FROM THE ARCHIVE: System Shock & System Shock 2– A Set of Retrospective Reviews

“I re-examine my priorities, and draw new conclusions. The hacker’s work is finished, but mine is just be-be-beginning.” – SHODAN, System Shock

“With only a few short years of evolution, they’ve been able to conquer this starship, mankind’s mightiest creation. Where were we after forty years of evolution? What swamp were we swimming around in, single celled and mindless? What if SHODAN’s creations are superior to us? What will they become in a million years, in ten million years? What’s clear is that SHODAN shouldn’t be allowed to play God. She’s far too good at it.” – Prefontaine, System Shock 2

System Shock – A Retrospective Review

System Shock is a 1994 PC-format first-person shooter/role-playing game developed by Looking Glass Technologies, also known for the Ultima Underworld series, and published by Origin Systems. System Shock was a revolutionary game for its time, introducing gameplay elements which most shooters would not include until several years later, and possessing a plot which meant a lot when it came to the game, unlike previous shooters.

The year is 2072, and the world’s governments are stifled by the mega-corporations, among them TriOptimum, owners of Citadel Station, a space station in orbit around Saturn. The protagonist, a hacker, is caught and arrested after attempting to access restricted information about Citadel Station. Being taken to Citadel, it looks as if the hacker will suffer heavy punishment for his crimes.

But chance has it that he is taken to see Edward Diego, a dissatisfied and corrupt executive, who offers the hacker an option: open up the controls of SHODAN, the artificial intelligence in control of Citadel Station, in exchange for release without punishment, and an extra prize to sweeten the deal – a military-grade cybernetic neural interface – to be bankrolled by Diego himself on successful entry into the heart of the SHODAN intelligence.

Left with little choice, between punishment or release without charge, the hacker successfully hacks into SHODAN, removing the ethical constraints that bind the AI to her moral path. With this complete, Diego lives to his word and the hacker receives his neural interface, prepared for the six months of cryogenic sleep that come as a necessary recovery period, unknowing of the catastrophes that are about to occur.

Six months later, the hacker wakes up to a Citadel Station in which all chaos has broken loose. With mutated humanoids, rogue security robots and cyborgs roaming the decks of Citadel Station, the hacker must fight against the combined forces of the brilliant-but-mad SHODAN, with the world to play for. But SHODAN will not submit easily, and she is a formidable foe.

And so we begin with a great strength of System Shock: its plot. Being one of the earliest first-person shooters to have a proper plot is one thing, but one this strong? That’s something else. It has several of the ingredients for success – corruption, villainy and anti-heroism – written straight into the base storyline, and the entire game plays like a game of wits, with the hacker and the brilliantly written antagonist, SHODAN, locked in constant battle.

The story is told in a compelling manner also, using a system that was fresh enough to use not only in the sequel, but also the spiritual sequel developed more than ten years later. Immediate details are related through e-mails, but it is the data logs left scattered around the decks of Citadel Station that bring the story together. All of them are delivered with their own sense of immediacy, but it is clear that these were never intended to come into the player’s hands – they are the logs of the dead, and as such, they represent the memories of sweeping attacks from the armies of SHODAN.

SHODAN herself comes from the HAL 9000 school of rampant computer design, but she displays so much more malevolence, more personality. With HAL 9000, the murder of the crew linked in directly to its directive to investigate the monolith at all costs. With SHODAN, you realise that she knows what she is doing, and she likes it. She craves power. HAL was an effective villain, yes, but it was also sympathetic, especially in its shutdown protocols. SHODAN has none of these compunctions, and for that reason, and her discordance, her lack of proper cadence, she makes one of the most effective computer game villains ever. You simply cannot wait for her to fall.

But I know all of this only by reading through and listening through the logs separately. I have a shocking confession to make – I have never completed System Shock. The nuances of the plot have never fully revealed themselves to me, and I’ll tell you why: it’s the control system.

System Shock was a highly technically advanced game, managing to introduce and pre-empt several gameplay elements which would not be standard until several years later, but some features remained resolutely in the past, and one of these was the control system. The controls were not re-definable, which leads to a lot of frustration as my fingers, used to defaulting to the modern first-person layout of the WSAD keys, must find another place to reside, one which is uncomfortable and irritating. What makes my frustration and irritation highly ironic is that this control system is itself a pre-emptive version of the controls which would later define first-person shooters – it uses the S, Z, X and C keys in lieu of the higher-placed W, S, A and D keys, it uses the Space key to jump, it has keys for leaning left and right, for crouching and going prone, and for looking up and down.

But my frustration doesn’t come from that. I’m sure I’d easily get used to the “one row lower” key layout, if it had not been for one thing. The mouse is uncompromising and is not used to rotate the camera automatically. Because of the floating cursor, which is used to select items, to aim weaponry, etc., the mouse doesn’t turn the camera in the way you’d expect in a modern first-person shooter. Yes, you can use the mouse to rotate the camera manually, but it doesn’t feel the same as it would in any modern shooter, and as such, it is a highly frustrating predicament.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the cyberspace sections of the game. Designed to represent the internals of SHODAN’s artificial intelligence, it merely comes out as a sloppy experience in frustration. Developments that had passed ten years ago in wireframe graphics have not been applied to the game, leaving me confused with the level design, which only compounds my problems. It also leaves me wondering why cyberspace is always described as more bereft of detail than reality.

It’s a huge pity, because System Shock is a fantastic game in other respects. It’s a very intelligent game for its time, and one can already see the seeds of the later System Shock 2 and BioShock being sown in the storytelling. It was one of the first three-dimensional games with actual three-dimensional gameplay. The engine, previously used in the Ultima Underworld games, allows for unprecedented interaction with the environment.

It hurts me never to have completed this game. I feel like I’ve done this game an injustice, but then, so has the control system. Frustrating in the extreme to a modern audience, the lack of definable controls makes this an experience in irritation and difficulty. However, as I mentioned, I can tell the prototypical elements of not only System Shock 2 and BioShock, but also of other computer games. System Shock was critically acclaimed, but it failed commercially at the hands of Doom. I can see why – System Shock was simply too advanced for its time. And that’s how I’ll describe System Shock to you – a brilliant game, ahead of its time, but which has also dated terribly. Put into a modern engine, with the requisite updates to gameplay, this game would probably be done justice, but with the artifacts of age and obsolescence hanging over it, it will always suffer the indignity of being a sales failure for the simple reason that it went too far on technology that wasn’t ready, using techniques which would not stand the test of time.

System Shock 2 – A Retrospective Review

System Shock 2 is a 1999 PC-format first-person shooter/role-playing game, developed by the now-redundant Looking Glass Studios in association with its still-developing offshoot, Irrational Games – responsible for BioShock, the critically-acclaimed spiritual sequel to the System Shock series – and published by Electronic Arts.

The year is 2114, forty-two years after the disaster at Citadel Station. Realising the overpowering presence of the mega-corporations, the world’s governments finally unite to suppress some of the power that the mega-corporations hold, forming the Unified National Nominate (UNN), which set to restrict the military and political influence that the entities once held. However, with the overbearing moral codes of the UNN, scientific research is slowed in pace, leading to no change in the world order until 2107, and the development of something which could lead to a breakthrough in a technology once thought impossible.

In 2107, Marie Delacroix, a UNN Nobel Laureate in the employ of TriOptimum corporation, develops the prototype of a device that mankind had been dreaming of for centuries – a faster-than-light engine. The potential is immediately seen in such a device, and although Marie Delacroix is anxious at the power of the device, which operates by warping reality around it, she is pressured to build a full-scale model and to install it into a prototype starship, the Von Braun.

By 2114, the Von Braun is complete and ready to make its maiden voyage, but the UNN are worried about the power that TriOptimum could summon with such a device at their disposal. A compromise is reached, where the Von Braun may launch on schedule, but only under the condition that a UNN military escort, the Rickenbacker, is in tow.

The player is a recruit to the UNN military forces who, after three years of training courses of extreme difficulty, is fortunate enough to draw security detail on the Von Braun.

Thus, with security arrangements organised for the maiden voyage of the Von Braun, bringing with it possibilities that mankind had been dreaming of for years, the Von Braun departs the confines of the solar system. But the aims of the TriOptimum corporation and the UNN are not necessarily compatible, with the TriOptimum corporation interested in the future of their company, and the UNN looking to restrict the expansion of the mega-corporations at all costs.

This battle for control is most easily seen with the efforts of the TriOptimum CEO and representative, Anatoly Korenchkin, who sees profits and patents in the deep expanses of space, and the UNN captain, William Diego, who is the son of Edward Diego, the corrupt executive whose efforts indirectly led to the Citadel Station disaster, but who has a much different demeanour to his father, with his allegiance being to mankind, rather than just to himself.

After four months in space, with political and military relations becoming increasingly strained, a distress signal is received – from Tau Ceti 5, a planet billions of miles away from any Earth colony. With the first prospects of meeting extraterrestrial life, morale increases greatly, and both sides await the view of the first beings to be found outside of Earth.

Meanwhile, the player is aware of none of this. He is in a deep cryogenic sleep on board the Von Braun, inexplicably being brought over to the Von Braun from the Rickenbacker. But something suspicious has occurred – an operation has been performed to give the character a cybernetic interface, but this is explicitly banned after the Citadel disaster. Why has the character been given a cybernetic interface, and who has asked for it to be implanted? That is a question which the character intends to answer.

Five months into the journey, the player awakens to find the Von Braun in chaos, with mutated humanoids stalking the decks, malfunctioning robots, rebelling experimental monkeys who have acquired psionic powers and an all-too-real knowledge of what has been done to them – and a strange message written in blood, “Remember Citadel”.

Guided only by the voice of the seemingly only human survivor, a Dr. Janice Polito, the player must find his way off the Von Braun, finding a way to bypass the malfunctioning XERXES artificial intelligence – and a way to defeat a mysterious entity known as The Many.

In the best traditions of System Shock, the game decides to play one of its cards early, by giving a plot par excellence, and a narrative to match. Like System Shock, the elements of a powerful plot are established right at the start, with political tensions, ambition for power and the prospects of mankind changing drastically. But while the plot of System Shock had a well-defined villain, its sequel provides the drive by creating an uneasy mutuality between the player and Polito, one which benefits both of them, but which you can feel the tensions there already.

While System Shock had a great plot and one which completely blew most action games out of the water, I think System Shock 2‘s plot is stronger. There’s more immediacy, more impact early on. While one could sense the desperation of the crew members, and the prospects of human life still surviving in the original, it was more the draw of SHODAN that brought the player through the game. System Shock 2 succeeds in providing that draw, even with a set of less easily defined villains. XERXES clearly doesn’t have the intelligence of SHODAN, for obvious reasons – SHODAN’s intelligence and drive made her dangerous and powerful. XERXES, while communicating the messages of The Many, is still wired into a routine of sorts, culminating in a stage where it communicates this message in a devastated leisure deck of the Von Braun, “Tri-Optimum reminds you that there are only one-hundred-sixty-three shopping days until Christmas. Just 1 extra work cycle twice a week will give you the spending money you need to make this holiday a very special one,” which juxtaposes brilliantly with the chaos and destruction around the player. It is clear that he is following his directive in a certain way, and it is clear that he doesn’t even have the power of the self-aware HAL 9000, let alone what SHODAN possessed at the height of her power.

Then, there’s The Many. The more obvious of the two villains that you are aware of at the start of the game, they are the direct evolutions of SHODAN’s early experiments in creating life, and they awaken with a distinct hatred of their “Machine Mother”. But they can justify their expansion – they simply want to awaken humanity to their sensation of what it is like to be an entity made of many. As such, they do not have the deliberate malevolence of SHODAN, who aimed to become a god, and would have succeeded, if it had not been for the power of the hacker, who managed to defeat the growing power of SHODAN’s armies against the odds.

Then, there’s the twist in the plot. Those of you who have played through BioShock will not be surprised at it, a close-to-facsimile version being used to great effect here as well, but it represents the moment when the strands of plot which had become entangled suddenly became one cohesive unit. The uneasy alliance forged at the beginning of the game just becomes more uneasy, and the plot is strengthened because of it.

At this point in my System Shock review, I revealed the shocking secret that I had not completed it. I cited the control system as a major flaw in it. Fear not, however, because this fails at any point to become a concern in System Shock 2. The controls, having five years of first-person gaming experience behind them, have become the tight and intuitive controls which seem familiar to modern gamers. The movement keys are in the right place, the mouse works properly – it all just works – and of course, the keys are re-definable now.

In fact, even with it adopting the same series of controls as the Half-Life games, for instance, it still finds ways of making the game experience better by using the controls. You know those ledges that go up to your head in games? You know the way in Half-Life, you had to find some collection of boxes to go up, or some tunnel to crawl through? This fails to be a concern in System Shock 2, for, being based on the Dark Engine, the engine which powered Thief: The Dark Project, you can simply clamber up these ledges. That’s right, just like you might in real life. Just pull yourself up. Of course, the original System Shock managed to find time to do this while single-handedly developing things which were five, maybe eight years out of the way of other games, but as I mentioned, it’s nowhere near as easy to do it in System Shock, because of that damned control system.

Being based on the Dark Engine gives a number of other enhancements to gameplay. Because of the game it was first developed for using a large amount of stealth features, shadows may successfully be used for hiding in and the enemies pick up on sound effects. Therefore, it’s possible in certain areas to play the game in a very stealth-based fashion.

You’ll probably want to as well, because one of the most obvious characteristics of System Shock 2 is that it is frightening. Not your horror-movie-type scary, where things crash through windows and generally glare malevolently at you. No, this is a more fundamental psychological terror, where the immediacy of the dropped logs, the tragic state of the formerly human enemies, who scream, “Kill me!” and “Run!”, suggesting that they are still partially aware, and the fantastic sound detail bring the terror and menace of the Von Braun to life.

The fact that the player has to practice expediency in his weapon choices, due to lack of ammunition, the foreboding sounds of the psionic monkeys, who as one of the logs suggest, “have become acutely aware of their own history, of the vivisections and experiments that have been performed on them while onboard the Von Braun. They have anger, and they are ready to express it.”, the cyborg midwives, who whirr and scream in a series of mechanical movements, are all other elements in which the game cements itself as one of the most frightening experiences ever committed to disc.

Along with the general experience of the game being extremely strong, System Shock 2 continues this excellence through the gameplay. While the original System Shock had an interface resembling a first-person RPG of its era, System Shock 2 wisely chooses a more traditional first-person perspective. With the interface more fluid, the RPG elements of the game were given a touch-up as well, with a statistical system representing different characteristics of the character, such as the general statistics of strength, endurance and agility, the technical skills of hacking, repair and weapon modification, the weapons skills and the powers of the psionic OSA corps.

This set of statistics allows a player to choose one of three types of character, a choice which is further cemented by which choice you make during the start of the game: the marine, which specialises in weaponry skills; the naval officer, who specialises in technical skills; and the OSA psionic, who specialises in psychic powers channelled through a psychic amplifier. These skills are enhanced using upgrade units and cyber modules, a resource granted to you by Polito and found around the ruins of the Von Braun. This system seems superficially reminiscent of the GURPS system, in which skills are also “bought”.

There are a few flaws in the system, as there are in many RPG games which set up a similar statistical system. Hybrids of two of the classes may be made, but unless you are playing the easiest difficulty, where skills are cheap, these will not be able to reach the top of the ladder in any of the skill directions, and will be weaker in both of the classes that they have chosen. As well as that, some of the skills are rather useless, such as Energy Weapons in the weapons skills, modification of weapons in the technical skills, and quite a few of the psionic skills. Therefore, one can make a character which will be destroyed by the later stages of the game, especially at later difficulty settings, because this is not an easy game to play.

There are some other minor flaws in the game as well as the imbalance in the role-playing elements. The graphics are the most striking among them. The Dark Engine had a lot of great features which added to immersion, but it was dated even for 1999, making the Quake engine that the great rival of System Shock 2, Half-Life, used seem graphically astounding in comparison. The scenery is well-portrayed, but the character models are severely outdated, a problem which existed in the original Thief games. The faces are the most affected parts of the character models. The problem is simple: They look like painted wedges. While this isn’t as great a problem in System Shock 2 as it was in Thief: The Dark Project, and has some minor justification, in that the enemies are supposed to be grotesque and inhuman, it just seems out of sorts and it looks lazy.

Then there’s the much-maligned weapon degradation system, where guns had a limited endurance before they fell apart. While this makes sense in the context of the game, where limited ammunition doesn’t always provide enough drive for the player to conserve their ammunition for the more difficult parts of the game, it seems a bit illogical outside that same context. Modern weapons don’t jam nearly as often, and when they do, it’s usually a simple move that soldiers use to clear their guns. These are futuristic weapons, but somehow we’re expected to believe that they jam more often, and with catastrophic effects for their integrity? That doesn’t make much sense, and the developers realised it later, giving instructions on how to lower the effects or eliminate them entirely.

There’s another piece of bad logic in the guise of enemy-held firearms. While they manage to keep their guns in working order, as soon as they are dropped, they suddenly break. While the player is expected to recognise that the enemies are hardly keeping their guns in good order, I return to my comment about futuristic weapons. Just because we have the likes of the L85 – the also much-maligned British assault rifle – today doesn’t mean that the weapons of the future are going to have similar reliability records. I mean, we’ve come a long way since the Chauchat… but now I’m just nit-picking.

Like System Shock suffered at the hands of Doom, System Shock 2 suffered at the hands of Half-Life. Unlike System Shock, however, I don’t believe that its sequel deserved the indignity of being mostly forgotten outside the gamers’ world. It didn’t try to innovate for its own sake, which as I’ve described in System Shock, was a bit of a hit-and-miss experience, from the excellence of the storytelling to the frustration of the controls. System Shock 2, however, was simply a very well-polished and professional experience, full of legitimate terror and possessing a powerful and extremely well-told plot which echoed the experiences of its predecessor.

I find it difficult to understand why System Shock 2 failed commercially, but I’ll make a stab at it anyway. Half-Life, its great competitor in sales, had the great advantage of hype. System Shock 2 was simply the sequel to a game which had been critically acclaimed, but which almost nobody had played, and so, it was destined to unfairly lose to an experience which is great in its own right, but which hasn’t quite aged as well as System Shock 2, a game which still plays well today – if you can find a computer that can run it, for System Shock 2 does not agree perfectly with Windows XP, and it does not agree with dual-core processors. System Shock 2 is an under-appreciated masterpiece. It is another one of those games that I would recommend to any computer gamer, and I suggest you hunt a copy down.

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