I played Bioshock. I loved it for its design, story and gameplay. I also played Portal. I loved it for the same reasons, but Glados obviously takes the cake. System Shock 2 is said to feature all of the above and more. Too good to be true? Only one way to find out.
With the game being re-released on Steam recently, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try out one of these PC cult classics released in the 90's and early 2000's.
When starting the game, I'm not greeted with any sort of company logo at all, but instead the main menu shows up immediately. Same goes with the credits which aren't shown at the end of the game, but instead can be viewed from the main menu.
I'm not sure if this is just the case with the Steam re-release, but I like it anyway: We come straight to the point.
After configuring the resolution, mouse sensitivity and controls, I start a new game on Hard mode.
After the intro movie, I'm assuming the role of someone who is about to enlist in the military. The game gives you a gameplay tutorial disguised as a training course – in a virtual environment 80's style. After the training, you have to choose between three careers: Marines, O.S.A and Navy. They each represent the weapons specialist, psychic power specialist and technical specialist respectively.
I chose the Navy/technician because I've always been a sneaky/hacking type of player. I hacked everything, and I mean everything, in both Deus Ex and Human Revolution, and my favorite class in Team Fortress 2 is the Engineer. Heck, my grandfather is an architect/engineer himself, it's in my blood to get technical.
After choosing your career, you're given the choice to train at a specific location for a full year, and you have to do this three times. Each location gives you a different stat increase, allowing you to customize your build a little bit. The stats available are mostly focused on the Technician specification in my case, but a few points in weapons and psionic powers are available as well. The descriptions of the aftermach of these training locations are standard fare, but I found this one particularly interesting:
Your tour of duty at the Io Survival Training Facility has concluded. You managed to survive your year there... barely. The encounter with a descendant of a Citadel Station gorilla/tiger mutant put you in the sick bay for a month. You've learned to respect the wonders of biogenetics and have trained your body to excellent physical condition.
You've learned to respect the wonders of biogenetics – remember that line when playing the game yourself.
After I've finished my education, I'm being brought to the spaceship Von Braun. It is here that the real game starts, and boy does it start with a WHAM!
There are camera monitors showing dead soldiers and people being attacked by monsters. You wake up with your memory partially lost, not knowing what happened in the past few weeks. A voice is contacting you via radio (more like e-mail, but whatever), constantly reminding you that the section of the ship you're in is highly unstable and about to de-pressurize.
The first thing that radio voice will say is “The radar is unstable, take cover!”. A few seconds later, an explosion happens and some debris falls where you were just standing. You pick up a wrench, destroy the debris that is blocking your path, then move forward and witness how the sector gets destroyed. Along the way to safety, you hear someone screaming, someone running away. At first I was like “running away from what?”, then you see a sort of zombie with a shotgun. There also are some huge claw marks on the wall, showing that this is just a teaser of whatever awaits for me in this game.
I eventually reach a save zone with no enemies. You can explore a bit and collect some items. You're also being introduced to the stat and skill point increase system: you have to find items that act as currency for your upgrades.
Unlike Deus Ex which offers a “one point for one level increase” system, here it is an accumulative point system: upgrading something to level 2 only costs about 10 points, whereas an upgrade to level 6 costs about 70. Unless you search in every corner, desk and recycle bin (yes, there even are items in recycle bins), finding enough skill point items is hard.
Further ahead is my first enemy encounter and the only weapon I've got is the wrench. To my surprise, the enemies seem to evade attacks and I need to wait for them to attack me so they stand still. Also, walls and objects can actually block your weapons, same goes for the enemies. This is not a simple “click and do damage” system, you only hit something when you can see your weapon hit the enemy with your own eyes. Not exactly Civalry, but still nice that the hit detection is so realistic. When you want to take out cameras or worms it's bothersome, but otherwise you can evade enemy attacks quite efficiently.
The game shows many similarities to Bioshock: There are datalogs that tell you what happened on the ship and why everything is in chaos. The wrench, skill point system, supernatural powers (plasmids in Bioshock, psionic powers in System Shock 2) and weapon modifications all make a return... or introduction? Whatever.
But what makes System Shock 2 unique, then? I a word: enemies.
It's been a while since I last played Bioshock, but when I remember correctly, once you've taken out an enemy, it won't respawn unless you go to anther area (aka load a new level). But even if they respawn, they rarely will overwhelm you in terms of numbers, or chase you forever.
In System Shock 2, you have to deal with humanoid enemies and robots with a few turrets here and there. They respawn quite fast and will follow you for quite some time until they give up.
And these are just the normal enemies, which can be killed with the wrench or a few bullets if necessary. The really annoying enemies are those that not only chase you thorough the entire level, but can deal quite a bit of damage and cannot be killed with melee attacks, so they waste ammunition all the time.
One such enemy is an android who will self-destruct upon touch and is one of the few enemies that will follow you forever. I had a case where an android followed me through 5 doors – closed doors! (line of sight doesn't apply for this guy apparently). On top of that, the androids talk in a formal, R2D2-like manner. When the last words you hear are “An excellent choice, if I may say so myself”, you know you've been humiliated for good.
In all honestly, I wasn't exactly scared when facing an enemy in Resident Evil. But here, where I basically do a low-health run, these robots mean instant death for me, and I'm constantly at edge because an enemy can show up anytime. Since the in-game inventory menu doesn't pause the game, even checking your items or notes isn't save.
This is the first game in a long time that gives me a feeling of insecurity at all times. I can rarely catch by breath.
I eventually got a grip on the game, however. After Engineering – the game's second big area – I can fight enemies better, and using the wrench most of the time gave me enough bullets to start shooting occasionally.
But then the game throws other types of obstacles at me. Most of the time, the game requires you to search for a keycard or another key item to advance. But then there are these moments when the game requires you to do some research (is a skill in the game) or hacking. What if someone never invested into any of those? The game gives you extra skill points for the research just in case, but for the hacking you're on your own.
Hacking is quite the controversial skill in general: There are so many storage crates and security system panels in the game that it would be quite disadvantageous not to invest a few points into that skill. Since I'm a hacker fan in video games I was good to go, but what if a purely combat-oriented player is confronted with this?
It's not exactly game-breaking, but considering there isn't an alternative for all that hacking, not pointing out that hacking is vital in-game is not exactly fair play.
This brings up the inevitable question: How does this game hold up compared to Deus Ex? After all, the two are both FPS/RPG hybrids with stats, hacking and hubs you can freely explore.
In terms of story and atmosphere, they both succeed in what they're trying to do. Deus Ex is all about conspiracies, changing alliances and cyberpunk, whereas System Shock 2 is all about isolation, survival and sci-fi horror.
In terms of gameplay, only Deus Ex is truly universal and perfectly-balanced. You can be rambo as well as solid snake. You can focus on offensive abilities and weapons as well as stealth and hacking. You can kill everything or just knock them unconscious. You can search for the keycodes or just hack everything that has a chip in it. The game always offers you an alternative, there rarely, if at all, is a point in a game where you are forced to do it the one way.
System Shock 2 is not like that. Hacking issue aside, you have to defend yourself and spend a great deal of skill and stat points into offensive stuff. You can sneak, but not thorough the entire game, and the ending forces you to fight anyway. Alternative ways are rare, although the game does reward you for exploring, just like Deus Ex.
In the end, Deus Ex is closer to an RPG in terms of freedom of choice in gameplay, whereas System Shock 2 is closer to a survival horror game since you have to constantly fight and be aware of your environment.
I'm terribly sorry that I haven't said anything about the story yet, because I can't. Everything in the game is so intense and surprising, spoiling even the smaller things would ruin the first-time experience. I can't even say anything about SHODAN, the famous AI from the game.
What I'll give you instead is some trivia: Doesn't give Kerrigan's face from Heart of the Swarm give you the same impression like SHODAN? See for yourself.