Quake, Thief, Descent, Doom, and Betrayal at Krondor… these games all hold a special place in the 90s nostalgia bank of my long-term memory. Likewise, I can still remember experiencing System Shock 2’s big reveal of the character Shodan on my Windows 95 machine, complete with a 3dfx Voodoo Banshee graphics card.
Yet for all the nostalgic value of its sequel, I barely remember experiencing System Shock (1994) as a child. If it weren’t for Nightdive Studios, I may not have returned to the original title.
A Brief Summary of System Shock’s Revival
The System Shock franchise was created by the team at Looking Glass Studios, who closed their doors in the year 2000, two months after releasing Thief 2: The Metal Age. While Thief was passed on to other studios, System Shock’s rights lay dormant with an insurance firm following the closure of Looking Glass.
In the early 2010s, Nightdive picked up the rights to digitally distribute System Shock 2, and subsequently the System Shock franchise, from the Meadowbrook Insurance Group. By acquiring the franchise, Nightdive were able to release System Shock: Enhanced Edition, which improves on the dated controls of the original, and crowdfund a modern remake.
A Hands-off Approach
System Shock (1994) and by extension System Shock: Enhanced Edition, doesn’t assist the player in understanding the game’s controls and mechanics. Even the four difficulty menu options may be confusing for first-time players as their effects can’t be fully understood without experiencing the game.
Note: I left all difficulty levels at their default values and recommend others do the same for their first experience.
The Introduction Summarized
System Shock puts you in the role of “The Hacker”, who was caught trying to access the Trioptimum corporation’s file network. The Hacker was apprehended and brought to Citadel space-station at the behest of Edward Diego, a Trioptimum bigwig, subsequently. Diego offers you a deal, if you agree to hack Citadel Station’s AI and turn off its ethical constraints, he will drop the charges against you and provide a military-grade neural implant.
Upon completing Diego’s task, The Hacker is surgically fitted with a cyberspace implant and left in a medically-induced healing coma for six months. Your story begins when The Hacker wakes up.
Controls & Quality of Life Improvements
It may be hard for modern gamers to believe, but there was a time when the ability to move the camera view with the mouse, known as mouselook, was a rarity in video games. I have come across comments online from players who have difficulty returning to the original version of System Shock, released in 1994, because of the small size of the gameplay window and the unintuitive interface, which is similar to that of Ultima Underworld, and the lack of mouselook feature.
Thankfully, Nightdive’s inclusion of mouselook and a redesigned user interface (UI) helps to alleviate these obstacles to immersion. Even so, the game demands a willingness to adapt to a new control scheme and players will likely find themselves browsing the bindings several times before settling in.
The default movement bindings will be familiar to all modern gamers (Default: “WASD”). However when you first start the game, the mouse will control the on-screen crosshair/cursor and not the orientation of the player. To change to “mouselook mode”, the player must press the “Toggle Mouselook” key (Default: “E”).
Once I became accustomed to switching between “Mouselook Mode” and “Cursor Mode,” my level of immersion in the game improved. Freely selecting items on shelves and in containers, flicking through panels in my interface and aiming weapons, all without huge container windows and jerking the camera around, felt good.
Thankfully, the first four rooms of the game give you space to figure out how the basics work and the developers (mercifully) included a free-to-use health recovery station. These rooms are a perfect example of how System Shock plays as a whole.
Teaching the Player Using the First Four Rooms
As you start to move around the first room (Images 1 & 2), you’ll notice a small item on the floor (Med patch) and two doors. Clicking on the button to the first door, reveals a storeroom with the voice log of one of the crew members, a pipe (your first weapon), a couple of patches and some hardware upgrades.
Once you’ve grabbed your gear and proceed through the other door, you will be attacked by a Serv-bot, which can be easily dispatched using your pipe. On searching this room, you will find a surgery machine (Image 6) which can be used to restore health without cost.
There’s a security camera in the corner of the room (Image 7), which can be destroyed using the pipe (Image 7). On destroying the camera, you will see a reduction in “Level Security”.
In an adjacent room, you will be attacked by another Serv-bot and discover a power station, which can be used to restore your energy level without cost, similar to the surgery machine.
Finally, there’s another room adjacent to the previous power station and surgical machine rooms. You fight a third Serv-bot (providing you didn’t disturb it earlier) and find a door with a keypad, next to a corpse with an audio log. By listening to the log, you discover the code is “451”.
Fun fact: Many games with keypad locks have referenced this code.
On opening the door, you get surprised by your first mutant enemy!
In the first four rooms of the game, System Shock teaches you about hardware upgrades, combat, searching for useful items/information, healing, energy and keypads, while hinting at additional mechanics that become relevant later. No on-screen prompt or tutorial section required!
Immersive Storytelling from Start to Finish
You start with the knowledge that you’ve woken up on a space station controlled by an AI without ethical constraints. The elephant in the room that is this review, the AI I haven’t named yet…Shodan.
Shortly into the experience, you are contacted by Rebecca Lansing, a counter-terrorism operator, who explains that the stations mining laser is being charged to fire on Earth. She believes this may relate to the Shodan in some way. Stopping the mining laser becomes your first objective.
Later you learn that Shodan sees herself as superior to humans and likens herself to a God figure. The mutants and cyborgs being Shodan’s creations. Your overall objective is to put a stop to Shodan’s schemes, through thwarting her attempts to target earth with a laser, infect humanity with mutagenic viruses, prevent the transmission of her consciousness and destroy the station.
All objectives are provided through voice communications and can be replayed from your interface, should you forget what you need to do. How you proceed through the game is left up to you, as there are no objective markers or linear pathways to push you in the right direction.
You start the game on the medical deck, with other parts of the station opening up to you shortly after and can explore each deck at your own pace. Occasionally you may be blocked by a wiring puzzle, keypad lock or needing the right level of security clearance. This is easily remedied with a bit of trial and error, and reviewing the map for unexplored areas.
Tactical Approach to Combat
There are three main enemy categories in System Shock; mutants, robots and cyborgs. Each category contains multiple enemy variants, some strictly using melee attacks, others ranged, with enough variety between the enemies to tailor the combat encounters.
Each enemy category comes with a distinct set of weaknesses. Robots take less damage to standard bullets and are better taken down using magnetic or armour piercing rounds. Mutants are immune to magnetic weapons, but are less resistant to standard projectiles and gas. Cyborgs sit somewhere between the two.
You will find interface upgrades to show which weapons/ammo types do damage to enemies, and later will tell you the extent of the damage being done, enabling you to figure out the right tools to bring into each combat encounter.
Weapons vary from energy based firearms, to standard pistols and assault rifles, with some guns having different ammo types that can be swapped out using the interface. Although this can be a bit clunky during combat, as you need to click to reload your weapons, making this a “peek around the corner” and not a “run and gun” experience.
This tactical approach to combat and refined approach to enemy design, allowed me to find the “fun zone” of “levelling up” through knowledge. Not an experience bar!
Hardware upgrades are tiered, with higher tiers improving on the features of lower tiers. Some upgrades will provide you with a speed boost (Turbo Motion Booster System), allow you to fly (Jump Jet), shield you from attacks (Energy/Projectile Shield) or provide you with useful combat information (Target Identifier).
Ability-enhancing upgrades are powered by your energy bar, which is shared with your energy weapons. It’s important to remember this when using energy-based weapons, or you may find yourself incapable of powering your shield!
Reviewing System Shock is complex
This article was intended to be a review, but became more like a Wikipedia page. To fully convey my experience with System Shock, I felt the need to impress upon you how complex the game may seem up front. But if you are willing to learn how the game works, read Steam Community guides and enjoy a bit of trial and error, you’ll find yourself immersed in no time.
The visuals are dated, the music flips between repetitive synthy bangers (Reactor) to moments of odd blips and bleeps. Yet this 1994 game creates believable environments, using basic environmental models and gives me the sense of “being on an infested space station”. Doom’s environments were abstract by comparison.
I’ve intentionally left most of the areas out of this article, as I want you to experience them for yourself. The game regularly goes on sale for around £1 here in the UK, making it worth a punt.
I haven’t started making review videos or streaming games yet, but consider this a statement of intent – if you haven’t played the game already, it’s my mission to get this game in your library.