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System Shock 2, Irrational/Looking Glass, 1999

One of the most hotly debated points in the field of computer games is originality. Gaming is a business after all, and the truism seems to be that originality is a wet blanket, something to be avoided at all costs. But the point lost on such marketing attempts is that somehow, somewhere, the breakthrough must be made. We need clones to make money, but clones of what? The subgenre of first person shooters (FPS) is an intense microcosm of this process. I admit that I often like to play the same thing, an example being my recent yearning to play a good FPS (and interesting that the experience of playing Half-Life, which I hated at the time, now seems like nostalgia). System Shock 2 has been in my expectations for many years, a gap of five years between the two actually. The original System Shock was an odd bird for the time, arriving as it did in the shadow of Doom. Doom became the focus of many cloning attempts in the subsequent years, and only recently has System Shock been imitated. System Shock 2 heralds a name brand return to form, but in fact, I would say that there's little in the way of connection between the two games, in terms of feel. Irrational has done a stunning job on System Shock 2 and it's the first step in the direction that I want to see games go. The game has an intelligent context, with clear goals and yet still flexibility for gamers to do what they want to do. Unfortunately, this particular game might be a bit too much of a role-playing game (RPG), and thus my yearning for a standard FPS (more on this in a minute). System Shock 2 makes the numbers that run everything a bit too blatant, and uses a cybernetic interface as the excuse. Unlike other RPGs, System Shock 2 has little to nothing in the way of interaction between characters.

Of course, System Shock 2 capitalizes on this in terms of story. Everyone is dead... or mutated in horrible forms that don't want to talk to you, and generally only want to kill you. Pretty scary stuff, and especially when your character is weak and doesn't know much, as at the beginning of the game. The atmosphere of System Shock 2 might even be too intense; I know that it was too much for several people. I myself found System Shock 2 incredibly scary, but not so much as something like Aliens Vs. Predator (I couldn't play AvP for any more than 5 to 10 minutes, for any of the species, so I suspect I won't be reviewing it). Part of this aura of fear that Irrational creates is generated by the architecture of the spaceship, and how the spaceship has been lost to the forces of madness and violence. Yes, in one sense System Shock 2 is a corridor shooter, just like the bad old days. But the claustrophobia and the loneliness here are deliberately played on, and become part of the game and the story.

You wake up onboard the Von Braun, an experimental FTL spaceship that has encountered some difficulty. All you find around you are dead bodies, but there is a voice of a friendly human who is telling you what to do. In circumstances like this, you follow what sounds like good advice. But something bad has happened, to both the Von Braun and the military ship UNN Rickenbacker which is piggybacking with the Von Braun. The character that you play remains a cipher, but everyone else here is developed in depth. Some familiar names from the first game re-appear, Diego for example, and dare I say... Shodan.

You gradually explore the decks of the Von Braun, gaining more items and more cybernetic modules. The prologue of the game forced a choice between careers in Navy, OSA, and Marines (hacking, psi, and weapons respectively), but in the course of the game generally forces you to be a generalist, with a very few specializations in the weapons or powers that are most useful. The Von Braun comes alive through emails and messages, and in a neat turn of events, ghostly recreations of scenes from the past, rare but always spooky. The inventory focus of the game sometimes gets in the way of the good stuff, namely the wonderfully labyrinthine plot and the jump-out-of-your-seat moments liberally arranged throughout.

System Shock 2 is incredibly complex but Irrational has provided a beautiful interface. Movement is handled with the standard FPS controls, but at one press of the TAB key, you're in the standard RPG inventory mode, where your mouse lets you select items and manipulate them. I am really wowed by how much work Irrational must have put into this, and the hard work paid off because it's easy to sit down to start playing. An intuitive interface is the most difficult kind to create, so kudos for that achievement.

The game has a few bugs, so it's worth the time to download the patch that Irrational has provided. I was unlucky enough to run into the show-stopping bug at the end (the three floating stars one) before knowing that it was a bug. Very frustrating. The patch apparently adds the ability to play the game in cooperative multiplayer mode, which I have not yet tried. Having played all the way through I'm not sure that I would want to try playing again, even without another character, which is the illusion offered by the three career paths. The hard-core psi character might be fun to play in collaboration with someone who had hacking/fighting skills.

I definitely enjoyed this game and it might be equal to my expectations. But I did find the RPG elements to be quite frustrating. This is partly a holdover from the FPS tradition of carrying literally tons of ammo for massive guns, all of which you can use immediately. I suppose this frustration is the exact feeling that Irrational wanted me to experience. But I have a mixed response to that way of motivating the gamer to play, and I'll see what happens when I go back to play as a Psi character. I have yet to replay the game actually, as I don't know how much it will give me. It some ways, it seems System Shock 2 is using an opposing design philosophy to the Thief series. Here, as in most RPGs, you have to make tough decisions, and you can feel left out of the more exciting elements (i.e., the more advanced weapons, the more advanced hacking powers, and so forth), but in Thief one element was the solitary focus of the game, and you certainly had to make the best and fullest use of it. If I did put in the effort to replay System Shock 2 as a different character, would it be worth my while? Games in the Thief series are a known quantity when it comes to replay, and that's not something I mind.

Last modified: September 4, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (

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