Fresh Thoughts: System Shock 2

7 minute read

I legitimately didn’t know of this game’s history or accolades, and it seemed like some random indie game that probably hitchhiked into my steam library during the era where I bought humble bundles. This is my alarmingly uncultured impression of the 1999 game in 2018. Did it age well?

This website is not for you to waste time on:

The answer to “did it age well” is YES because I played and finished the game even though it was old and I am unforgiving.

Alongside that answer, I talk about the game’s first impression and how it never broke immersion below.

[Starting the game]

This is an old game. SS2’s about 700 Megabytes. When it starts, it’s in a 4:3 fullscreen aspect ratio.

It is faster to uninstall than to install. In 2018, bandwith spent downloading is not a sunk cost.

The first impression has to convince me the rest of the game is worth playing. It has to show me something fun AND convince me this fun is going to continue and evolve.

I’m too lazy to forgive a game for being old, and if mechanics are in the game, but not refined, those are negative points. Maybe I am making a huge mistake but this means I can finish Deus Ex Human Revolution but I’ve only played the tutorial and the 1st level of the original Deus Ex.

Is that a huge mistake? Weapons didn’t feel satisfying, and the intended stealth felt unrealistic. Guards that should clearly see me don’t, and it becomes painfully obvious their field of vision is limited. I’m thinking more about how they’re programmed, rather than the choices I have to deal with them.

So, Deus Ex didn’t age well in that regard, even though I can tell from gameplay footage that it’s a good game.

Anyway, I started a new game in SS2.

[The tutorial]

The game puts you into a “futuristic” world to walk around and do tutorials and character customisation. There’s only really one building to go into.

The game let me walk past the tutorial rooms, which was exciting! The only thing “new” for me was right clicking objects anyway.

When you open up your inventory/ability/record menu, the game doesn’t pause and you can move the mouse around the screen while still pressing WASD to move. That’s unique.

The character customisation is disguised as a timeskip of 4 years of military service. Slightly silly but it’s nice.

The actual game world puts me onto a spaceship, where storywise, everything is going wrong. I got a little stuck at a passcode door while exploring the large amount of menu options, and enter an area with corpses and upgrade stations.

Upgrade stations provide many more choices, and they all cost the same resource to upgrade.

I see a ghost, or some psychic vision, but still no enemies. The ghost wants a door to be opened, so clearly this progresses the story. I check the other rooms first.

Turns out I still have decent patience for a tutorial zone if it’s got some personality.

[The hook]

During the introduction to passcodes and cybernetic enhancements, they at least give you a sense of the situation. People who have been dead for some time, and broken machinery are laid about.

The door that ghost wanted to be opened leads into the first dangerous area where you finally encounter an enemy. The moment you enter this area, extremely appropriate music plays.

A mutant spots you from a window and chases you. Hallways already begin to branch so you can fight or run. It’s exciting. The mutant has a very low poly count but you don’t really notice when you’re in the moment.

I also realised at that point this game might be going for the “horror” genre. Woops!

[One last test]

Later on I died. I didn’t activate any of the machines that revives the player, and autosave doesn’t occur often. Not only that, I wanted to reselect my character. So I tried a new game.

Fortunately with a new game, tutorials are skippable, the customisation is quick, and the passcode for the first door on the spacestation does not change! It was 42500 or 45200, I tried both and got through. The game lets you take control of it, more than most other games.

This passcode system also lets you some of the early parts of the game, if you wanted to catch up progress with a different character.

I ended up finishing the game before uninstalling.

[Everything else]

  • The UI provides a method for players who don’t learn keyboard shortcuts to easily find a way to modify their gun mode, ammo type, psionic ability, inventory, etc, by using the mouse instead.
  • The UI does not freeze the game, which adds to the horror factor! For example, Resident evil 4 stops being scary when you take the time to mix herbs in the safety of the pause menu.
  • The UI asks a lot from the player. This is a huge risk.
  • When you aim at an object in the game, a textbox gives a description of what you’re aiming at, and enemy health bars appear near them. These all visually feel like they came from the cybernetic implants in the game.
  • The music has aged well. The sound quality is sufficient.
  • The music always adds to the atmosphere. You hardly notice it while playing.
  • The story between “SHODAN” and “The Many” managed to drive the plot of the game. Its still interesting in 2018.
  • Weapon maintenance and repair need to be upgraded to level 1, but it wasn’t exciting.
  • Psionic ability tiers feel slightly random, like I was mean to only reach out to grab the abilities I’d “need”, even though I wanted to try them all.
  • There are bad hitboxes when trying to hit evil monkeys. Immersion is broken when you start thinking of the game’s programming.
  • The spaceship is a great setting. Most of the environments still look good.
  • Most of the enemies don’t look as good, but the game is old.
  • The SHAPE of most of the environments was probably designed first, since they always make you feel like you’re on a spaceship.
  • You can get lost in this game, even though you have a main objective, and your objectives constantly make more zones accessible. It’s similar to Metroid Fusion’s progression.
  • Audio logs are great because you can keep playing. Most of them are placed appropriately so you have time to listen to them too. Of course, I now know of many games that continue this tradition, but some of them punish the player for not standing still while listening, which is a shame.
  • Personally found the ending good, even if it hilariously stops being immersive.
  • If you’re a kid and you don’t get games very often, SS2 is extremely good value if you have spare time (yes, as a kid) and play it again with a different build.
  • None of the passcodes ever change. You can skip decent amounts of the game if you write down the passcodes or open up an old savefile and look for them in your records. This means you could easily catch up to a part of the game with a different character type.
  • Having passcode skips also mean a player that gets stuck can look up a guide to just skip their current section.
  • Passcode skips are cool. Thankfully they mostly just occur early on.
  • There are multiple ways to clear a level, but that’s nothing new these days.
  • The cost for upgrading increases on higher difficulties. However at any time, you can change it. For the first playthrough, its always more fun to be able to try options and not worry about being unable to finish the game.

[Closing]

The notes above are useful, but heres the short impression:

System Shock 2 put made immersion the top priority, and it succeeded. The interface somehow felt novel and having to fumble around your inventory to heal while being chased adds to the excitement. However, this is only possible on PC.

This made the game playable in 2018. Harder difficulties aren’t recommended on the first playthrough.

Harder difficulties make upgrades cost more. That alone means you simply get less gameplay mechanics.

[Extra (28th August)]

I found out something else about system shock.

The system shock games did not sell amazingly.

It probably didn’t manage to sell it’s uniqueness, which there’s plenty of.

But it’s not the fault of Looking Glass Studios, I mean, how can you pitch “immersion”, in a trailer?…

Have fun out there, won’t ya?

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