System Shock 2 is a terrific game that has some truly revolutionary ideas. Sadly, some of those creative concepts haven’t aged as gracefully as others.
When it comes to highly influential survival horror games, a few titles stand above the rest as some of the best the genre has to offer, including Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Alone in the Dark and System Shock 2. More recently, interest in System Shock 2 has resurfaced due to the game being the spiritual predecessor to BioShock. Nevertheless, even if you haven’t heard of BioShock before, System Shock 2 is a terrific game in its own right that has some truly revolutionary ideas. Sadly, some of those creative concepts haven’t aged as gracefully as others.
System Shock 2 is set in the year 2114. In the survival horror game, you assume the role of a soldier who wakes up in a deserted spaceship, only to find out that it’s been invaded by mutants. To make matters worse, the ship’s artificial intelligence (named SHODAN) has gone rogue and it’ll do anything in its power to get rid of you.
Structurally, the game has been designed so that you explore every nook and cranny of the spaceship, so you’ll find yourself constantly backtracking. This isn’t entirely detrimental to the experience, since exploring the narrow corridors gives a sense of dread and claustrophobia so unique of horror games. System Shock 2 prioritizes atmosphere above any other aspect and this really pays off.
At first, System Shock 2 appears to be yet another survival horror game that’s played from a first-person perspective, but a few mechanics make the game fresh and unique. There are some truly innovative elements in System Shock 2, most of which we take for granted nowadays, such as the convincing atmosphere, the inclusion of audio logs and emails, RPG elements and hacking minigames, to name but a few. To a certain extent, it’s hard to think how some games could have turned out if it wasn’t for System Shock 2.
So how do the RPG elements work in this action game? On the terminals that are scattered around the ship, you can improve your overall statistics, psychic abilities and weapons. In other words, this determines the abilities and weapons you can use, the size of your inventory, your health, defense, strength and hacking abilities (in System Shock 2, hacking is a simple minigame in which you connect dots.)
Using Psi abilities and combining them in new ways is one of System Shock 2’s most rewarding aspects. You can shoot energy balls, summon a crystal shield to defend from enemy attacks, heal your wounds, launch energy projectiles, hypnotize enemies, gain invisibility for a limited time and so on. Overall, there are five tiers of abilities and gathering enough cyber modules (read: experience points) to have access to most abilities might take a while. Additionally, you also find nanites (or money) that you can use on stations to buy items that restore your health or remove status ailments.
One of the most praised (not to mention highly influential) aspects of System Shock 2 is the use of audio logs and emails that you find as you explore the dark spaceship. Through audio logs, emails and ghostly apparitions, you learn about the people that lived in the spaceship before the infections spread. The way in which the backstory is presented is remarkably and it’s easy to see why many modern titles adopted this particular storytelling device.
While appropriate to convey the story in an indirect manner, the use of audio logs seems a little incongruous to a certain extent. After all, it’s hard to believe that the characters were recording crucial moments of their lives and valuable information (such as passwords or account numbers) only to leave all that data in convenient places of the ship and in a very specific order so that the story makes sense to you (Did they know you were going to walk by in the near future?)
Although incongruous, the audio logs are a creative way to tell the story without you having to interact with non-playable characters in a conventional manner. It’s great to know that the game never forces you to listen to the audio logs and you can always choose to ignore them. But why would you do that when the story and atmosphere are so gripping?
The terrific sound design deserves a paragraph on its own. The painstaking attention to detail in this regard is baffling and every component simply fits. The voice acting, the haunting music, the noise approaching enemies make, the convincing sound effects your weapons produce and the sound of steps are all extremely well put together and make the atmosphere hauntingly attractive.
But as soon as the novelty wears off, some problems become more noticeable. One of those problems is related to the antiquated save system, which saves automatically when you enter new places, but forces you to save manually from time to time if you don’t want to lose progress when you die. Also, as in most classic titles, don’t expect any hand holding. At the beginning of the game, a few tutorials explain the basics, but since none of them are mentioned again learning some mechanics will require a trial-and-error approach or a detailed walkthrough.
Sometimes missing an important item (like a keycard) can be a serious problem, since you’ll have to retrace your steps to recently visited rooms, but if you didn’t annihilate monsters, the next time you go back to those locations, the foes will be waiting for you. Sometimes half a dozen monsters will be waiting for you behind a door and when you respawn there, they will mercilessly attack you in a kill you in matter of seconds.
But one of the main problems with System Shock 2 that it isn’t an action game and it isn’t a horror game either, so the game tries to sit comfortably in the middle. As a consequence, the pace is a little slow, so you’ll find exploring every single room because missing items translates into hours of frustration.
In the end, System Shock 2 is a terrific survival horror game that has aged poorly. Some of its core concepts are still creative by today’s standards, but a handful of problems (save system, backtracking, lack of hand holding and so on) make System Shock 2 an excessively long and overly frustrating title. This is a forward-thinking game whose formula is showing its age.