System Shock 2 – PC
Developer(s): Irrational Games, Looking Glass Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: August 11, 1999
Nerd Rating: 10 out of 10
In the realm of horror games, there is a title that stands above and continues to terrify even to this day, looming like a baleful monolith over the entire industry. System Shock 2 came out in 1999 to a low number of sales, but was hailed as a cult classic by those fortunate enough to play it, and now that it’s been unearthed on Steam, a whole new audience is rediscovering this once-lost treasure. Its masterful execution of its atmosphere and groundbreaking plot gave birth to whole new conventions of terror, while its gameplay style became a model to be imitated by modern titles, such as Bioshock, Dead Space, and even Portal. And yet, despite the extraordinary success of its descendants, none of its many children has yet been able to match the true horror that System Shock 2 injects into your very veins. Are you afraid? What is it you fear? Let’s find out as we take our first steps into the foreboding corridors and brace ourselves for the nightmare…
System Shock 2 opens on the Von Braun, a Tri-Optimum corporation research vessel sent on a mission of exploration in the unknown reaches of space. You wake up from stasis to find its crew dead in some places and mutated in others, turning them into hideous alien hybrids that pursue you relentlessly through the bloodstained halls. The ship’s AI has been corrupted by an unknown source and even the Von Braun’s robot population is out to get you. The only voice you can trust belongs to Polito, a survivor holed up on one of the upper decks who wants to help you fight back against these creatures. As you proceed through the decks, however, your mission of locating survivors and finding a way to escape the doomed vessel gives way to a greater priority. The rising action of System Shock 2 has you caught in a power struggle between The Many, a genetically-engineered race of revolting bio-organisms bent on consuming all life in the universe, and SHODAN, the malevolent and insane machine-goddess that created them, with the very fate of humanity hanging in the balance. The cybernetic enhancements that you’ve been fitted with afford you one chance to put an end to this madness, once and for all.
The gameplay of System Shock 2 is an intriguing mix, with its base in a first-person shooter and roleplaying elements being added in the form of your character’s cybernetic upgrades. Your character-building choices ultimately dictate your chances of survival, beginning with your basic training and four years (time-lapsed) on other military assignments to fine-hone your skills before you’re assigned to the Von Braun. You can elect to be a marine with heavy weapon expertise and strength, a navy technician with hacking and computer savvy, or even a psychic black-ops trooper with the ability to augment the world with the power of his mind. These choices and the way you go about building up their strengths over the course of your mission, offer System Shock 2 a level of replayability that both heightens the experience and sharpens the terror. As someone who’s first playthrough ended in the darkest bowels of the ship when they ran out of psychic energy and hadn’t invested in any backup weapons, I can say for certain that if you don’t choose your talents carefully, the game will make you suffer for it.
One of the first things to note, and probably one of the most important, is the way System Shock 2 handles its inventory system. Much like today’s Dead Space, you utilize it in real-time, meaning that if you choose a poor time to switch out weapons or sort your limited ammunition, you could find your heart jumping in your throat because an alien hybrid walked up to you while you were distracted. Some may see this as a design flaw, but I don’t believe so, because if you could pause and take yourself out of the experience simply by going to the inventory screen, you would have an easy way out of the shock value, which would cheapen the whole experience. Another source of intentional terror by design is that every weapon has a condition value that decreases with the weapon’s use, meaning that if you don’t keep your equipment maintained in System Shock 2, your guns can jam and break, leaving you up the creek as you have to suddenly back away from the doggedly-pursuing aliens and frantically dig in your inventory for a backup weapon that you likely didn’t end up having the space for. Don’t laugh, it’s a more common possibility than you think.
What System Shock 2 delivers more than anything else is atmospheric terror, the creeping dread that crawls into your bones and chills you in a way that keeps you from going to sleep for fear of waking up. The game uses the Dark Engine that Looking Glass Studios used for their Thief series, which is a series that already turns sound itself into a source of gripping terror, as every loud footfall could give you away and get you killed. On top of this, all of the decks of the Von Braun have what’s called environmental persistence, which means that you will never be truly safe on any of them, as enemies will appear in areas you’ve already been before to surprise you when you’re backtracking System Shock 2‘s earlier decks or simply trying to hide in some hopefully-forgotten room until the monsters go away. Add these factors to every scene of carnage and death, every blood-painted message on the wall, every creepy audio log, and every haunting ghostly vision that materializes before you, and the ambiance alone becomes tailor-made to haunt your nightmares with the knowledge that someone is trapped aboard a ghost ship with no hope of escape: You.
When it comes to horror games, the sound and music needs to be on point, and System Shock 2 doesn’t hold back. All of the creatures on board the Von Braun have their own variety of unsettling groans and phrases, with the mutated hybrids being a very good example of how the game uses their ambient sounds to full effect. The hybrids are barely conscious of their actions, resulting in a very disturbing dissonance as they lurch toward you with lead pipes while moaning for you to run away. The voice acting in the major roles is also very well done, with the most standout performance undoubtedly belonging to SHODAN herself, as her voice is patchwork and erratic while still commanding, striking chords of divinity and disharmony in the same breath. It’s not necessarily top-notch all around the table, of course, especially since the developers of System Shock 2 lent their voices to plenty of the audio logs, but the lack of experience lends a degree of realism that I think rehearsed and meticulous performances actually tend to miss, such as in the Bioshock games. The Von Braun is a research vessel, not a wandering troupe of thespians, so hearing perfectly-read lines would disturb me, and not the way that the makers had intended.
As for the music of System Shock 2, it’s tailor-made to wind you up tighter than a piano string, so that even seeing something come into view down the hall can make you snap. The Med-Sci deck immediately immerses you into the tension with a fast-paced techno mix that will keep you alert and your nerves electrified, a great introduction to the Von Braun. But the Recreation deck is another beast altogether, flooding your mind with inhuman echoes and wandering alien pulses, making you feel like the back of your brain is unscrewing and letting the empty void leak into the space behind your eyes. Of course, there are moments in some game where having no music at all can stand out a lot more than any track could manage, and System Shock 2 has a couple of areas that fit the bill. Trust me, if I was scared of the music the first time around, imagine how I felt when it wasn’t following me anymore. It takes true talent to make you feel like even the soundtrack has abandoned you to your fate, and I know that’s what I felt when I first played it…
In summary, if this is the only game in existence that I ever consider giving a perfect ten to, I won’t be surprised. System Shock 2 is a masterpiece, and if perfection is when there is nothing left to take away, then this game deserves that description. Every element is a thread in a finely-woven tapestry that creates one of the most immersive survival horror experiences to ever grace the video game medium, if not the most immersive, period. It’s not just a story, and it’s not just art; System Shock 2 is an experience that every gamer owes it to themselves to witness. Setting out on your first playthrough, unspoiled and unassisted, will change the way you look at the entire survival horror genre and leave you enlightened, rising from the baptismal pool of your own terror sweat with a new appreciation for what the game does and what it’s inspired since its creation in 1999. I’m willing to stake my reputation on it being one of the best games ever made…and I’m certain that, when you understand my viewpoint, you will be but one of Many…
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