System Shock 2 is a PC game originally released in 1999. It was co-developed by Looking Glass Studios and Irrational Games. The former company would fold less than a year after this game’s release. Fortunately, the latter company remained intact and would go on to develop the BioShock series with many key developers of System Shock 2… and then that company would fold less than a year after the release of BioShock: Infinite and fifteen years after their original collaboration with Looking Glass Studios. Despite not initially making a significant impact in the public eye, System Shock 2 is now touted as one of the most original and scariest games of all time. It’s an impressive pedigree considering that this was only three years after Super Mario 64 was released, a commonly-cited benchmark in the medium’s history due to its pioneering three-dimensional environments and gameplay.
Playing the Game
Defining System Shock 2 using genres is a monumental task. It’s played from the first-person perspective and you are given guns, but it’s not a run-of-the-mill first-person shooter where you just kill everything that’s in your way. It is also a survival horror game, so the player has to manage resources effectively because ammo is somewhat scarce, though mostly on the first few levels. It could also be considered an action-RPG, but you don’t exactly level up. Instead, you’re periodically given cybernetic modules which can improve aspects of your character such as strength or agility. It goes a little further than simple stats though – you can also use them to improve skills such as the ability to hack or obtain new psychic powers. Finally, you’re also allowed to equip armor and implants, the latter of which increases a character attribute as long as they have power. The gameplay is good and a marked improvement over its predecessor, which is borderline unplayable by today’s standards.
The system isn’t flawless, however. The main problem with System Shock 2 as an action-RPG is that it is horribly balanced.
One section of the game requires you to have a point in the “research” skill in order to advance. If you don’t have a point in that skill and are out of modules, the game is unwinnable unless you can find an implant that increases the skill.
The best way to demonstrate the game’s poor balance is to take a look at the weapon skills. The four weapon skills are standard, heavy, energy, and exotic. What you’re not told is that basic weapons, and to a lesser extent, heavy weapons, are by far the most useful and there is no reason to invest points in energy or exotic weapons whatsoever. Energy weapons aren’t useful against organic opponents, as they’re meant to be used on mechanical enemies, and there is one enemy near the end of the game that is completely immune to both them and melee attacks. This means that if your character can only use energy and melee weapons, you cannot complete the game. Exotic weapons have too many disadvantages to even remotely consider using. While they do a lot of damage, they require several points in both “research” and “exotic [weapons]” to even use in the first place. Even worse, ammunition for them is not only rare, but also cannot be bought from the replicators, the machines that function as shops in this game. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the final enemy in the game is immune to exotic weapons, thus cementing the skill as completely useless. Finally, the best heavy weapon is the grenade launcher, which is available as soon as you invest a single point in the skill. This leaves standard weapons as the only truly good weapon skill by virtue of being available right away and there being plentiful, cheap ammo for them. Once you’ve maxed out the skill and gained an assault rifle, you’re prepared for absolutely everything the game can throw at you.
The result of all of this is that the action-RPG aspect of this game, though interesting, ultimately bogs down the experience and there is too great of a chance that an uninformed player will allocate points to skills that end up being useless. A sign of good balance is when different builds merely change the way you approach your problems. A sign of bad balance is when most endgame character builds look similar to each other.
Analyzing the Story
System Shock 2 takes place 42 years after the destruction of Citadel Station, the setting of the original System Shock. You assume the role of a nameless soldier on board a space station trillions of light years away from Earth. The station has been invaded by a mysterious entity and you must survive long enough to rendezvous with your only ally on the ship’s fourth deck.
The story is simple, but presented very well for such an old game. Much like BioShock, which is considered the spiritual successor to System Shock 2, the game proper begins after everything has gone wrong and it’s up to the player to hunt down audio logs to piece together exactly what transpired before the invasion. It’s an effective way of gradually building a story without interacting with other people.
The game does an excellent job integrating story into the gameplay by creating this feeling of fear and isolation that only gets worse (in the good sense) as time goes on. It helps that the enemies are genuinely horrifying, especially if you research them, and the game has a nasty habit of spawning them in areas you’ve cleared and far away from your current location so they can get the jump on you that much more easily. It’s a game that shows without telling and the fact that the game doesn’t wrestle control away from you except for the beginning and the end helps with the immersion process. In this regard, it’s amazing how well the game has held up, even with the outdated graphics.
So for most of the time I played this game, I really liked it… and then I finished it. Considering how many people regard this game as a classic, I find it curious how those same people neglect to mention the ending – probably because it fails on every conceivable level. I’m not exaggerating when I say that System Shock 2 has one of the most infuriating endings I’ve ever seen not only in video games, but in any medium. While the ending doesn’t provide me with enough material to write a whole essay on the subject, it’s bad enough that I am going to explain why it’s horrible in the following paragraph.
|You’ve been aiding an untrustworthy A.I. known as SHODAN throughout the game against another evil entity and the endgame has you confronting the former after she betrays you in one of the few events that could pass as a boss battle in this game. After defeating her, you’re treated to a cutscene featuring a man and a woman who left the station in an escape pod earlier in the game. The man comments that the woman has been acting strangely only for it to be revealed that SHODAN has possessed her. She then presumably kills the other, and goes off to kill the rest of humanity. It is a plot point that SHODAN was trying to gain the power to warp reality, but the idea that she could simply transmute her consciousness over an extremely long distance (the actual speed of the escape pod is up for debate, but it launched long before she gained any reality warping abilities) shattered my suspension of disbelief. At no point was it established that she could physically interact with humans the way she did in the ending, much less have the power to possess anyone. It doesn’t help that the way the ending was written made it feel like less like the villain won through genuine cleverness and careful planning and more like how a sibling or friend yanks the console out of the wall when they’re losing or that kid who plays tag with the old standby of “Tag! You’re it! I quit!” One could say that this was meant to be a sequel hook, but considering that System Shock 3 wouldn’t be announced until well over a decade after the release of its predecessor, I feel my original point stands. It doesn’t help that the ending is incongruous with the tone of the game. It’s like watching a competently-made horror movie only for it to degrade into a cheesy B-movie in the last ten minutes.|
Drawing a Conclusion
With the sheer volume of people who sing praises about System Shock 2, I was disappointed with how flawed the experience ended up being. I know it won’t be a popular opinion, but after having played System Shock 2, I can see why nobody bought it. Some quality games may not sell because they aren’t marketed properly while others may have an off-putting premise. The problem with System Shock 2 is that recommending it to anyone is a nightmare. If you care about story in games, there’s a good chance you’ll hate this game’s ending and think worse of the entire experience upon completing it. If you care more about action than story, you’ll probably find this game to be slow-paced and boring. Like Mother 3, it’s a case study of why developers shouldn’t use up all of their best ideas before the endgame. It’s difficult to explain without context, but the level design took a nosedive in quality about three-quarters of the way through and never recovered. The gameplay itself is good, but poorly balanced and, consequently, has surprisingly little replay value for an action-RPG unless you’re the type who likes to replay games on higher difficulty settings. Luckily, despite this game never getting a sequel, the best ideas of System Shock 2 would end up being implemented more effectively in BioShock and BioShock: Infinite while doing away with the ideas that, though innovative and interesting in theory, held the game back in practice. A lot of System Shock 2 fans argue that those two games are inferior for dumbing down the gameplay in order to reach out to a broader audience. However, there’s a difference between dumbing something down and trimming the fat.
Final Score: 5/10