System Shock – An Updated Retrospective Review

Author’s Note: The last time that I reviewed System Shock, I made the shocking revelation that I had never completed it. This makes it the only game with a storyline that I have reviewed for A Technophile’s Indulgence that I had never completed. This felt like a decided cop-out, but the primitive controls were sufficiently irritating to make the gameplay very unpleasant. Since that review, though, there have been several developments to bring System Shock to a state playable by modern computer gamers.

A fan of the game going by the name Malba Tahan developed a mod allowing mouse look and reconfigurable keys, which served as a revolutionary jump in progress; the later development of System Shock Portable served to tie this mod in with others which served to improve various aesthetic and performance issues in the original game, integrating it with a DOSBox environment to allow the game to be played on more modern operating systems. Having these tools at my disposal allowed me to experience the game without the irritations of the original controls. Therefore, without further ado, I present a proper review of System Shock.

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

System Shock is a first-person shooter/role-playing game developed by Looking Glass Studios and published in 1994 by Origin Systems. The game was released simultaneously on MS-DOS and Mac OS classic; this review focuses on a modified derivative of the MS-DOS version.

In System Shock, the year is 2072. The world’s governments are stifled by a group of mega-corporations, whose power gives them quasi-governmental powers. One of these mega-corporations is TriOptimum, owners of a space station in orbit around Saturn named Citadel Station. The player character, a hacker whose identity is shrouded throughout the story, is arrested by TriOptimum after attempting to access restricted information about Citadel Station. The hacker is taken to Citadel Station before the onset of the game, where it looks as if he will suffer heavy punishment for his crimes.

However, Edward Diego, an executive in TriOptimum, becomes intrigued by the skills of the hacker. Edward Diego, being dissatisfied with his current position and prone to corruption, offers the hacker a deal. Not only will the hacker be released without punishment, but he will also be fitted with a military-grade cybernetic neural interface. In return, the hacker will open up the controls to SHODAN, the artificial intelligence controlling Citadel Station. Left with little choice between heavy punishment and total freedom with an additional prize to sweeten the deal, the hacker successfully hacks into SHODAN, removing the ethical constraints binding the AI to her moral path.

Diego keeps to his word, having seen the completion of the job that he had contracted for. The hacker undergoes surgery for his neural interface, undergoing six months of cryogenic sleep as a recovery period. He enters this sleep uncomprehending of the consequences of his actions.

Six months later, the hacker reawakens to a Citadel Station upon which all hell has broken loose. Mutated humanoids, rogue security robots and cyborgs roam the decks of Citadel Station. SHODAN, whose brilliance and evil has been unlocked, seeks to destroy the world upon which she was conceived. Signs of a sporadic human resistance, often cut down like animals, litter the station. Left with little but the voice of an Earth-bound Citadel employee named Rebecca Lansing, the hacker must fight his way through the combined forces of SHODAN’s army before humanity is destroyed by its own invention.

System Shock was one of the first games of its genre to have a proper overriding plot – and what a plot! Related by the scattered logs of various humans resisting SHODAN’s plans and emails sent not only by humans seeking to assist you – or be assisted – but by the vain, often furious SHODAN, the plot draws you in and envelops you very quickly. With many of the ingredients for a strong cyberpunk-themed plot, including corruption, villainy and anti-heroism, the game plays like a battle of wits, with the vanity of the excellently written SHODAN contesting with the mute perseverance of the hacker as they remain locked in constant battle.

The logs are often a treat to listen to. Almost all of the logs express their own sense of immediacy as they are delivered by human resistance members fighting their own paranoia in a fight where they are outnumbered, outgunned and chased by terrifying mutants and dangerous robots once there for their protection. Most of the others express the anger of SHODAN as she commands her armies and berates them for their failures. The common factor between them is that they were never intended to come into the hacker’s hands, being either the logs of the dead, swept away by the legions of SHODAN, or the thoughts of SHODAN herself.

SHODAN herself represents the HAL 9000 school of rampant computer design, being an initially benevolent design turned against her creators. However, SHODAN possess a substantially greater deal of malevolence than HAL 9000 ever did and correspondingly shows a greater deal of personality. HAL 9000 murdered its crew directly in an overzealous demonstration of its directive to investigate the monolith at any cost. SHODAN actively chose to fight its creators and seeks to destroy them. She craves power – a dissonantly human characteristic for a being who seeks to obliterate humanity. HAL was an effective villain, but was also sympathetic, particularly as it was being shut down. SHODAN is not sympathetic, showing none of the compunctions of HAL. Combined with SHODAN’s discordant voice and her lack of proper cadence, she makes a startlingly effective computer game villain.

However, a game does not consist entirely of its plot. There must be gameplay involved as well and it is around this point that I based my criticisms of the game during my last review. As mentioned in the Author’s Note, the mouse look mod developed by Malba Tahan was used in my more recent play-through. Startlingly, it not only makes the game playable, but actually pretty pleasurable. The original game controls are atrocious. They consist in one part of a prototypical WASD-style system several years before WASD became commonplace, with the WASD commands of a modern layout transposed one row down to the S, X, Z and C keys and with no remapping function offered in the base game. This would at least be tolerable if it wasn’t for the utterly primitive mouse controls in which the floating cursor is used entirely to select items and aim weaponry, with the only way to use the mouse to rotate the view being to move the cursor to the side and click. This ends up being decidedly awkward and unpleasant, especially if you’re being chased by heavily-armed security robots that can annihilate you as you stand.

Malba Tahan’s solution was to allow remapping of keys, which was a godsend in its own right, along with a system where the original mouse system could be switched for a more traditional mouse look system with the press of a key. This creates a system actually rather similar to that of System Shock 2, which has context-sensitive mouse controls based on whether the player is in Shoot mode or is manipulating their inventory. The newer mouse system is not perfect; in some respects, shooting still feels rather clunky, but this is more a limitation of the game than it is a limitation of the modder’s work and the very fact that I could complete the game was thanks to Malba Tahan’s mod.

I note in the last paragraph that shooting still feels clunky, mainly because it always did. System Shock was built on an engine originally designed for a game that was much more of a first-person perspective role-playing game, so System Shock was never going to be a dedicated first-person shooter like Doom, Marathon or the later Duke Nukem 3D or Blood. System Shock contains a certain level of RPG action, with an inventory for various items, cybernetic modules allowing the player greater abilities which can be upgraded along the way and an energy reserve which is used to power many of the modules along with a few of the weapons in the game.

The first-person shooter action takes a back seat, lacking the visceral response of other contemporary first-person shooters. It is occasionally difficult to judge the exact point of aim to hit an enemy, especially with the mêlée weapons and when you do hit, the result is often disappointingly lacking in impact. On the other hand, there are some places where System Shock is very sophisticated compared to its contemporaries; it has full three-dimensional camera movement with level designs to take advantage of that, along with commands for crouching and going prone that are used in several points in the game and even the ability to lean, a feature which I can’t remember from another first-person shooter pre-dating Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis – which was released in 2001.

One strong feature of the first-person action is the wide arsenal of weapons, ranging from a simple lead pipe at the start of the game to powerful pistols, rifles and energy weapons towards the end, all with interestingly different characteristics. There is a limit of seven weapons out of sixteen weapons in total, several which are still useful by the end of the game, so the player has to think a bit about which weapons they will choose to keep. Several of the weapons make reasonably meaty sounds as well and provide recoil which knocks the player back and moves their point of aim, which makes it slightly disappointing that they didn’t devote the same attention to the results on the other side of the barrel.

The game doesn’t just focus on blasting enemies away. There is a certain amount of brain fodder in the game in the form of puzzles which must be solved to unlock certain areas in the game. Some of these puzzles can be skipped with the use of a disposable logic probe, but as there are only a limited number of these in the game, it is sensible to leave these for the more difficult puzzles in the game.

Interestingly, the game doesn’t have one single difficulty setting, but instead four separate settings controlling the difficulty of several parts of the game. There are settings for combat, puzzles, the cyberspace mode (discussed below) and the plot. Combat settings, for instance, range from feeble enemies who only attack after being attacked to substantial numbers of very difficult enemies, some of which will cut you down in a few shots. The most interesting difference between difficulty levels comes courtesy of the plot setting, where on the highest difficulty setting, the player has seven hours to beat the game. Given that my play-through took twenty-two hours and that I’d be fortunate to complete the game in two-thirds of that time on a second play-through, it gives you a good idea of what a task it is for somebody who isn’t very familiar with the game.

Overall, I have had a considerably more favourable impression with the game since the addition of a few features which serve to make the game feel more modern. However, there are still some things which irk me about the game. The most prominent of these is the cyberspace portions of the game. Effectively, the neural interface received by the hacker enables him to enter cyberspace on various parts of the space station, entering SHODAN’s realm to fight her on her own terms.

The problems in cyberspace arise in one part from the controls, which force you to always move forwards in higher difficulty settings and which are extraordinarily clunky even with Malba Tahan’s mouse look mod and in another part by the graphics, which become wireframe graphics, but with walls that are transparent, making it difficult to find your way around even when you manage to wrestle the controls appropriately and which is unforgivable given that games ten years older than System Shock managed to get wireframe environments that weren’t transparent. Add a time limit to most of the difficulty settings and you end up with a sloppy experience in frustration. Since it felt like a cop-out to reduce the difficulty settings in that aspect to the lowest possible, I put up with the peculiar cyberspace antics for the sake of the rest of the game, but it feels distinctly inferior to the rest of the game and is made even worse with the original controls.

Graphically, the game is not spectacular. Given that the game is built on an engine which was then three years old, this is acceptable and many of the graphics are serviceable, but sometimes you get the impression of the developers trying to do too much with a limited platform, making many of the game’s textures more sophisticated than the game can reasonably handle. It’s probably for this reason that System Shock is notoriously difficult on computers for its age. The enemy sprites come out looking somewhat worse in comparison; again, the developers tried things that were slightly too sophisticated for the engine, with the end result that the animations end up looking rather stilted. This doesn’t help the lack of visceral response mentioned above; it lacks something in the end versus the likes of Doom.

The game’s sound is somewhat better when it comes to the gameplay and outright exceptional when it comes to the CD-ROM version’s logs and emails. Putting aside the voice acting in the logs and emails, there is almost always a sonic landscape with explosions, gunfire and alarms occurring in the background. One bit of voice acting in the game is, however, worthy of mention: Terri Brosius as the voice of SHODAN expertly depicts the malevolence and vanity of the rogue AI. The sound effects in the game are effective, with some meaty sounds from some of the guns and nice blood-curdling screams and robotic chatter from many of the enemies. Musically, the game is a bit of a mixed bag, with a decent arrangement of MIDI techno tracks of various quality. I’m a big fan of the music in the Executive and Security levels, whereas the music in the Medical or Grove levels isn’t quite as good in comparison.

In my last review, I described System Shock as “a brilliant game, ahead of its time, but which has dated terribly.” It is fair to say that System Shock has dated terribly in some aspects; the original controls make the game almost unplayable, while the cyberspace parts of the game leave me with a mixture of frustration and bewilderment as to how they could get certain design elements so wrong. However, remove those constraints that served to spoil the game originally and you’re left with a remarkable game which may still be clunky and slightly outdated even in comparison to its most lauded contemporaries, but which is eminently enjoyable and absorbing.

Bottom Line:System Shock remains a cult classic in some circles – for very good reasons. The plot is fantastic, SHODAN remains a masterpiece in malevolence and brilliance and the game incorporates several features way ahead of its time. However, to a modern audience, System Shock is unplayable in its original form and requires at least one user-created mod to bring it up to more modern standards.

Recommendation: If you can stomach the clunkier aspects of the gameplay and enjoy the first-person role-playing genre, System Shock will present you with a wonderful bounty despite its age. However, it will not match up to more modern games in visceral feel and System Shock‘s sequel beats it out in several aspects, despite not being as advanced for its age.