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System Shock, Looking Glass, 1994

System Shock is one of the all-time classic computer games but it's not an easy game to dabble in. Fans of the game have always been the hardcore players; if you are looking for a game to dig into, System Shock rewards with almost infinite depth. Looking Glass makes no apologies for the steep learning curve, and the way that the game requires a high level of focus is the basis for its innovation and sense of immersion. The game has not been topped since its release, and it's possible that no one even wants to, given current trends towards simplification in games.

The opening cinematic tells the basic story: you are a hacker who has been caught trying to infiltrate the corporate network of TriOptimum. As a deal, a TriOptimum executive gives you the chance to do a job for him back at the corporate space station Citadel that orbits Saturn. Your crimes are expunged from the record and you go under surgery for the implantation of a military-grade neural interface (the second part of the reward).

The game itself begins when you wake up months later. You are onboard Citadel but things have gone horribly wrong, as they tend to do. Your hacking job released the ethical constraints on the AI named Shodan that runs Citadel, and Shodan now has its own malicious plans for humanity. This is one of the most typical plots in science fiction, but Looking Glass makes it work by immersing you completely in the reality of life on a space station. The other key appeal of the game is the antagonist, Shodan, who is a memorable villain. System Shock plays out as an enormous chess game, with the stakes being the future of all life on Earth, each move involving some dastardly plan to foil, and all this accompanied by constant taunting from Shodan herself. Shodan has already killed almost everyone on Citadel, mutating the rest to suit her whims.

System Shock is a first-person shooter with role-playing game elements, but when the game begins, you can adjust the difficulty level of four aspects of play: Combat, Plot, Cyberspace, and Puzzles. This makes the game any number of things: an adventure game with no combat, a pure run-and-gun shooter, or any combination of the above. The somewhat clumsy interface makes combat difficult at times, so this variability is quite helpful. Some of the settings are insane: finishing the game in seven hours is almost definitely impossible, so the highest plot setting should be avoided.

The game gives you a multitude of weapons to play around with. Assassin droids are best countered by an EMP weapon or grenade, while tranquilizer darts work best on mutants. Many of the guns can be modified, or used at different settings. The Sparq-beam, for example, can be set as far as overload; even without overload, you can drain your energy pretty quickly. The military-grade neural interface lays the groundwork for a number of other implants to help the player, such as mapping interfaces and shields. Looking Glass also throws in some conflict in cyberspace: at various points, you have to log in to Citadel's cyberspace to accomplish goals such as unlocking a door. Presented as a simple wire-frame 3D space, cyberspace is guarded by agents of Shodan and sparsely littered with power-ups for your own use. This is yet another layer of complexity to an already complex game!

I love this game for the sense of being there, exploring, and finding out the story of what happened. The game even gives you the freedom to make the wrong choice (such as using the mining laser to fry all of humanity) if you forgot a step in your plan to defeat the evil Shodan. The sense of immersion is further enhanced with the CD-ROM version, which has some excellent voice-casting for the various messages you receive as you play. Looking Glass also put a lot of thought into appropriate design for each different level of the space station.

System Shock was originally released on floppy disk, an indicator of just how old the game is now. Looking Glass later released a CD-ROM version, with voice-acted versions of many of the messages in the game, as well as with higher-resolution graphics. Anyone trying to run the game on today's systems will face a number of obstacles, as happens with getting any DOS program to run on a modern setup (of course, DOS games were hard to get running even back in the DOS days!).

Looking Glass went on to create the first two installments in the highly-regarded Thief series (Thief: The Dark Project and Thief 2: The Metal Age), among other games, before going out of business in 2000. A sequel to System Shock, System Shock 2, was created by Irrational (with Looking Glass in an advisory position) in 1999. The spirit of Looking Glass (and not coincidentally, a number of key designers) has moved to such companies as Irrational (the excellent superhero tactical game Freedom Force), Bethesda (the deep RPG/FPS, Morrowind), and Ion Storm (Deus Ex, and upcoming sequels to Deus Ex and Thief).


First posted: October 14, 1997; Last modified: January 24, 2004

Copyright © 1997-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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