System Shock Review

Score 70System Shock rightfully deserves its spot in the annals of history, but the experience simply isn’t that enjoyable today.  It’s innovative controls left a lasting impression on the industry but lacks the improvements that we find commonplace today. SHODAN and the storyline were revolutionary at the time, but by today’s standards, it’s simply not enough to engage you for the long hours it takes to beat the game.  If you’re a fan of this entry, the improvements made are notable and make for a smoother experience.  Those who have never played it may find the trip back to be eye-opening, but the boredom may close them again.

WHAT WE LIKED
º Complicated controls are nicely introduced through smart level design.
º Combat is fearful and fast-paced when the game throws enemies at you.
º The updates by Night Dive Studios are a welcome addition to the classic.
WHAT WE DISLIKED
º The weak story and slow pacing isn’t nearly as enjoyable as other Shocks.
º The controls and graphics are very dated and don’t hold any real charm.
º The soundtrack is painful, matching the sometimes unbalanced difficulty.
There’s a lot going on during gameplay, but once you get use to the controls, it all gets easier.

System Shock is a game that most gamers know, but many have never played through to completion.  It’s probably not an experience the unacquainted would enjoy, but one enthusiasts should invest some time in.  No matter how good the game was then, it’ll end up frustrating even the most forgiving gamers.  If it’s not the archaic controls, then the indiscernible graphics will seal the deal.  I’m sure most would agree that the experience is not what it used to be, and will remind you of how far we’ve truly come.  System Shock simply doesn’t hold a candle to its sequel, or it’s spiritual offshoot in the Bioshock series.  Despite this, it doesn’t mean there isn’t some charm and imagination to this game, that brave archaeologists should unearth and study.

The story is, sorry to say- boring.  It’s simply not very interesting.  SHODAN, of course, is a compelling character, but the story surrounding her is very mild.  You’re a hacker, who puts his nose somewhere it doesn’t belong, and after being arrested, the targeted corporation offers you a job working for them over jail time.  You agree and are shot off into space, where after working on their systems, you get an implant for your troubles.  Requiring six months to heal, you stay on board in hibernation to pass the time.  Upon waking up, you discover the space station’s main computer has mutinied.  After that, it boils down to you hindering SHODAN’s plans, as she spends the majority of her time attempting to convince you of her Godliness.  While the audio logs and rich text does help explain the prior six months, your character is mostly reactionary.  He doesn’t really have a purpose other than being the hand that brings down the bad girl in the end.  Whereas antagonist AIs of the past may be sarcastic, enraged or indifferent, SHODAN’s trait is a less thoughtful and interesting form of vainglory.
There’s some real genius in introducing the complex controls in a short amount of time.  The game will teach you how to pick up a pipe, before giving you a small non-hazardous bot next to a healing pod.  Then you learn how to jump, then climb, before giving you something to jump on to climb.  The game slowly ramps up to a beautiful pace, getting comfortable with the overly complicated controls while slowly understanding the mechanics of it all.  After this slow build, the game will start to throw more complicated challenges to test your growing confidence.  By the end of the game, it’s taken a nice steep upward curve into nail-bitingly difficult.
Combat is far more satisfying than many games of the era, with weapons feeling like they have various weight and punch.  When you shoot enemies, you feel the power of the impact.  Switching to your melee weapon, the strikes feel like they connect.  The game features several ways of switching out your weaponry too, including a single keystroke, the number keys or by clicking on the hud’s list.  
Not everything is great about this system, however.  Some simple tasks are poorly implemented, like throwing a grenade.  In order to chuck a pineapple, you’ll have to switch to hud mode, select a grenade (by double clicking), which makes it live, and then right clicking towards the target, usually while they’re shooting at you.  If you click on the target directly, the grenade will hit the ground at your feet, automatically exploding.  Throw it too high, and it’ll hit the ceiling, again exploding in your face.  The game also doesn’t have health packs in the same area as your combat items, so switching over to your first aid kits can prove difficult when you’re in the midst of a firefight.  Slowly but surely, you’ll find yourself becoming bored of the combat, as there’s not anything to change it up after you’ve become acquainted.
The game uses a standard WASD control scheme, but with additional buttons to lean, kneel and crawl.  Despite the updated controls, including the very welcome Mouselook, the game is still a bit of a slog.  I honestly can’t imagine playing the game with its original controls, where you’d have to use the mouse to drag your view around the environment, and the developers opted for an ASDX layout.  This is in addition to managing everything on your hud; maps, emails, inventory, bio-meter, weapon status and your hacking system.  All this stuff will at first seem daunting, but eventually you’ll learn how to jump quickly in and out of working on your menu and shooting at enemies.  The game introduces a great lean system, where you can peek around a corner and freely shoot anywhere you can point your cursor.  
The only thing we know about our hacker protagonist is that he likes knock-off Watchmen t-shirts.

While these updates make for a better experience, the game’s controls are simply too dated to be enjoyable.  Like jumping back to the classic Goldeneye, you’ll quickly appreciate the advances in the genre.  Click and dragging is not an option, so having to double clicking items you wish you could just slide will rub you like sandpaper.  The game does offer the ability to alter the CFG file, to update the keys if you’re that put-off, but it only fixes so much.  Innovative controls are usually remembered for breaking all the rules, but lacks the polish that only years of refinement can provide.

The level design might be one of the greatest features of the experience.  The fear will stay hanging over your head as you explore the maze of corridors that make up Citadel Station.  It’s not until you find the respawn chamber on any given floor that you’ll take a breath.  There’re multiple floors, featuring a plethora of paths that could lead to your potential death.  Thankfully, the game provides a hud-based map, which makes revisiting locations far less daunting.  That, and the elevator that breaks up the tension with some cheesy Muzak.  One missed opportunity; the game doesn’t have any icons to remind you of where terminals or other POIs are, so endless searching can add frustrating hours onto your final playtime.

When you hack your first panel, it brings up a small window with pluses and crosses, with you standing there unsure of what to do.  After a little tinkering, you realize the solution to the small puzzle and continue.  As the game progresses, it throws a variety of different hacking games at you, all of which you might have to try and solve while enemies are bearing down on you.  Every time you open a panel, you’ll have to access the situation, and come up with a solution.  This small bit of gameplay is rewarding, as it forces you to watch your back as you complete actions that do feel like you’re hacking a small circuit panel.

The cyberspace section of the game is a great diversion, and a visual journey through a 90’s version of ‘hacking’.

The game also features hacking into what’s known as Cyberspace, where the game goes into a 3D vector-based flying arena.  This area represents the internet, so of course- wireframes and floating faces.  These segments might be some of the most exhilarating moments of the game, as you fly through collecting data, and the music goes to the best track in the game.  The digital bass kicks and the strings of a trembling violin wail out, you fly through narrow tunnels to the next open arena where you shoot out pointy projectiles at enemies.  An honestly underrated section to the game, that most seem to forget.  Sadly, these sections are under-utilized, and you’ll quickly return to the tunnels for more endless shooting.

When it comes to games heavy in exploration, I need a great soundtrack to keep me engaged.  Sadly, this game has one of the worst, even by MIDI standards.  Almost every song sounds like two separate tracks desperately trying to outperform each other.  The music never amps up, or changes octave, leaving a very flat, repetitive bit of music that’ll feel more like an endurance challenge than a fully realized backdrop.  The track that’s in Cyberspace, as mentioned before, is the exception.

Probably the most innovative thing System Shock does right is the voice acting.  While it’s not the greatest performances, having someone to give you a shorter, more condensed version of the logs you find in the game helps. Not only does it speed up the experience, but adds emotional weight to these notes.  It does spoil you a little, as when you find notes without an audio log, you’ll realize how much they benefit the experience when you have to sit and read them instead of shooting rogue robots.

Some games age better than others; Super Mario Brothers’ controls are easy to pick up and hard to master, the music is memorable, and the levels ramp up nicely.  These traits can’t be found in this game, where the controls feel a bit like a chore, the music is grating, and the whole experience feels unbalanced.  While I enjoyed going back and realizing how innovative this game was, I have to review it based on how it plays today.  Sadly, I feel I wouldn’t be doing my job if I based my analysis on nostalgia or legacy alone.  The game will always have a place in the history books, but sadly I can’t imagine many gamers being compelled to push through the dated experience today.  
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