I have a confession to make. I’m not particularly ashamed of it because I feel I can justify it, but it’s one of those opinions that often causes people to look at me in surprise and go “err… what?”
It’s this: I didn’t like BioShock.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I thought it was rubbish or anything, more that I just didn’t like it. It felt all wrong.
It may not surprise you to hear that the reason I feel this way is because not too long prior to BioShock’s release, I played through the two System Shock games — first the original DOS version with that horrendous mouse-driven control scheme originally seen in Ultima Underworld; then subsequently the 3D-tastic followup. Both were enormously challenging games, and they both left a very strong impression on me, immediately securing themselves a spot in the “classics” part of my brain.
The reason I didn’t like BioShock, then, was because it wasn’t System Shock 3. Moreover, it was touted as a successor to System Shock 2 – if not an actual sequel — but ended up disappointing me considerably with its gameplay. While its storytelling and atmosphere were something else, I found its gameplay wanting; it was too much shooter and not enough RPG. The thing that I always liked most about System Shock 2 was the fine balance it kept between role-playing game mechanics, first-person blasting and the abject terror of survival horror. BioShock had some of all of those elements, but I found its heavier focus on the “shooter” side of things was ultimately to its detriment. But that is, of course, just my opinion and you are, as ever, free to feel differently.
But I’m not here to talk about BioShock really, I’m here to talk about System Shock 2, which has finally seen a rerelease on GOG.com after consistently being one of the site’s most-requested titles. The story of how and why it has been resurrected now has been told a number of times by various other sites around the Internet so I won’t bore you by recounting those details again; instead, I will recount why System Shock 2 is still a worthwhile game, and why you should check it out now there’s no need to resort to dubious (or expensive) means to do so.
System Shock 2, lest you’re unfamiliar, casts you in the role of a lone cybernetically-enhanced soldier who awakens from cryo-suspension aboard the faster-than-light spaceship Von Braun only to discover that everyone appears to have died horribly and the ship appears to be in, to put it mildly, “a bit of a state.” Thus begins an adventure through the various decks of the Von Braun and its sister ship the Rickenbacker to discover what awful things have happened. Along the way, you’ll find various weapons and tools, uncover audio logs, fight robots and mutants and spend an awful lot of time cowering in the dark waiting for scary things to go away.
So far so BioShock, you might think, but the most interesting thing about System Shock 2 isn’t necessarily its twisting, turning plot (which is excellent in itself, and which I won’t spoil here). No, the really cool thing about System Shock 2 is its mechanics, and specifically the role-playing systems that are incorporated into the game.
The game doesn’t start with you waking up on the Von Braun, you see; instead, the game’s tutorial, introduction sequence and character creation systems are all rolled into one interactive component whereby you sign yourself up for various training programs and tours of duty, and these equip you with a particular combination of skills that you’ll be taking into the main game with you. You don’t actually play through these tours of duty — you simply walk into the relevant place to accept the appropriate assignment, then are given a report on what happened and what you learned — but the various combinations of skills and special abilities have the potential to make each playthrough of System Shock 2 very different from the last.
There are three main areas of specialism that correspond to which of three branches of the military the player picks during this introduction. Marines are skilled with weaponry, Navy officers are good at repairing and hacking, and OSA agents learn magic-like psionic powers, allowing the player to do all sorts of cool things like turn invisible, teleport and fling fireballs.
During the game, you don’t “level up” in the traditional way; instead, you earn various “cyber modules” through completing objectives, and can use these to enhance your skills. You can freely develop your character as you wish — your choices in the intro only determine your starting skills, not necessarily the path down which you have to continue. Various upgrade units allow you to boost your maximum health and psionic energy, and the dribbling, gooey internal organs that organic enemies drop can be combined with various chemicals to “research” them and subsequently inflict additional damage as you learn more about them. Similarly, some weird items and weapons can only be used or wielded once you’ve done the relevant research.
While these systems see your character gradually growing in strength at a good rate as you progress, other systems ensure that you have as miserable a time as possible. This being a game with elements of survival horror, naturally ammo is in somewhat short supply, so if you don’t want to spend your time clobbering mutants over the head with a battered old wrench, you’d better conserve it carefully. Not only that, but non-melee weapons all degrade alarmingly rapidly with repeated use and require regular maintenance to be kept in good working order. There’s a whole level of scary that just comes from hiding in the shadows from a mutant that hasn’t noticed you yet, praying that the pistol you have trained on them doesn’t jam up just as you take the shot.
Being an old game, System Shock 2 naturally, as I believe the kids have it, “looks like ass” by modern standards, and some people find that a harder hurdle to get over than others. However, all is not lost, even for graphics whores; as with many other classic PC games, the mod community has come to the rescue with a variety of graphical enhancements, high-res models and other patches for your delectation. Normally I’d point you in the direction of SystemShock.org to download them, but the sudden (understandable) flurry of interest in the series has caused them to take their site down for optimization. Check back soon or do a quick Google for “System Shock 2 graphics overhaul” and you should find what you’re looking for somewhere on the big wide Web.
Anyway, all this should hopefully have convinced you to give one of the all-time greats of PC gaming a shot. I haven’t even mentioned how spectacularly awesome the “villain” of the piece is, but I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself if you don’t know already…
Have You Played…? is an irregular series of articles from Games Are Evil in which we explore titles that you might have missed or overlooked at the time of their original release.