System Shock 2 review

Since the release of System Shock in 1994, the game had a lot of praise from critics and had sold decently, but a lot has changed from 1994 to 1999 where graphics have entered full 3D, thanks to Quake, and there where no 2D sprites with this 3D technology in games. Least to say, the original System Shock didn’t age well, but the sequel wanted to not only advance upon what was offered in System Shock but actually give so much more variety that not that many late 1990s FPS were offering. This was around the time when Looking Glass Studios just released the revolutionary first-person stealth game called Thief: The Dark Project. Looking Glass Studios also teamed up with the inexperienced, yet promising video game developer called Irrational Games to finish System Shock 2. Just like how they progressed Ultima Underworld to System Shock, the developers used what was left from Thief to System Shock 2; a medieval times steampunk setting into a cyberpunk horror.

Premise

The game begins  42 years later after the events from the original System Shock. After joining the United National Nominate, the protagonist is assigned to the Rickenbacker, a military spacecraft. The Rickenbacker is escorting the Von Braun, an experimental faster-than-light ship, on its maiden voyage. Because the Rickenbacker does not have an FTL system of its own, the two ships are attached for the trip. A few months into the journey 62 trillion miles from Earth, the ships respond to a  distress signal from the planet Tau Ceti V. A rescue team is sent to the planet’s surface where they discover strange eggs; these eggs infect the rescue team and integrate them into an alien communion known as “the Many.”

The infection eventually spreads to both ships. Owing to a computer malfunction, the soldier awakens with amnesia in a tube on the medical deck of the Von Braun. He is immediately contacted by another survivor, Dr. Janice Polito, who guides him to safety before the many kills our protagonist. From here on out, you once again fight your way out through these space mutants, robots, and other threats and find your escape.

Gameplay

This is a game that uses the Thief engine and tries to improve upon what was offered from System Shock 1, System Shock 2 is a first-person shooter, action roleplaying, survival horror that’s a much different experience than the original. The one significant change is that they diminished the point-and-click gameplay from the original (where you can shoot at any direction of the screen within a click of a mouse); now it has FPS gameplay where the player has to constantly control the camera and center the game camera on their target(s) or else it won’t hit your target. The only time when you use a mouse to point an click is if you are on your click-and-drag inventory screen and pick up, move, select, or throw away objects from your inventory and whatever is close to the player. Another significant chance is that skills are a big requirement in using almost everything. When you want to hack, you have to get enough hacking abilities in order to do it, when you want to use better weapons you have to have better guns skills, and ect. The way you can improve them is if you find these things called “cyber-modules.” They are there for upgrading the player’s capabilities and skills by ucyber-modules that are given as rewards for completing objectives such as searching the ship, and then spend them at devices called “cyber-upgrade units” to obtain enhanced skills. But since the higher the skills you make, the more cyber modules are required to spend in order to make that upgrade. Personally this is much more fun than level grinding in other RPGs and System Shock does its roleplaying very well.

When you start the game, the player is given a choice to choose what military branch they want to be trained and given choices of what profession they want to learn which boosts up the player’s skills without starting everything from scratch. Marines begin with bonuses to weaponry, Navy officers are skilled in repairing and hacking, and OSA agents get a starting set of psionic powers. There are so many skill that the player can develop and its mind-blowing on how much they put in this game. When in combat, the player can use melee weapons (wrench), guns (handgun, shotgun, assault rifle), energy weapons (laser pistol, laser saber), heavy weapons (grenade launcher, fusion cannon), and exotic weapons. Some guns have different ammunition for the same gun such as standard bullets, armor-piercing (works better against mechanical beings),  and anti-personel round (works better against mutants and aliens) that are extremely useful against various enemies. Considering that this is a survival horror game, ammunition are few and far between so it’s a game that requires you to use ammo sparingly in order to survive against these monsters.

Other useful weapon (or tool) is Psyonic Powers. With psionic skills, you must first buy the Tier, then you can buy the skills within the tier. Each tier you buy adds to your psi point maximum. This gives you inhuman powers and abilities such as invincibility, fireballs, teleportation, telekinesis and so much more! Whenever you use the Psyonic Powers you’re using up your energy meter. The one thing that sucks about using any of these weapons is that your weapons degrades the more you use it. So once it’s damage, you’re better off finding another weapon like it or get some repair skills to once again use it, but the higher your repair skills are the more durable it will become before it easily breaks again.

Another thing to keep an eye on is the game’s currency called “nanites” that are spent on items at vending machines, including ammunition supplies, health packs, and other items. Since the prices on these items are ridiculous you can either find as many nanites as possible or you can gain some hacking abilities to actually hack the vending machine to decrease the price. Hacking is done in real time so that means the player needs to make sure there is no enemies within the area. Hacking is also complicated because whenever a hack is attempted, a minigame begins that features a grid of green nodes; the player must connect three in a straight row to succeed. But if they failed with the minigame the security alarms the monsters where is the player’s whereabouts.  Optionally, electronic lcok picks, called “ICE-picks”, can be found that will automatically hack a machine, regardless of its difficulty.  There are also this in-game check point system called “Quantum Bio-Reconstruction Machines” which is activated once you find one and the machine reconstitute the player for 10 nanites if they die inside the area.

Design

What’s so cool about System Shock 2 is that everything is in 3D and so many objects can be interacted with. Horror is very relevant to the game as you’ll be (once again) witnessing high tech cyberpunk/spacecraft environments that turned into a nightmare. You’re able to see writing on walls written in blood to get the player to feel nerve-racking. There are a lot of doors and sections of the game that the player can’t get access to unless they find certain keys for unhackable doors to progress to the game. I will admit that that Dr. Janice Polito when she’s guiding you through the game isn’t really specific on how to find these key items so exploration is the required. Exploration isn’t as simple as the first System Shock game because there are so many things that you need to have the skills for (or items) in order to gain access to these areas. On my first playthrough, I had to wonder upon hours to find a way to get to the next level/area. Since there’s no level grinding in this Action RPG, cybernetic modules are hard to find unless you memorized where every one of them are located, you’re basically just scavenging for anything useful to keep in your inventory. The same goes for nanites, weapons, and other objects.

There are always a threat everywhere you go with so many hybrids wielding a weapon, security robots, turrets, mutated monkeys, cyber ninjas, cyborg spiders, mutants, and so much more! This game has a lot of crazy variety of enemy types and whenever you kill one you can take a look at whatever item they’re holding and choose to take it or leave it. Just like the last game, there are surveillance cameras that are few and far between and it’s up to the player to destroy it before the alarm activates to let all your enemies know your whereabouts. Or if its already too late to stop the alarm you can find a “security control station” and hack it to stop the alarm and everything will go back to normal.  There are also other ways to die besides from enemies; there are also biohazard areas that kills the player if they take too long in there, there are traps that can damage you significantly, and so much more. Also, there are aspects of the game where you’ll witness ghosts of the people on the ship that reenacts the events the lead to their deaths that was really scary at the time. It give a much clearer point of view instead of guessing what happened through the audio-logs that players collects and listens to it.

Presentation

I’m very amazed at how much they’ve improved the horror over the original System Shock where enemies look a lot more threatening. This has been recognized as one of the most frightening games of all time because of it’s atmosphere, how surprising the enemies come out at the player, and also some of the biggest plot twists ever seen in a game, this was really remarkable stuff! It’s really awesome to see how gloomy the lighting and shadow effects work for a game like this. Too bad the same can’t be said about the character designs where the people don’t look like human, but deformed humans that looks floppy. As for the enemies in the game, it was really cool to see that they look so futuristic and alien-like that it’s quite eerie when you encounter them. Since many of them are tough to kill, it even causes the player to be even more scared whenever you face them in combat. Unfortunately, the enemies move incredibly slow in the game. Whenever they try to attack, the player can take a step back before they can even think. Come to think of it, there are parts in this game that feels quite slow where if it’s character movement (especially swinging your wrench), objects falling, and so much more, it feels like we’re on low gravity which is something Looking Glass Studios wasn’t going for. Yet, it was an improvement over the choppy frame-rates of sprites from System Shock 1, but it still wasn’t a good as I hoped it would be in the sequel.

Another downgrade from the original is that the action sequences isn’t as impacting as I hoped the sequel would accomplish. Some times when I fire a gun, it doesn’t even look like I’m even hitting my target, just decreasing their HP. Also the Psionic skills doesn’t really feel as powerful as it sounds on the manual. Never did I ever imagine that pyrokinesis would ever look as weak and the telekinetic powers take too long to actually pick up an object. These all are amazing ideas to put in a game like this, but it wasn’t executed as well as I hoped.

What really helps the atmosphere to make the player feel fear is the soundtrack. It’s a combination of a really glaring ambient score to a really outstanding rave/techno music that feels like it both fits in a horror movie and a dance club. After playing this game, I can easily say that System Shock 2 has one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard from a video game and you should check out the track “Ops 2” to experience it yourself. You can also hear enemies cry out in a robotic/alien voice that sound really unearthly and disturbing. It also helps a lot to hear audio-logs to guess what happened, find what you need, and also enhances the plot of the game tremendously. Also, Shodan makes her return to the game and she was much more threatening than she was in the last game. Her voice was so haunting and uncomfortable to listen to that still given me goosebumps when I have to listen to her voice. She has become more ominous and god-like than ever before where she’s responsible for all the horror happening on the ship. Not only that, but you’re also seeing corpses lying at places, platter of blood on walls, and even people hanging themselves to even scare the player even more.

Conclusion

For an ambitious game that has a lot of cool variety of gameplay, character growth, and scares, System Shock 2 was without a doubt an awesome experience. It had the coolest atmosphere and the most outstanding soundtrack I’ve ever heard from a game that it makes it worth coming back to. Now it is really troublesome to actually try all these cool things without upgrades because the cyber molecules that allows you to upgrade are hard to find. Not to mention that there are so many aspects in upgrades that are so complex that it’s hard to figure out how to get that upgrade. But at the same time you would want to be rewarded for that sort of thing so that this game won’t be too easy. It was indeed a scary game where unearthly nightmares came to life like never seen before. The progression of the game was really insane where the game gets so imaginative that it was more than what I was expecting. It was definitely a challenging game where I had to learn so much in order to get what I was expecting, but by the end of the game it feels rewarding. Though you might become so powerful that it makes the final boss with Shodan to be so easy and quick, I certainly liked that it was an improvement over the original which I said that it was my cyberpunk space adventure come to a video game. Though I do blame all the flaws upon Irrational Games where they had no experience with developing System Shock 2, it is, indeed, an intelligent, intense gem that should not go unnoticed.

Things I love 

  • The Soundtrack (favorite song “Ops 2”)
  • Crazy variety of skills and abilities that can be upgraded
  • Haunting Atmosphere
  • Great Plot and Amazing Depth
  • The Game gets more imaginative as you get pass through the first couple of levels
  • Don’t need to play System Shock 1 in order to play System Shock 2

Things I hate

  • The upgrades and skills are a bit too complex
  • Motion of character, objects, and enemies are slow
  • The mutant monkeys (annoying critters)
  • Not knowing where to go at times and objects are a bit tough to find

The Top Lister’s video game score… 4 1/2 out of 5

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