SYSTEM SHOCK 2 / Looking Glass / PC

System Shock 2 probably didn't win any awards for great writing - aside from basically just re-working the same plot used in the prequel, it's also basically a collection of frequently used sci-fi tropes such as Alien Collective Threatening All Life, Malevolent AI Becomes Self-Aware And Threatens All Life, Cyberpunk w/ Cyber-Implants, etc. It's not a game you can really use to advance the whole "games as art" or "games on par with literature" debate. That's not where the greatness of it lies - rather, it lies wholly in atmosphere and execution, and in just being an absorbing experience from start to finish.

System Shock 2 begins with being a really great FPS engine, on par with the best of the genre from the late 1990s. Then it fuses in RPG elements and a great inventory/equipment system in a way that no other FPS really did, with a smooth, intuitive and well-conceived interface. The RPG elements, basically a simple statistical system that allows you to grow your character as you go in physical capabilities, technical skills like hacking and scientific research, weapons set skills and psychic abilities, allows for a lot of different "builds" of characters which will respond in different ways to the series of challenges thrown at you. It goes on to take it up to the level of Awesome with a well-designed, detailed, believable environment, great level design, great pacing, and some of the best sound work in the history of electronic gaming.

So in the first System Shock, you played as a nameless Hacker who broke into the TriOptimum mega-corporation computers, summarily got caught, then got offered a deal to work on an advanced AI routine for them in exchange for your freedom and some military-grade neural implants thrown into the bargain. While spending six months in suspended animation recovering from the implant surgery on a TriOptimum resort station in space, however, the AI creation that you worked on, named SHODAN, became self-aware and decided in typical AI style to rule over humanity and wipe out all opposition. So you fought and hacked your way through the now-devasatated station to eventually eject SHODAN's core off into deep space. In System Shock 2, nearly a hundred years later, you play as a military grunt who mysteriously wakes up from suspended animation aboard a deep-space ship where everything has gone to hell, and with similar military-grade implants to those of the protagonist of the first game. Your only human contact is with a fellow survivor named Polito, who e-mails you a basic synopsis of the catastrophe: a Borg-like entity called The Many has taken control of the vessel and either killed everyone on board, or mutated them into freaky creatures that want to kill you.

As with the first game, "survival horror" elements are integrated into the FPS framework. Aside from the enemies being a genuinely creepy assortment of monstrosities that like to pop out at you unexpectedly, both ammunition and healing opportunities are limited and conservation is stressed throughout the entire game. This is where the statistics system becomes key, as the abilities you choose to accentuate determine how you'll have to play the game. Hackers have the advantage of shutting down security systems temporarily, as well as reprogramming various defense turrets around the ship to fire on enemies. Psychics get a whole suite of cool abilities, but recharging psychic ability can only be done via items that are in limited quantity throughout the ship. A specialist in standard weapons and modification can use powerful guns to simply blow through everything in their path, but they have to constantly worry about ammo and may be hosed if it runs dry. You can focus on using energy weapons, which simply need to be recharged periodically at one of the many power stations throughout the ship, but when you enter one of the long stretches without a power station you can wind up defenseless, and certain enemies are highly resistant to energy weapons (they also aren't available in great quantity until about halfway through the game.) Scientific research skill must also be considered, as many of the useful alien items found as you progress require a high level of knowledge to understand before they can be used.

While great on the whole, the game isn't perfect. The sequences near the end of the game suddenly involve a lot of ladder-climbing, jumping and swimming, things that the rest of the game didn't have in any noticable quantity, and these portions are a bit clunky and frustrating. Unless you have some idea what's coming, it's also quite possible to hose yourself by making bad upgrade choices, carrying the wrong weapons/items, or just squandering too many resources and wind up in a virtually unwinnable situation. While the ship design, textures and background graphics are detailed and very good, the human models just look bizarre, even more odd due to how good most of the monster designs look. And the game was also highly buggy/crashy at release, and really doesn't like Windows XP, though there's a lot of patches now that remedy those problems for the most part, even with all the most updated patches installed I'd still have about 1 out of 10 attempts to reload a saved game lock the program up and require a CTRL-ALT-DEL to escape from.

Far from enough to ruin the game, though, or even degrade it considerably. And when you add in the neat multi-player mode, which adds the ability for two to four players to simultaneously take on the main game, there's just too much good stuff going on here to worry about the relatively minor flaws. I consider this game a must-play for everyone except those who absolutely can't stand FPS, and those who can't handle horror games.

Links :

* HOTU version
* Shock Texture Upgrade Project
* Sound Upgrade Project
* ok seriously guys?
* ok really seriously guys?
* Great article analyzing major characters (MAJOR GAME RUINING SPOILERS also)

Videos :

* Gameplay Video
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