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  All the way back in the dark ages of 1999, Looking Glass Studios released a game called System Shock 2 wherein a plucky voiceless protagonist is led around by the nose by a support character who hates him on a spaceship infested with gross wormy things alternatively trying to eat or mate with him. I have fond memories of System Shock 2, which is why when GoG and Steam released versions earlier this year I was thrilled at the prospect of getting play it all over again. Now, I do still own my original game, but the process to get the disc version up and running on a modern PC is about as painless as jamming a screwdriver through your palm, so this is honestly the best route to go.

  Today I’m doing a kind of retro-review after running through the game again over the course of the last week. Reviewing a decade-plus old game may seem a bit silly, but there is a reason: this is the game that would give rise to Bio Shock and its ilk, all of which have apparently made more money than platinum-plated Jesus. There are also uncanny similarities between System Shock 2 and the preposterously point-missing series of jump-scares that is Dead Space, which some people insist is still a good series despite the fact that the first one was only entertaining because it was basically System Shock: Engineering Edition. Long story short, the question is whether or not SS2 holds up under modern scrutiny. As with all my reviews, if you don’t like spoilers, you are welcome to put your head in a bucket of lice for five minutes before closing your browser and pretending you’re as attractive and smart as the rest of us cool people.

  The very first thing a modern gamer will probably hate are the graphics, which were ugly even by 1999 standards. Luckily, a dedicated modding community has given a lot of the various things found in the game graphical upgrades. An earlier mod did confirm every unpleasant stereotype about gamers and gave a set of female monsters huge and exposed boobies. Luckily, that decision seems to be a running gag in the System Shock 2 community and, as such, a much more appropriate replacement for that particular monster quickly surfaced. The point is that if you want your enemies to not look like wiggly lumps of pink, it would be in your best interest to download some of the updates. In keeping with grand tradition, however, applying the mods is a bit of a chore.

  If you can either mod out the poor graphics or you are a person who sees the depth of character behind a warty exterior, you’re going to find a tremendously rich gaming experience... once you re-map the controls, that is. Despite my flippant rendition of the plot above, the actual story is pretty damn nifty. About a hundred years from now, the spaceship Von Braun is going on its maiden voyage into the cosmos with its brand-new Faster-than-Light Drive. Because the corporate overlords of Von Braun were kind of sort of responsible for the horrible bloodbath on a space station in the first System Shock (that “2” did indeed come from somewhere), the UNN Rickenbacker – a military ship – is sent with them.

  While orbiting Tau Ceti V, they encounter a parasitic species that calls itself “The Many,” a biological hive-mind that seeks to absorb all life or destroy it. It does this by effectively seducing those who come into contact with it and turns them into caretakers (who usually die due to the creatures’ toxicity) or hosts to psychic worm monsters. But the planet that the crew picked up intergalactic herpes from also has another stowaway – a rogue artificial intelligence named SHODAN who was the main murderer in that nasty space-station incident I mentioned a paragraph ago. It turns out that she has selected you to be her vehicle of vengeance against The Many, her rebellious children. Oh, and she isn’t pleased about the fact, reminding you endlessly about how much you suck and how her patience is wearing out.

  In a topic that I will be probably revisiting some day, SHODAN is probably one of the best villains in gaming. Created when a genius (here, genius means “dickhead”) has a hacker remove ethical constraints on a space station’s artificial intelligence, SHODAN is a megalomaniac who firmly believes in her divinity and destiny in ruling Earth. It should come as no surprise that I have a character in my novel about super heroes punching each other that pays homage to her condescending evilness.


I mean, just listen to her. She's amazing.

  I also really enjoy the fact that you have to team up with one big bad to take on another big bad – rightfully, you never fully trust SHODAN, and she has nothing but contempt for you. Regardless, you need each other. And there are some really tremendous moments where you don’t quite know where you stand – are you an irritant, as she always trills in your ear? Or will you become her ultimate avatar, an expression and extension of her divinity? There’s just so many layers of depth to the character and the relationship to the player that it is a topic that just begs to be explored. Why, here’s one you can look at now.

  The story is told in-game through level design as well as the now-ubiquitous audio log, a recording of people just dictating their thoughts like they’re solving a murder in Twin Peaks. Although the voice acting is a little bit wonky at times, the big players are all really good. They also can dramatically pause without using the Resident Evil-esque approach of slathering text files with ellipses, as though people writing stream-of-consciousness reports would naturally do that. It also never breaks the game’s flow, allowing logs to play in the background while you go back to having your testicles chewed off by a glistening abomination.

SS2 Blood
The text-based stuff is surprisingly brief, for some odd reason.

  The game is an action-RPG, allowing individual players to approach it with their own style. There are three different careers – marine, navy tech, and psy-op – and whichever path you choose will effect your starting stats and not much else. Every single path has access to the same stats and gear as the others, but your initial choices will put you on a path to unlocking the high-end gear specific to the marine or psychic. The jack-of-all-trades navy tech gets to enjoy not being locked out of every goddamn thing with an emphasis on hacking and repair while maintaining enough presence of mind to be able to use a pistol without blowing a hole in his foot.

  Something which may put some players off is the difficultly curve. Standard long-range weapons (especially the wonderfully useless shotgun) degrade at a nauseatingly fast pace and, until you get the assault rifle, never quite have the punch you want them to. Enemies are typically much stronger than you are and the lower-end healing equipment is pretty terrible. At the same time, however, there are “resurrection booths” on most decks of the Von Braun which take a lot of sting out of being blind-sided by aberrations. And if there is indeed a section that is giving you a problem, I think you can actually adjust the difficulty at any time. It may seem like cheating to some, but it’s there for a reason.

  I’ve also heard stories of people sinking a lot of their upgrade points into skills that ultimately left them screwed at the end of the game. I’ve never really had that problem. In my last playthrough, I had maxed out two of my stats and still had enough for high points in most of the others. Granted, I also didn’t unlock any psychic abilities, because it was much too rewarding braining things with blunt objects to go and rely on my brain for anything. And even if you were dedicated to screwing yourself over by taking every available point in self-mutilation, there’s still plenty of boosts and temporary buffs available that you should be able to squeeze by any problematic sections. The only skill that you should spend lots of points on would be “Hack,” if for no other reason than because you’re on a spaceship and I want to do sci-fi spaceship-y things, damn it.

  And it’s quite the spaceship. Unlike the rusty halls of Dead Space’s starship, the USS Buffet Table or whatever, the Von Braun is set up like it was actually designed for people to use and live in. This makes the fact that there plenty of blood on and bullet holes in the walls all the more unsettling – because places like this shouldn’t be spattered with gore. And, although there are some silly instances of level design (I feel bad for the engineer who drew the short straw and has an emergency access ladder in the middle of his bedroom), the ship is laid out pretty logically.

SS2 Bunk
I imagine the blood stain is actually just from the poor shmuck getting skewered by the ladder rather than the Many.

It didn’t really have the problem of, say, Resident Evil, where everything is just a series of hallways and no bathrooms. The Von Braun seems to have a purpose which, ultimately, is a bit of a problem when it comes to some logistics – unless the crew is sharing their bunks (which, hey, more power to them), the number of actual quarters is fairly low for both a science vessel and the pure number of former crewmen I’ve brained with a wrench. But that’s fairly nitpicky.

  What isn’t nitpicky, however, is when you travel to the Rickenbacker. The level design here is pretty dull and atrocious, made all the worse by your mini-map deciding to fritz out. After fighting your way through the Von Braun’s varied interiors, all the Rickenbacker throws at you is a series of tunnels, some jumping puzzles, and an inverted church. I realize it’s a military ship, but it just lacks the punch of the earlier levels. Even when you end up in the squishy, hard-to-navigate body of the Many, it’s different enough to be engaging in a way that the Rickenbacker isn’t.

  As its core theme, we have horror. And a horror game survives on its atmosphere, which System Shock 2 has in spades. For all the variation of the Von Braun, the sense that it is distressingly underpopulated by non-cannibals makes you feel effectively lonely. Everything is against you – The Many’s various human hybrids and generic squiggly things are not particularly fond of anything you-shaped, the ship’s main computer and all of its security is controlled by the hive-mind, and C-3PO’s more competent cousins have been converted into suicide bombers.

SS2 Protocol
They are going to serve you drinks... in hell!

Even wielding a weapon on the verge of a jam is alternatively exhilarating and terrifying depending on how many things want to play with your kidneys at the moment.

  There’s also fucking spiders which poison you, and despite apparently being better at killing them than I was ten years ago, my feelings on goddamn spiders in video games is fairly well-documented.

  So we go back to that original question: is the game worthwhile to the modern gamer? The long and short of it is that System Shock 2 is fun. In this world of cover-based shooting gallery bullshit, nothing (not even if you were to keep the eye-searingly bad graphics) diminishes that reality. Hiding from security, hacking turrets to do your dirty work, running from a horde of grenade-throwing hybrids while a bunch of overly cheerful protocol droids intone their willingness to “help” you...

... Listening to the tale of two star-crossed lovers as they attempt to escape the Many and the civil war breaking out on the ships, all while being heckled by one of gaming’s greatest villains is something no serious gamer can miss. I would happily throw this into the “games as art” category, as it competently weaves story, atmosphere, and interactivity in a way which creates a cohesive and powerful narrative.

  And I’m hoping this is popular enough to warrant, not a sequel, but a reboot of the original. The original game, for all of SS2's difficulties in getting to run, is a somewhat legendary prima donna, although there is System Shock Portable, which I may end up giving a try. In any case, reboot that with SS2's level of depth and an emphasis on story, and I would buy that so hard the company would be picking money out of its teeth for years to come.

Purchase Project Northwoods at Amazon.com.   Purchase Washed Hands at Amazon.com   Purchase Improbables at Amazon.com.

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