System Shock 2
The sequel that will shock you into submission.
I’ll be excused if I can’t fit System Shock 2 into any clear category. This game’s a complete mish-mash of genres – first person shooter, role-playing game, survival horror, stealth game; yet out of all of these, ‘survival horror’ screams out the loudest, perfectly matching the horrified screams of those trapped on the derelict Von Braun.
Before you arrive there, however, the game starts out leniently with an introductory tutorial level. You’re shown the basic workings of the world and are left to customize your character through a hub-style network of academies and assignments that fast-forwards you four years in game time. This style of character building does have an immediate effect on how you start playing, as your choices will dictate your starting stats and what areas you’ll specialize in. It’s then off to the Von Braun, a futuristic ship that can travel faster than light, as she embarks on her maiden voyage.
Things go horribly wrong somewhere along the way, of course, as you find yourself awakening from a cryo-induced sleep that – surprise – leaves you with a bad case of amnesia. Cliched or no, it does offer a convenient premise on why you can’t remember the tragedy that has befallen the crew of the ship, or even why you’ve been put into suspended animation in the first place, or what you must do to fix things. Regardless, a little exploring reveals just how grim the situation is – everyone’s dead or dying, a rogue AI has taken control of the ship and parts of the super-structure are falling apart after a few pitched battles.
Your only means of making any sense of things will come through the various entry logs and ghostly apparitions that offer scant clues as to what happened. And then you get contacted by another lone survivor who has a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the ship – and what you must do in order to make it out alive.
Cyberpunk Space Horror
System Shock 2’s story unfolds gradually as you explore the destroyed innards of the Von Braun. The areas featured in the ship include your average research, storage and engineering sectors, but some of the more creative levels depict theaters, bars and markets, giving the ship an eerie feeling of authenticity (minus the artificial gravity, which is never explained). One thing you’ll almost immediately notice is just how very non-linear the levels are. It takes some time to fully grasp the magnitude of the ship, but once you unlock a central elevator connecting the ship’s five decks – Engineering, Medical / Science, Hydrophonics, Operations and Recreational – you’ll be able to travel between levels and sub-levels on a whim.
Doing this is quite necessary, as you’ll often be tasked with backtracking between floors, activating this or that console or unlocking new areas of the ship with keycards, and an ingenious automap will make these trips less of a pain. You’ll fast learn that the vessel is heavily infested with aliens, mutants and whatnot, and that you’re never quite safe. Even after clearing an area, enemies will continually respawn from time to time outside your view. One time I was rummaging through my inventory in what I thought was a safe room. Out of nowhere the door behind me opens and a mutant barges in.
You might also recognize the modified version of the Dark Engine powering the game, the same used on the steam-punkishly immersive Thief and its sequel. To this effect, the game looks and plays a whole lot like Thief, going as far as keeping the same menu layout, sound effects and animations. There’s even a few fragments of the old AI stuck in there – if you’re detected but then hide in the shadows, foes will proceed to look for you, and you can sneak up behind them if you crouch and move slowly. On the whole, however, stealth is not a factor. The ship’s hostile security system is little more than a bother – cameras can spot and focus in on you, but you can shoot them out and not trip the alarm. Even if you do get caught, the alarm will only spawn enemies for a couple of minutes before everything goes back to normal.
Although primarily a survival horror, the game employs a pretty solid RPG component. You have quite a few stats and skills to upgrade, such as Strength, Agility, Endurance and a few others. Skills, which are as passive as stats, are nonetheless more numerous, and highlight the range of stuff you can do in this game – Hacking lets you brake electronic locks, security terminals or ‘Replicators’, ATM-style shops that you can buy supplies from. Modify lets you upgrade your weapons to make them more lethal. There are three weapon proficiencies, and a separate ‘Psi’ skill tree that lets you cast psionic powers, both offensive and defensive (consider this a makeshift magic system with added techno-jargon). Accomplishing objectives earns you points that you can use to upgrade your character and unlock new psi powers. You’ll also find various boosters to better your character, including ‘implants’ that you can hook up or detach anytime. What’s more, the range of items you can find and use here is quite expansive, if initially scarce as you sink into the game.
Be forewarned, however – if you, like me, are the sort of cheapskate that has to save every single bullet and health kit then System Shock 2 will become a logistical nightmare (though doubtless you’ll thrive after a couple of hours of grinding). As with all survival horror games, Shock 2 is extremely cheap with weapons, ammo and health pick-ups, so engaging enemies with your wrench (or any other melee weapon) without getting hit yourself is almost always the better option. This obsessive compulsive dance of death with your wrench will serve to save up on supplies for the first half of the game, and the internal logic of the world will often leave you making some odd decisions to maximize your gear.
For example, it makes more sense to lure a self-detonating droid near a healing unit, have him blow up in your face, then get completely healed (for very little money) instead of wasting valuable ammo and wearing down your weapons. More so, doing regular pit-stops to these stationary healing units is a no-brainer when in the vicinity, but it gets tiresome fast. The even greater challenge of finding usable guns that aren’t falling apart will leave you weary. It seems like every firearm in the future will be held together by duck-tape.
As balanced as the stat system is, some skills, particularly repairing, maintenance and hacking, are more important than others. Weapons are extremely brittle, and wear down fast until they brake and you have to repair them (melee weapons are immune to breakage, thankfully). Likewise, keeping them in tip-top shape so they don’t brake in combat is particularly difficult with the lack of tools needed for this task. And that’s considering you even have the Maintenance skill at a good enough level to begin with. There’s always the magic system to replace your reliance on actual guns, but supplying your psi (read: “mana”) reserve is no easy feat.
As challenging as the game is, you can always tone down the difficulty level on the fly at no penalty, or, if you must, cheat-award yourself some upgrade points to better your character; anything flies here as long as you experience the devilishly good story and the haunting decks of the Von Braun. System Shock 2 is, without a doubt, one of the coolest and most influential survival horror RPG’s to come along in gaming. Try it.
System Requirements: 133 Mhz CPU, 32 MB RAM, 4 MB Video, Windows 95
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