System Shock 2 rewards a player with some perspective, but holds its own despite the years.
The game was the brainchild of designer Ken Levine with developers Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios. Levine was the creative force behind Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite so fans of both will find System Shock II to be a familiar experience.
System Shock was released in 1999 so the graphics will be dated. But, the rerelease on Good Ole Games is rewarding for somebody who wants to revisit the game or experience it for the very first time. The textures are smoother and dynamic lighting enhances the experience, but this game still holds up because it does such a good job of creating such a tense atmosphere.
Sound is central to the ambiance that System Shock creates. First is the music, which uses a synthesizer and driving snare drum rhythms to create an eerie and alien soundtrack. It was the perfect backdrop for my journey through the Von Braun. When the music wasn’t playing, the ambient noise created tension. Every enemy made its presence felt before I even saw them.
The hybrids call out to you in low droning voices that echo in the cramped hallways. Droids announce a friendly greeting before coming to blow you up. Often the scariest moments happened when I heard an enemy coming, but really couldn’t see them. It really drove home the point that there wasn’t a safe place on the Von Braun.
System Shock told its story in a way that made me feel alone. The player never directly interacts with a single live person in the game. It’s similar to Bioshock in the sense I was forced to watch things happen without being able to do anything about it. My first encounter with a hybrids was watching it kill one of the crew members on the other side of unbreakable glass. It was similar to the first encounter Splicers in Bioshock. The player is stuck in a metal tube, while the Splicer murders somebody on the other side of a porthole.
The woman that guided me through the Von Braun is never seen, only heard. Her messages are often cold and unfeeling, which made me feel that help was so far away. The story of this derelict ship is told through audio logs, found throughout the Von Braun. Often the logs are plucked from dead bodies or found in the midst of twisted wreckage, which makes what is said so much more ominous.
System Shock is balanced in a way that adds to the tension. Special ammunition is few and far between, which really made me think twice about shooting out a security camera or destroying a turret. The game also forced me to really think hard about where I wanted to spend my cyber modules, which function like upgrade points. There were moments I had to decide between putting points in heavy weapons in order to use a grenade launcher, or energy weapons in order to use the laser rapier melee weapon.
The gameplay has shades of Bioshock. Psionic powers in System Shock are similar to the plasmids in Bioshock, right down to the ability to freeze enemies, set them on fire or pull objects toward you. The guns in both games also function in a similar fashion. Each gun has different rounds that are effective against certain types of enemies. Also, the ability to research functions much like the camera in Bioshock. In System Shock, picking up pieces of enemies and researching them results in added damage later.
Much of the attention will be on Levine’s latest creation Bioshock Infinite, but System Shock 2 was a nice trip in the way back machine. Playing through it added some perspective to other games because a lot of the things done in System Shock 2, are prevalent in so many other modern games.