System Shock 2
System Shock 2 is many different things. It’s a sequel. It’s a first-person shooter. It’s an RPG. It’s a horror story with zombies and other creepy things. It’s also a sci-fi tale about the classic struggle of man versus machine. All these things accurately describe System Shock 2 but there’s one thing that the game truly is: a classic.
After awakening from cryogenic sleep aboard a state-of-the-art spaceship, the protagonist quickly learns that something evil is afoot. Not only has this soldier been outfitted with bio-modifications, but there also appears to be no one left on the ship. No one human, that is. A mysterious woman communicates with the silent hero and informs him of what is going on. A race of parasites known as The Many was inadvertently discovered on the planet below. Wreaking havoc aboard the ship, the crew has been turned into zombies and the ship’s defense system has turned against the remaining survivors. The hero must survive through five decks with the aid of the mysterious woman.
What makes System Shock 2 a classic is the foreboding atmosphere. The sleek and sterile look of the spacecraft is juxtaposed with dismembered bodies, strange biomasses and many vile creatures. The zombies retain some of their humanness with strangely hypnotic yet frightening speech, and the voice of The Many is downright creepy. Encounters with actual humans are so rare that actually finding someone is a big relief. The cheap scares are kept to a minimum, so the tension is allowed to grow.
Much like the other big FPS of 1999 (Half-Life), there is a large sense of immersion. The only cutscenes are at the very beginning and end of the game, so everything else is seen through the main character’s eyes. Since human encounters are so rare, information is gathered through audio logs that chronicle the backstabbing politics and hysteria that brought the ship to its knees. This sense of immersion coupled with the brooding atmosphere marks an achievement in game design despite the aged graphics.
Although System Shock 2 comes with a huge arsenal of weapons with secondary functions, combat is discouraged. Weapons need to be constantly maintained to prevent degradation, which makes them more of a last resort. The scarce ammo also makes nonstop shooting nearly impossible. Instead, there’s an emphasis on melee combat. Wrenches and other similar items are indestructible, so they are the most commonly used weapons.
Considering that the enemies also respawn, more than brawn has to be used. That’s where the RPG elements come in. There’s some character creation in the beginning where you pick which stats and skills to learn by joining one of three military branches. Skills and stats can also be upgrading by completing objectives and finding cybermodules scattered throughout the game. The abundance of skills makes crafting a unique character easy, whether you’re making a l337 hacker, a militaristic badass or a magic-wielding psychic.
The different skills and stats make System Shock 2 much more than a run-and-gun shooter. Hacking makes it easy to avoid pesky security cameras, which greatly reduces the amount of fighting. Maintenance improves the quality of weapons, so no need to worry about it breaking. The different routes you can take with your character are plentiful, but the experience points/cybermodules are rare on the higher difficulties. Delicate planning is required to succeed in such difficult situations.
Even though nearly the whole game takes place on the same ship, the different floors (ranging from the engineering level to the mall) manage to have a distinctive feel. It’s too bad there’s such an abundance of backtracking and switch-hitting on each of these floors. While it normally isn’t too annoying, it’s a nuisance those rare times you have to backtrack to a previous floor entirely. Fortunately, since the atmosphere is so consistently excellent, revisiting previous areas isn’t the pain it could have been. In any other game the backtracking and switch-pressing would have been severely detrimental, but here it’s just a minor irritation.
If you’re using Windows XP there are a couple other minor annoyances. Crashes and other glitches are prevalent, but they can be fixed easily. Just do a search online and you should have everything fixed within 15 minutes. If only someone would re-release System Shock 2 optimized for XP. Then everyone would be happy.
Once System Shock 2 is running properly it becomes easy to see why this game is hailed as a classic. Simply put, the creepy atmosphere is incredible. Forget those survival horror games full of cheap scares and dark alleys. System Shock 2 manages to frighten without succumbing to horror contrivances. Considering this game is six years old, it truly is an achievement.