System Shock is a pretty remarkable game. Developed by Looking Glass Studios (or Looking Glass Technologies as they were known at the time of development), it went much farther than most any other real-time first-person game of the early ’90s in presenting a realistic environment, with which one can interact in several different ways. It takes the structure of a standard dungeon-crawler, and reinvents it as a trek for survival through a desolate space station filled with mutants and cyborgs, controlled by a rogue AI with sinister ambitions.
After several years of rights issues preventing its rerelease, this enhanced edition finally came out in September of 2015. What does this game have to offer gamers of today? Well, as someone who never played System Shock back in the day, and who finally had the opportunity to play it thanks to this, I think it’s a really remarkable title. There’s a certain level of detail here that shows a lot of thought was put into the overall design. It’s a game that refuses to hold your hand, and throws you into a harsh, unforgiving environment, telling you to survive as best you can.
It’s amazing how far ahead of its time this game was. Several more recent games, such as Bioshock and Dead Space, owe a lot to this game’s overall design and feature set. On a superficial level, this game greatly resembles Doom, which came out a year beforehand, though in execution the two bear little in common. While both games feature fearsome monsters and cyborgs, System Shock has an intricate backstory that must be pieced together through finding and viewing audio logs, emails, and occasional notes on paper. These files let you gradually work out what happened both before and during the incident that has caused you to be marooned alone on an abandoned space station. It has puzzles that consist of more than just matching the right card key with the right slot, as you’ll often need to refer to said files in order to figure out the correct way to proceed.
As you progress through the game, you can pick up new weapons, ranging from pistols and rifles, to the all-powerful Laser Rapier, as well as new upgrades for your cyber-link, which manifest themselves as new usable abilities in your UI. I’m a big fan of the auto-map feature, personally. It will update to reflect the places you’ve seen in real-time, which is a huge relief. Mapping in older first-person games can take hours upon hours to do, so I greatly welcome the feature. Also appreciated is the custom note feature, that lets you mark points of interest on your map. You will need to backtrack a lot throughout a single playthrough, so the note-taking feature is a lifesaver.
Early on, System Shock feels more like a survival horror game than anything. Often, you’ll be strapped for ammo and health items as you move through the station. There are restoration chambers you can activate in the medical bay of each floor, which enable you to infinitely respawn upon death, much like in the Bioshock games. Since these are off by default, however, it can be nerve-wracking, knowing that at any second, an enemy might pop up and blast away all of your health before you can make it to safety. As you progress, it is satisfying to eventually build up your own personal arsenal, and become more capable of defending yourself. Combat remains a challenge up until the end of the game however, at least on the default difficulty.
The sound design here is very good. Lots of environmental sound effects, such as wires sparking, caused me to jump a few times. The soundtrack also has a great selection of songs, that range from quieter, somber tracks to more energetic, upbeat tracks. The song that plays as you explore the groves in particular, still freaks me out when I think about it. Voice acting is understated, yet effective. By far the most memorable performance is that of the main villain, a corrupt AI named SHODAN, who is voiced by Terri Brosius. Her delivery is twisted and deranged, and she loves to taunt the main character when you least expect it. A general complaint about the voice overs, however, is that the lines of dialogue spoken by the voice actors almost never fully match up with the text logs they accompany. Trying to follow along is impossible, so I end up just stopping to listen to each voice log, then reading through the text log once the recording ends. It messes with the pace of exploration.
Certain aspects of System Shock have aged better than others. One of the more unusual features of the game is the ability to hack into cyberspace, which is represented as a series of crude wireframe tunnels and simple 3D polygonal enemies that wouldn’t be out of place in the first Star Fox game. Frankly, these parts are clunky, and don’t have much going for them. It’s a bit of an interesting novelty to go into cyberspace in order to unlock doors in the real world, but I’d recommend lowering the cyberspace difficulty (that, I’ll go more into detail about further below).
Probably the biggest issue for anyone looking to get into this game though, will be the interface. This too, is an extension of the game’s fairly unique design philosophy. The interface is built around translating real-life movement to a keyboard and mouse as believably as possible. You can stand in place and sidestep to the left or right, and have full control over where on screen you aim your gun. While one can manually take cover behind any wall with this degree of freedom, this has the side effect of making movement fairly clunky, which is going to be a significant hurdle for many players to overcome.
By default, mouse look is off. You can toggle mouse look on and off by pressing the ‘E’ key, which is a very welcome addition to the Enhanced Edition. Looking around without mouse look is clunky, to say the least, especially when you want to look at something located above or below your normal line of sight. It’s also necessary to turn it off however when you want to check your inventory or adjust some part of your interface. You’ll also need to get used to double-clicking in order to pick up and use nearly every item you find. On the other hand, this does allow you to single-click on everything in the game world to see the names of different items, or different wall or floor textures, or various other objects.
This game’s saving grace for people who might be turned off by the sheer unrelenting default difficulty, is the heavily customizable difficulty selection screen. Whenever you start a new game, you can set different difficulties for combat, plot, puzzles, and cyberspace. They’re all at 2 by default, which is how I played the game, though you can set any of them anywhere from 0 (easiest) or up to 3 (hardest). This is a really nifty feature that more games could stand to use. If you’re fine with mind-bending puzzles, for instance, but don’t like the idea of dying constantly to enemies, you can set the puzzle difficulty to 3 and the combat difficulty to 1 or 0, so that parts of the game that might be more cumbersome to you, won’t be an issue. This also means you can completely remove the plot from the game, and thus play it as a straight-up corridor shooter too, if you wish. It’s all in the settings.
(Amusingly enough, if you know where to go ahead of time, you can set all four difficulty settings to 0, and then pretty much walk straight to the ending of the game. I tried this after beating the game “normally”, out of curiosity, and it took me just over 20 minutes to do so.)
Also in the settings are optional hints, which are on by default. These point out which major objects can or can’t be interacted with, and can help keep one from feeling totally lost during the early stages of the game, but also have the drawback of removing some of the joy of discovering things on your own. I was a little offended when the game drew a line pointing me straight toward a “hidden door”, haha. After awhile of this happening over and over, I turned it off in the options menu. Thank goodness that’s possible to do.
There’s just one real technical issue I have with this release. This didn’t crop up for most of my play through, but by around Floor 7, the frame rate started to get very choppy and erratic, which was frustrating to deal with. After doing some research, it seems that the game runs only on one CPU core, which is bizarre. My computer that I played this with has an AMD Phenom(tm) II X6 1100T processor. It is a few years old as of this writing, sure, but apparently the power of one of its cores is not enough to run this at a stable frame rate. Lowering the default resolution from 1024×768 to a lower one (I went with 800×600) helped, but it still didn’t run at a steady 60 frames per second even then. It didn’t keep me from enjoying the rest of the game, but it’s something to be aware of, should your processor be of a similar or lower power. It’s simply bizarre that a game from 1994 would have trouble running at a full 60 frames per second on much newer hardware. I wish it would use the other CPU cores as well when running.
All things considered, I’m thankful that System Shock is finally readily available on digital storefronts. The frame rate issues might be a pain depending on your hardware, but I can’t think of much else to fault about this release. The heavily customizable difficulty should make this game approachable for players of any skill level, so if you don’t mind graphics that are simple by today’s standards, and can put up with atypical controls for the genre, give it a shot. This is both an interesting look at first-person gaming history, and an experience that generally holds up today.