Since its release in August of 1999, System Shock 2
has remained at the top of many PC game Best Of lists. It is incredibly innovative in its execution and design as well as an influence behind many of the FPS titles we play today. It took a genre flooded by Doom
clones and turned it on its head. Introducing the RPG elements of classes, skills and player determined character statistics into a FPS was considered by many an act of heresy. FPS were about running and gunning, not moving quietly down corridors, researching technology and being scared out of your wits by nothing more than the atmosphere of the level you were in. System Shock 2
, along with Thief
, slowed down the FPS arena and helped reinvent it.
In case the rock you live under doesn’t get the Intertron, System Shock 2
is a science fiction title that takes place in the year 2114, forty-two years after the events in System Shock
. While it is a direct sequel, System Shock 2
does not require you to play its predecessor as the game will fill you in on the details of the first game through cut scenes and gameplay elements.
After some brief training and class selection, you are shuttled aboard the space vessel UNN Von Braun on its maiden voyage of faster-than-light travel. Accompanying the Von Braun is the military vessel, Rickenbacker. The story kicks into gear as you awake from cryo-sleep five months early and, of course, everything has gone to hell. You find that during your sleep, a Dr. Janice Polito has augmented your already formidable skills with experimental cybernetic enhancements. Following the audio guidance of Dr. Polito and recordings on PDAs scattered about the ship, you are immediately tossed into action and must not only survive but figure out what has happened to both ships and their crews.
Graphics & Sound
System Shock 2
was built solely on the Dark Engine so the character models and animations will be very familiar to those who have played Thief
(the first game to use the Dark Engine). There are various mods you can install to upgrade the graphics beyond its very geometric characters but the game is best played in its raw, original state. System Shock 2 has more visceral quality to it when played with the designer’s graphical vision. One thing the Dark Engine does very well, even with blocky models, is convey absolute terror in the faces of its characters. The pained looks of shock, revulsion and encompassing terror on the bodies and NPCs you meet is some of the best work I’ve ever seen in any title. The environments of the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker are incredibly detailed and really immerse you in the claustrophobic atmosphere of space travel.
Much like the 2001 horror FPS, Clive Barker’s Undying, System Shock 2
drowns you in audio terror. The crackling, despair filled audio logs that help unfold the story, the cries and mutterings of The Many as they search for you and the bass rumble of the ship constantly reinforce that you are alone and surrounded by a malevolent presence.
As with any PC title, you can custom configure your key bindings to whatever suits you best but there are many more keys here to configure than your average shooter. Inventory, weapon cycle, weapon setting (single fire, three round burst, etc.) psionic power (although if you don’t specialize or even use these skills you can ignore binding keys for them), reload, ammo type (armor piercing, anti-personal or standard), various health hypos (health, radiation, psi boost, etc.) are all keys you will have to become very familiar with.
Many of those actions can be taken inside the Multi Function Display or MFD. The MFD is your inventory screen and you need to remember one thing: when you pull up your inventory screen in System Shock 2
the game does not pause. There were many times I either died or took severe damage because I was fiddling around in my inventory. One of The Many would happen to come shambling around a corner and unloaded a shotgun in my face. While on the subject of inventory, the MFD uses a drag and drop feature marred only by the lack of an auto organize button. The size of your inventory is also affected by your Strength. So you Navy or Psionic folks might have to worry more about inventory management than the brawny Marines.
You also have the ability to lean left/right and forward (thank you, Thief!), crouch toggle, jump and creep. Leaning forward is one action that is overlooked by most designers when building a FPS (here’s your hint to put it back in, developers!). I also find myself rarely using the creep function as crouching does the same thing and presents a smaller target to your enemy during a fire fight.
Items you can interact with in the game are always highlighted by light green brackets when you are close enough and looking at them. If it is something you can use in inventory it will be automatically put there (if you have the room) but if it is just scenery it will hover in front of you waiting for you to drop it or move it.
The player, that’s you, starts out as a recruit on his (sorry ladies, you gotta play a man in this one) first day at the UNN (United National Nominate) Recruiting Center. You have the option of choosing from three main classes (here begin the RPG elements): Marines (weapon focused), Navy (technical skills) or OSA (psionic powers). Once you choose your main class you set out on a three year tour of duty with yearly assignments at different outposts in order to hone your skills. As you stand in front of four, one year choices for each of your tour’s posts you will be given an audio description of the area you are headed to as well as a text representation of which skills are improved. Make this choice three times and you now have your starting skill set for the game.
Don’t worry if you weren’t able to bump up a skill as much as you would like in the training. During the course of the entire game you will find, and be given, cybernetic modules that allow you to upgrade your Stats, Tech, Combat and Psi skills. It is basically a Choose Your Own Adventure type of RPG. Did you start out as a Marine but want to up your psionic skills enough to gain a Psycho-Reflective Aura? No problem! Just add points to the psi skills and you’ll be there in no time. Tired of losing too many nanites (in-game currency) as you try to hack open a box? Dump some cyber modules into the hack skill and you’ll soon be saving money!
One of the few complaints some gamers have with System Shock 2
is the aspect of weapon degradation. Much like real life, your weapons deteriorate with use except for your ever present melee weapon, the monkey wrench. Some people complained that the weapons degraded too fast which prompted Looking Glass to release a patch that allowed scaling of the weardown or even turning it off altogether. I’ve never had a problem with it, though, as it’s an RPG element I enjoy. Every weapon has a status represented by the numbers 1-10, with 10 being the best. As you use it, the number will go down. There are repair modules you find and can buy at vending machines that will repair your armaments. What amount each module repairs depends on your Maintenance skill while your ability to fix broken or jammed weapons depends on your repair skill. There are also software upgrades you can find that give bonuses to Repair (as well Hack, Research and Modify) but they will not help you meet any minimum skill requirements. I’ve found in numerous play throughs that the Repair skill is rather unnecessary. You will find or buy enough repair kits to keep your weapons in working condition. That should not stop you from picking up and unloading every weapon you find as ammo can run out quickly if you try and run’n’gun.
Don’t be fooled by talk of “ammo” and “unloading” as there are Energy and Exotic (organic) weapons to be found around the Von Braun and Rickenbacker. Just remember, you’ll have to meet basic skill requirements to use them, though. And, of course, if you are completely focused on Psionic powers, handheld weapons are but a piddling tool of the weak minded.
Speaking of Psionics, it is one area of the game that demands total dedication to completely master it. There are five Psionic Tiers each with eight skills for a total of forty powers. For those willing, however, this skill tree is devastating. Basic pyrokinesis and shields to fantastic charm and teleportation abilities add almost god-like powers to your arsenal. You don’t have to master the entire tree; however, as even using a few skills can reduce weapon kickback, regenerate health or show the location of useful items nearby.
On the technical side of things, the most useful skill to have is Hack. Hacking can do everything from opening locked storage rooms and making the vendor machines sell you items at lower prices to shutting off surveillance cameras and remote sentry guns. With upgrades, you can hack quicker (as the game doesn’t pause during the hacking process) and have a better chance of not screwing it up and setting off ship wide alarms. There are a few auto hack tools called ICE Picks scattered throughout the game but they are so few and far between you’re better off upping your skill with cyber modules.
You can also put skill points into Modify (changing the nature of your weapons for less recoil, bigger magazine capacity, etc.), and Research. The Research skill is beneficial because when you kill the mutations of The Many, the biological entity that has taken over the ship and the one you are fighting for your life against, they will sometimes drop bits of their carcass. You can pick up those bits and, using chemicals found in different store rooms throughout the ship, research them and gain killing bonuses. Research will also be needed when you find Exotic weapons as you’ll need to figure out what they are.
Those are really the basics of the skills and even though I’ve written a lot on them, I have only scratched the surface. The basic idea is this: through the skills and cyber modules you can customize gameplay to suit your desires. This results in an amazing replay value.
I’ve mentioned The Many several times without going into detail. The Many is the biological entity that has taken over the Von Braun and Rickenbacker. Think of it as a hive mind, if you will. Much like the Alien species that Sigourney Weaver is fond of killing, The Many start out as egg born creatures. When they hatch and take over a human victim they don’t kill them; they mutate them into whatever form is needed by The Many. The most prolific front line soldier you’ll fight is the Hybrid. Wielding pipes and shotguns, these zombie like creatures roam the ship’s halls, groaning and muttering to themselves. One of the creepiest and twisted PC game monsters I’ve ever come up against is the Cyborg Midwife. I won’t tell you how they come about but when you hear, down a hallway, “Mommy is hungry!” be afraid…be very afraid.
The Many are also assisted by Xerxes, the shipboard AI. Why is that bad guys, be they human or computer, always sound all the more sinister with an English accent? Perhaps the Brits feel the same way about an American accent, I suppose. Anyway, Xerxes is responsible for running the security cameras and sentry guns that are constantly keeping a look out for you. He’s also the reason you are running all over the ship trying to override his commands that keep certain doors locked, elevators not working or hatches sealed.
One of the great gameplay features of System Shock 2
is the fact that it’s not linear. By that, I mean you aren’t running from Point A to Point B to Point C. Since you are in a space craft you will do a lot of doubling back, going to rooms that were previously locked, picking up chemicals from the various store rooms, going back to Medical for that vending machine that had a perfect price on Med Hypos. It is a very rare occurrence that you could not run from practically the last room of the storyline all the way back to the very first room you started the game in. A bit of warning, though: don’t think you will always be alone in rooms you previously thought empty.
There are loading zones between decks and certain sections of the ship but otherwise the areas you explore are large. You won’t be stopped by a loading screen every time you open a door although, at some point in the game, you will welcome those screens as a short break in the constant terror and paranoia.
Irrational and Looking Glass Studios managed to completely and perfectly achieve a state of claustrophobic, interstellar horror within the confines of your PC monitor and speakers. There is no other game that so completely engulfs you in the knowledge that you are alone, you will be alone and, if you’re not careful, you will die alone. I’ve yet to find a game on PC or console, other than System Shock 2
, which completely captures the frenetic, terrifying and unknown horror that was achieved on the big screen in the movie, Alien
. There are times where you may feel like Ripley aboard the Nostromo during your stint on the Von Braun. Only you aren’t fighting one alien; you’re fighting the mutated remnants of your crew mates, the twisted mind of Xerxes and an organic monstrosity almost impossible to comprehend.
Where to Buy It
Five out of Five putrescent, bleeding Evil Eyes
There is no official System Shock 2
site anymore but the link above is your best resource with links to many other fan sites.