Saturday, January 1, 2011

System Shock 2

Platform: PC
Developer: Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios
Released: 1999
Genre: First Person Shooter, Action Adventure, Survival Horror

The Game
In the original System Shock, a hacker was hired/blackmailed into removing the ethical constraints on an artificial intelligence named SHODAN, who ran a space station for the megacorporation TriOptimum. In return, he received a set of military grade cybernetic implants, and the surgery kept him in a healing coma for several months. When he woke up, he found that SHODAN had gone completely megalomaniacal and intended to use the resources of Citadel Station to take over the world, wipe out all current life, and start anew with herself as Earth's malevolent goddess. He raged against the machine that he had let loose and eventually destroyed her using his new implants and his genius hacking abilities . . .

Nearly half a century later, TriOp is still struggling to regain the prestige it held before the incident on Citadel. In a massive PR coup, they manage to land the contract to build the first faster-than-light spaceship, the Von Braun. For its maiden voyage, it is to be accompanied by a military ship, the UNN Rickenbacker. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

A soldier wakes up in a med bay of the Von Braun with no memories of how he got there. A voice speaks to him, telling him that he volunteered for a surgery that would give him experimental cybernetic implants in order to combat a strange force that has taken over the ship . . .

System Shock 2 is the highly acclaimed sequel to a highly acclaimed game, both of which initially released to underwhelming sales and only later were discovered and became known as cult classics. Though perhaps not as well known and/or popular as other FPSes of the time such as Half-Life (which released the previous year) or Deus Ex (which released the following year), both were extremely influential games in their own rights and have extremely dedicated fans. Dedicated enough to actually make the game playable on newer systems, where for many years it was infamously difficult if not downright impossible to get it to even start unless you had a Win98 machine or older. And thank goodness they made SS2Tool, or I might not be doing this review right now!

But yes, influential. How was it influential, you ask? Well, the most concrete instance of this is the Bioshock series, which stands as an official spiritual successor to SS and SS2. Or if that's not your cup of tea, supposedly Dead Space was originally going to be an actual direct sequel to SS2. And even if that isn't true it's still evident that it was heavily based on many of the elements from the earlier game. And all you folks who think Portal is the ultimate of FPS gaming due to GlaDOS and her crazy turrets probably have a great deal of thanks to give to System Shock's SHODAN and XERXES.

So the question is . . . does SS2 actually stand up to all the hype that seems to surround it? Well, that's what I'm hoping to suss out here, of course. But before I really begin, let me just warn everyone:


This game has a lot of stuff in it that may be best experienced by an actual play through. Two of the main secrets of the game (though one of 'em isn't much of a secret if you're paying any attention at all) are gonna be blown right in the very next section. This game is chock full of spoilery twists and stuff otherwise as well.

Proceed with caution.

The Characters
The main character of this little venture is generally known only as the Soldier, since he's just a random soldier picked out from the military forces of the Rickenbacker. He's your standard silent hero with little in the way of personality or back story. This jibes with the original game in which the main character was only known as the Hacker and had little in the way of personality or back story. The only real defining characteristic of this character is chosen by the player him or herself, that being whether he's in the Marines, the Navy, or the OSA (psi-corp).

He's also gained the fan nickname "Goggles" because the cyber-implants on his eyes look like goggles. I'm not very partial to this name myself, so I'll be referring to him as "Soldier" for this review.

Anyway, who cares about what the boring ol' hero is like, right? In this game, it's all about the villains! And in this case, those villains are . . . the Many.

"Villains" in the plural is a bit misleading in this case, however. The Many (and this is one of those spoilers I was talking about) is actually a biological mass of various semi-autonomous creatures that share a single hive mind. They were found several light years away from Earth on Tau Ceti V and brought on board the Von Braun to be studied as the first concrete evidence of alien life on other planets.

Though these creatures come in several different forms, the primary strain is the parasitic annelids that burrow into people, gestate for a bit, burst out of their chest, and then angle back to burrow up through the neck into the brain, whereupon they take complete control of their host's motor functions. The poor human this happens to has some awareness left of what has happened to them, but is unable to do anything about it.

That's just your basic foot soldier in the Many's army. There's worse out there. Way worse. And they're all looking to either add you to the mass of the Many or destroy you for opposing them. And that is basically what the Many is about. They want to expand their glorious nature, to absorb more minds into its own consciousness, to exult in the warmth and pleasure of the flesh. Which is not as delightful as it may sound at first. And their ultimate intent upon the Von Braun upon finishing their preparations is to sail the FTL ship straight back to Earth and assimilate the entire population.

Opposing this is - surprise of surprises! - SHODAN, the AI Who Would Be God. She guides the player's actions throughout most of the game as she attempts to use him to destroy the Many. But wait! How did she survive the destruction of Citadel Station so many years ago? Why does she want to destroy the Many? Well . . . those I'll go ahead and leave as spoilers. You'll just have to play the game to find out!

Who else is there? Well, the only other sort-of notable character is XERXES, the AI running the Von Braun and - to some extent, it seems - the Rickenbacker. After the whole SHODAN incident, AIs became extremely restricted, so Xerc was purposefully built with no self-awareness. He was also built and programmed for cheap, since TriOp is still trying to get their financial legs underneath 'em. Both of these elements together lead Xerc to be easy pickings for the Many, who reprogram him into their digital slave. This spells bad news for the Soldier since the wayward AI runs the security system and the various robots on the ship and will send waves of enemies to attack whenever a camera spots him. He gets some of the best lines in the game, though, since he's still trying to run the ship like everything was normal while adding in bits like "glory to the Many, glory to the mass" every once in a while.

And then there's the crews of the two ships. Eeeeeh.

Don't get me wrong. It would definitely have been to the game's detriment if these characters hadn't been included . . . it's just that compared to the show-stealing trinity of the Many, SHODAN, and XERXES, everyone else is sort of forgettable. I will give special mention to Bronson, tho'. She's a hardass.

The Writing
One of the main draws of this game is the writing, and I really think it's from there that a lot of the other elements that make it so wonderful spring.

Both SHODAN and the Many are wonderfully written characters with well-defined personalities, modes of speaking, goals, and attitudes toward the player. Even the generally forgettable background characters all have distinct personalities and characterizations. XERXES, like I said, gets some of the best lines ever, but just about everyone gets at least one moment of absolute awesome in their dialogue. Let me just give you a small sample . . .

"Anatoly, there's only so much corporate calisthenics I can go through before I start to feel a little queasy, so let's get down to brass tacks here. We don't like each other. We each have our own motivations for undertaking this mission, so let me give you a little warning. I cannot be circumvented. I cannot be tricked. I cannot be manipulated. And I cannot be bought. You come at me straight and keep the fancy maneuvers for your next board meeting. Just because my father swam with the sharks doesn't mean that I do."

That's from William Bedford Diego, captain of the Rickenbacker, leader of the military forces on the mission, and son of the CEO that hired the Hacker to hack SHODAN in the first game, by the way. He's a bit of a badass.

There are tons of neat little twists throughout the story as it goes along. Some are rather predictable, but that doesn't make them any less awesome. Learning the back story of the Many and how SHODAN got all mixed up into things is pretty trippy.

And there are a lot of little side-stories here and there that nevertheless tend to tie in seamlessly with both the overall plot and the gameplay itself, mainly in the form of cleverly placed clues that help you advance in the main storyline or simply point you toward much-needed gear and how to get to it.

Unfortunately, there are a few plot holes, I won't lie. Fortunately they're mostly ignorable should you even happen to notice 'em.

Like the previous System Shock almost all of the back story and a healthy chunk of the currently running story is told through the use of recordings that the Soldier finds littered throughout the ship, mostly work and personal logs left behind by the crew members. Most of them are found in a jumbled order, sometimes detailing what happened after the introduction of the Many to the ship and sometimes before, but always progressively revealing bit by bit what exactly is going on. As long as the player takes the time to seek these logs out and listen to them, a masterfully designed story of mutiny, betrayal, horror, and emergence will unfold.

The Gameplay
SS2 is not your typical FPS. There's a reason why the "Genre" listing near the top of this review lists three types of game that are generally considered to be quite separate from each other. These are the three, by the way, that Wikipedia lists for SS2, but I'm sorely tempted to go ahead and add "Role Playing Game" in there as well. In order to ease the description of the gameplay, I'm gonna break this section down into those three genres.

Ah, well the hell. I'll do all four!

First Person Shooter
Perhaps first and foremost, SS2 is indeed an FPS. It's the way most people tend to categorize it, I understand, though it's really just as a shorthand since it doesn't cover the full scope of the game.

Anyway, yes, the game takes place from the main character's viewpoint, and you go around shooting the shit out of whatever is stupid enough to stay in the center of the screen long enough. It follows many of the standard FPS conventions, such as a selection of the basic weapon types (pistol, shotgun, bludgeoning melee weapon, assault rifle, laser pistol, etc.), lots of switches and buttons to flip or press, and some minor platforming sections.

One interesting addition to the standard FPS model is the introduction of different types of ammo as well as different firing types. For example, the pistol and assault rifle - which use the same ammo - have three different types of bullets: standard, anti-personnel, and armor piercing. The first is your basic, balanced pew pew, of course. The second is best used against the squishier members of the Many, and the last is primarily good for taking down rogue robots, turrets, and other metal-covered monstrosities.

Each ranged weapon also has two different firing modes. The rifle can be changed from single shot to full auto fire, while the energy pistol can go from normal blasts to overcharged shots that do a lot of damage all at once, but it takes a while for the pistol to recharge for the next shot. These add a wide selection of options on how to proceed through the game, and often has the player having to switch ammo on the fly during fights, adding to the tension.

Action Adventure
Exploration is a large part of the game. The Von Braun is a sprawling ship with lots of twisty, curvy pathways that lead all over the place, sometimes seemingly at random (justified in-universe by TriOp hiring really cheap ship designers), and several areas seem to exist solely for the sake of said exploration and finding hidden caches of weapons and other equipment. Since getting around the ship isn't really a strict case of "getting from point A to point B", it sometimes feels a lot like a Metroidvania game. And even though it's easy to get lost a lot of the time, the areas you might find yourself in are often quite interesting anyway and have lots of neat stuff to grab up!

There are plenty of puzzles to be had. Though still simplistic by today's standards, they were still fairly sophisticated for FPSes at the time, and many of them involved using combining facets of the inventory, stats, and mini-games elements, as well as making heavy use of the previously mentioned exploration aspect.

There's a lot of stuff to pick up in this game. Weapons, ammo, armor, medical supplies, technical tools, mission items, random pointless junk . . . tons and tons of stuff. An inventory screen (which also serves many other purposes which will be described further on) is therefore provided, based on a grid system. Weapons take up three spaces while most everything else in the game takes only one apiece, and how many spaces you are provided with is based primarily on how strong the Soldier is. So that's the "adventure" part. Where the "action" part comes in is that the inventory is accessed in real time, meaning that while you're trying to move stuff around, there still might be some nasty nasty monster trying to chew through the back of your neck in the meantime. It adds a sense of urgency and amps up the feeling of paranoia and danger . . . you're not safe, you're never safe, not even in your own inventory screen.

Survival Horror
Past the FPS bit, this is probably the part that everyone remembers SS2 for best. Virtually everything about the game is designed to make you feel as if you're trapped and doing everything you can to make it past insurmountable odds. Unless you're very careful and know what you're doing, ammo is very limited, especially toward the beginning of the game. Inventory space can be very hard to come by, and you often have to figure out what you're going to keep and what you're going to drop. You often hear monsters well before you see them, and this early warning is far less comforting than it is creepy as hell.

Oh, and your weapons degrade with use. And having one of your guns jam right in the middle of a fight without warning? Very unnerving. You have to use the maintenance skill every once in a while to keep your weapons in good repair, otherwise you might be up the creek when they fail you. Unfortunately, in many cases they degrade a little too swiftly, and the developers have mentioned that that's their fault entirely . . . they'd meant for them to wear out fast, but not quite that fast. Still, as long as you pay attention and know what you're doing, the problem will remain only just enough to keep you sweating, not enough to frustrate you completely.

Part of this is somewhat mitigated by the use of Quantum Entanglement Devices, which when activated can resurrect the Soldier at their location for a small amount of nanites, the in-game currency. This can damage the "survival" part of the game somewhat, since once you can find a QED on your current deck, you're effectively immortal and death is merely a minor setback, but fortunately it doesn't quite shatter the illusion completely. And considering how often and in how many ways you can die in the game, the QEDs are pretty much essential to getting further into the game.

Role Playing Game
The inventory screen isn't just for inventory! It also gives access to all the audio logs you've picked up, your character's stats, and other useful tidbits. All of the Soldier's abilities are dependent on his stats. Depending on how you built him up during the training portion of the game, he already has a few points in various abilities, but all the rest are increased through the use of cybermodules, which are SS2's version of experience points, gained after completing certain objectives or (on occasion) found randomly about the ship. By accessing certain terminals around the ship, the Soldier can use these modules to improve his stats and skills, becoming a better hacker, getting more psionic abilities, or gaining the ability to use certain weapons.

There are four special terminals found throughout the game that also give a selection of perks that the player can choose from, as well as software upgrades that give bonuses to the Soldier's technical skills and implants that while powered up can improve his stats and skills or give him new (and sometimes surprisingly disgusting) abilities. In all, it's a very in-depth system for an FPS, and it works extremely well.

One particularly interesting bit is the research skill. Occasionally the player will run across objects that have no description and must be researched before they can be utilized. Toward the beginning of the game, these come mostly in the form of organs taken from the bodies of the Many, and when fully researched, a damage bonus is then conferred against those particular enemies. Later in the game, unresearched weapons and implants can be found. Besides needing an appropriate level of researching skill to figure them out, the player has to search out certain chemicals that can be found on the various decks of the ship in order to complete their research.

System Shock 2 has a lot of different types of gameplay going on all at once, but it never really feels cluttered or too busy. Each segment fits perfectly into a larger whole and works together beautifully. It many ways, it almost deserves to have a new category all its own.

The Challenge
There are four difficulty settings: Easy, Normal, Hard, and Impossible. These are all pretty much exactly what they say on the tin. I usually play on Normal myself, and once upon a time this gave me a decent challenge without being too horrible frustrating, but now after a fair amount of practice, I may need to move on up to Hard.

Regardless of which one you're on, however, the survival horror aspects of the game are still in there, making sure things aren't too easy on you.

The Sights
The ship itself is beautiful. Horribly designed (though that was by design), but beautifully textured. It's extremely atmospheric, very dark and creepy looking, and has lots of interesting stuff to look at. The lighting is especially well done . . . a bit too dark at times, but that's what the gamma adjust in the options is for. Either way, it's best played with all the lights around you turned off, not just so you can see better, but to help the mood along.

The character models, unfortunately, is where the game's graphics fail. Looking outdated even for the time, most of the NPCs (corpses, primarily) and creatures (the human-looking ones, anyway) are extremely angular and have low-grade textures. It's a bit of a shame, but what're ya gonna do?

Well, what you're probably gonna want to do is get some mods. As I said before, SS2 has a very dedicated fanbase, and there have been several mods made that upgrade the textures of the characters as well as the ship itself, all without effecting gameplay at all. About a third of the way into this last play through, I installed the SHTUP (objects) and Rebirth (NPCs) mods. While I won't say they can match the cutting edge graphics you'll find today, they certainly go a very long way toward prettying the game up. And since the game was already rather pretty in the first place, it's pretty much going from "Nice!" to "Spectacular!"

The Sounds
The music soundtrack for SS2 is primarily techno. Cyberpunk, after all, is all about the techno, so there's plenty of high-speed drumbeats and synthesizered sounds to be had. Personally, I love it and have most of the music downloaded to listen to while I'm writing. While playing the game itself, it's particularly fun to zoom through the engineering section to the heartrate-increasing beat jamming out of your computer speakers.

The voice acting is . . . varied. Some of it is absolutely wonderful. SHODAN, of course, is famous for her particular mode of speech as well as the charged dominatrix tones provided by Terri Brosius. XERXES excels with his deadpan deliveries of truly disturbing lines. The Many's mix of various voices is weird and discombobulating, just as it should be. And a number of the folks doing the audio logs are surprisingly good, considering most of them were just plucked from the ranks of the game's developers, programmers, artists, and such. But sadly, some of them sound exactly like they were just plucked from those ranks. Flat lines, cheesy accents, and so on. It's not horrible enough to ruin the game or anything, but it can be a bit distracting at times.

But where the sound really comes together for this game is in the ambient sounds made by the various monsters in the game. It's not just what they're saying (though a lot of the things they're saying are weird as hell), but the fact that you can often hear them but not always see them. Not until they're suddenly all up in your face and trying to tear you a new one, that is. Even for a lot of experienced players - like me - this can lead to a whole lot of "OH GAWD WHERE IS IT WHERE IS IT" and swinging the mouse wildly around in an attempt to find an eliminate the source of the noise. You can hear things on the other sides of walls, floors, and ceilings as well, meaning that even if you can figure out that the tromping and synthesized burbling is coming from the floor above you, you're still going into the situation knowing that you don't know exactly where on the floor above you it is. And in SS2, not knowing can get you murdered horribly.

Perhaps the most disturbing of the monster noises are those made by the protocol droids. Like XERXES, they seem to be under the impression that everything is still just fine, and all they want to do is help you, sir.

The Bottom Line
So I was at a buddy's house one day, and he asked if I had ever played System Shock 2 before. No, I told him, I hadn't even heard of it. So he took me to his computer, installed the game, and then sat me down in front of it. On his way out of the room, he turned off the light.

Approximately six hours later, he stuck his head in the door and asked if I was doing alright. My exact answer was to turn around briefly and drool "buuuuuuuh" before going back to the game. I think he laughed briefly before leaving me to it again.

He knew. The bastard knew what he was doing to me, and he didn't warn me! Well let me warn you, if you haven't played SS2 before: This game lives up to its hype, it is absolutely frickin' awesome, and if you're not careful, it will take over your life for long periods of time. It wasn't until much later that I read this Penny Arcade strip, and I can obviously tell you that it is not in any way an exaggeration. This can actually happen to you. It is that good and that immersive.

After playing it "briefly" the first time, I eventually borrowed the game from my buddy and played through the entire thing a couple of times before giving it back. Then, years later, I managed to find a copy of it just sitting on the shelf at a local used game store for forty bucks. While I did happen to have the money on me at that time, it was supposed to be my food money for the week. I stood there and agonized for several minutes, but in the end I walked away with my very own copy of System Shock 2, and it was totally worth every penny and the near starvation.

Is it the best game ever made? Well, probably not. It does have a few unfortunate downfalls. But it is definitely one of the best ever made, and very high on that list besides. If you don't have it, find it. If you can find it, play it. It doesn't matter how you get it. Buy it, copy it, steal it, whatever you have to do.

System Shock 2 fucking rocks.

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