). After seeing some of the coolest cinematic intros of the early 1990s, once you select new game, you can give a name to the nameless hacker and choose a refreshing selection of difficulty settings of setting up the combat, puzzle, mission, and cyber. Right when you wake up from a coma, you’re seeing everything in first-person but don’t expect this game to play like Doom because, everything you see (depending on how far or close you are) you can grab your mouse and click to whatever object you want to interact with and keep in your inventory. You’re also given a map located at the bottom right screen to help the player guide themselves throughout the game. You can move around to with either the key board or mouse and use the mouse cursor to click on anything within the environment. It’s up to the player to know what’s going on, how to survive, and how to stop the source of all of this human genocide.

It’s hard to say that this is a FPS, but it’s more like an advanced action adventure game with FPS elements where puzzles are few and far between. About 90% of the time you’re always clicking on something on screen. You’re able to run, jump, lean, crouch, look up and down, strafing, and so much more that are all separated with certain keys that are obsolete today, but once you get used to it, it becomes natural to the player over time.

Being a game that came out in 1994, it was SO ahead of its time; horrific story-driven narrative, progress entirely at your own pace, and an awesome soundtrack that changes at certain locations you’re in… this was so revolutionary! You’re able to find a lot of objects every where and what grows the narrative is if you pick up audio-logs that tells you about the place and what happened before the person who recorded the audio got killed. There are items that can be found and used later in your journey and there’s only sixteen weapons that you can use against your enemies. Some of them fire laser projectiles that uses up your energy meter, shoot out bullets (like shotgun, pistol), grenades and explosives, and also melee weapons. But since this is a horror game, you’re only given a selected number of ammo and whatever you do, use it sparingly because they’re hard to come by.

But since these weapons can’t just simply take down the more powerful mutants and robots, so keep an eye on these things called Dermal patches. These things are for upgrading your character but choose wisely because you can only select one upgrade per Dermal patch like renew your health/energy, give you extra melee, strength, berserk mode, remove radiation poisoning, and other useful stuff. Plus you have hardware to augment your abilities (that cost energy) like shield system, environmental suit, see through dark areas, and a system that lets you see and target enemies all of which makes your character improve upon it’s limitations and capabilities.

One thing you should be aware of, besides enemies who wants to kill you, is traps and surveillance cameras, that will make the enemies alert that you’re there. So whenever you encounter these bloody things make sure you destroy it so  you can get access to new areas for some goods. Also the player can encounter logic puzzles, grid puzzle, or wire puzzle that are at the bottom left of the screen whenever you see anything that you can hack to unlock.   Another way to unlock hackable areas is a thing called cyberspace, where the player can go in a virtua reality and fly their way to stay alive long enough to gather new software and unlock secured areas in the real world. With everything been said, its a no brainer how ahead of its time System Shock really is!

Design

I love the retro feel of playing System Shock where the environments are pixilated polygons and everything that’s an object or enemy is a 2D sprite. It totally captures the cyberpunk feel when you explore the game as you see robotic environments, futuristic technology, and mechanical parts everywhere. What’s so cool about the game is that there are destructible environments where you can pick up a weapon and just blow up engines, glass, electronics, and computer screens.

Since this game was going for the horror genre, it was one of the first games that actually put signs on the walls giving haunting messages to the player. There are corpses and body parts lying around in many locations trying to tell the audience that something bad has happened here. There are so many areas in the game that has darkness and a couple of cool lighting effects. Fighting your way through the darkness is a foolish strategy but having light gives the player to see everything. The haunting atmosphere really causes the player to feel a little scared due to the fact that these monsters in the later part of the game comes in the most surprising of events. The most surprising part of this game was the cyberspace gameplay where it feels like everything is a program and the player flies around everywhere as colors and objects fly across the empty space like the matrix system. However, the downfall with the level designs is that the levels feel like it’s maze-like so with plenty of narrow locations, it goes make the player guess where do they have to go, getting lost, and end up in the same place as they were before.

Presentation

I will have to say that never did I had a feeling of a retro game like this. I was surprised to see so much variety with combat, puzzles, and exploration that never been seen in a game from that era. I love the feeling of seeing a cyberpunk environment with so many great variety of space mutants and robots to destroy. Even though there are so many stuff that were put in this game, its probably the reason why the animation with these enemy sprites are a bit laggy and slow as you watch then attack you and have their own death animation; it doesn’t flow as natural. Almost everything seen in this game is either a polygon or a 2D sprite and it’s so easy to tell what can be interacted with and what cannot. Also, it can’t be ranked or rewarded as a great looking game because there have been better looking games at its release like Doom due to the fact that there are a lot of pixels that makes it sometimes hard to tell what object it really is. As for the gameplay, I’m in love with the pointing-and-clicking where it doesn’t feel like aiming the center icon that indicates the shooting area like every FPS. Whenever I’m shooting with a weapon in System Shock it feels like I’m causing powerful destruction in the future since a lot of people believe that laser fires are less impressive to see nowadays. But it can’t be helped but to say that the futuristic score is so darn catchy and is reminiscent to one of my favorite game shows of the 1990’s, Legend of the Hidden Temple. I never played this game back in the 90’s but since the game got me so hooked with its music I just wrap myself in this great environment of a game that takes me back to those days. Since this game attempts to do horror, I got to admit I wasn’t that terrified by the game, especially when the corpses are so pixilated that it doesn’t feel as scary as I hoped. However, whenever I pick up a audio-log from any part of the level it start to creates tention. But when I pick up a audio-log and hear Shodan’s voice, I get really creeped out that I start getting goosebumps on my arms and back. It’s no wonder why Shodan is so remembered as the haunting villain that she is!

Conclusion

System Shock was simply an awesome experience. Though the graphics probably got pretty bad with age, it’s the gameplay itself that stood out from being another doom-clone. I really enjoyed playing System Shock because it was almost like my cyberpunk action fantasy come to life. The pointing and clicking gameplay got me very hooked as it was so simplistic when attacking someone or something. I do admit that the controls are very obsolete that it takes time to get used to, but when I got used to it,  it does it feel like a splendid experience. Also it doesn’t really help at the fact that I got lost so many times that wondering around got me tired after trying to figure out how to get out of the level that I’m in. Though boss fights are left to be desired, however the exploration, hacking, collecting, and action is something that got me wanting to finish the game. Looking at this game in a retrospective view point, I wonder how did they manage to release a game like this. The freedom of degree with your character and letting the player decide how to play System Shock and upgrade characters is something that I’m always interest in playing. Plus, this was everything I imagined a haunted spaceship would be so it was a must get on Dosbox.

Things I love

  • Point and click gameplay
  • Shooting is simplistic and fun
  • The environments are atmospheric
  • Puzzles, Hacking, Cyberspace
  • Variety of Enemies and Objects
  • Shodan (one of the best villains in video games)

Things I hate

  • Maze-like level design
  • Pixels and animation is not very good
  • Lack of boss fights

The Top Lister’s video game score… 4 out of 5

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