System Shock 2
Proof that we're idiots - No. 5 in a series of 38. When Quake II was thrown at us in a visceral fit of intestines and gore, everyone marvelled at the fact that you could simply 'duck' out of the way of incoming projectiles. "Ooh," we went as a missile flew over our heads and impacted on the wall behind us. An evolutionary moment in the developing history of first-person action games. Except that Looking Glass' seminal System Shock did this five years ago.
This original, cyberpunk-inspired action/RPG was one of the truly great computer games of its time, and it seems amazing that it has taken so long for a sequel to appear.
Getting back to the point, not only could you duck in System Shock, you could also lean around walls, lie down and crawl around on all fours. Meaning the game environment became one of total immersion, a kind that Quake-ers could only dream of. The recently announced sequel retains all these functions, utilising the advanced Dark engine seen recently in Thief. As SS2's lead designer Ken Levine says: "It wouldn't be System Shock without them."
Another gaming holdover that System Shock 2 will reintroduce is the concept of taking an engine and applying proper role-playing elements to it. As Ken says: "In today's game industry there is a lot of pressure to make games dumbed down, with slick visuals and nearly zero gameplay. We don't buy into that logic. The whole concept behind System Shock 2 is to take the engaging, complex gameplay of a fullblown RPG and bring it into an engine with technology for 1999, not 1989."
Thief provides proof that such a design philosophy is more than just empty words, and the concept of believable non-player character AI is to be used throughout the game. Security cameras will again play a large part in the design of the game, with your character having to manipulate their functions in the realms of cyberspace. Other hacking functions give you , access to the 'wandering monster' controls, lowering their respawning levels and the like.
External locations are being eschewed by the designers, not on the grounds of technical limitations, but due to a sense of atmosphere. "We wanted to focus our energies on a game that gives that great System Shock sci-fi horror vibe, and indoor environments suit that better," explains Levine.
There isn't a great deal of information about the storyline at present, although we do know that Shodan, the original game's computer protagonist, will return, and your character will play a role in a large-scale military raiding force.
One curious titbit of information that Looking Glass haven't elaborated on is a quote on their website that compares the System Shock 2 interface to those in Conflict: Freespace and X-Wing Vs TIE Fighter giving rise to speculation of vehicular movement in the game.
In this day and age, the average PC gaming enthusiast demands a lot from his software. Gone are the days when a game's longevity could be measured by the number of 'screens' you could explore; nowadays we expect more depth for our money, more detail, more story, brilliant graphics and amazing sound. And that's without mentioning multiplayer.
System Shock 2 is a fabulous example of a modern-day computer game. Like its prequel, System Shock (first released in 1994), System Shock 2 is an amalgamation of genres. Although the game's designers think of it as a 'hard-core' role-playing game, System Shock 2 is, in truth, a mixture of action and adventure, with serious RPG-related elements keeping the whole thing afloat. As a result of this effective melding of styles, it's one of the most detailed, engrossing, challenging and downright enjoyable 'serious' games ever made.
Without beating around the bush (because there's so much to get through here), System Shock 2 is a sci-fi horror game presented in the first person. The game itself has actually been designed and built around developer Looking Glass' acclaimed Thiev engine (as previously encountered in the game of the same name), and as such brings the wholesome goodness of Thief s excellent control and inventory systems to the world of System Shock.
A crosshair in the middle of the screen shows: a) where your bullets will go if you fire your current weapon by left-clicking your mouse, or b) what you'll pick up or use if you're pointing at it when you right-click your mouse.
You move around using the keys, as in Quake, and other features such as weapons select/reload, maps and inventories are available through a selection of hotkeys. Instead of Thiefs sacks and backpacks though, System Shock 2 is full of Multi Functional Displays (MFDs), Personal Data Assistants (PDAs) and cybernetic implants, all of which pop up on screen Heads Up Display-style when requested.
It's a simple system in practice, and incredibly easy to understand. The flexibility of the interface is actually one of the main reasons why System Shock 2 is such a joy to play, because it never gets in the way of the action and is extremely quick and stable.
Not that you'd realise this to begin with. The sheer depth of System Shock ?s gameplay doesn't immediately become apparent when you first begin the game. Starting out on the doorstep of the local armed forces recruitment centre four years before the main game story even takes place, you are a potential soldier of the future with nothing to your name. No money, no dignity - not even an inventory. So the only thing to do is sign up, have the necessary cybernetic surgery, then wait for the chicks to take notice.
Rather than present the initial character generation' sequence as a series of slick menus, Looking Glass have decided to let you enact this part of the game 'in-engine', as they're now calling it (see Train Me walkthrough below). Basically, what this is supposed to mean is that you get to do all your training yourself, to determine what kind of character you begin the game with. In actual fact, this is only partly the truth because - although after basic training you get to choose four 'tours of duty' relating to a career in either the Marines, the Navy or the OSA (Secret Service), and run down a lot of pretty corridors decked with military regalia - you don't actually get to do the missions themselves, which is a bit of a let-down so early on in the game. Despite this fault, the opening to System Shock 2 is indicative of the game's brilliant sci-fi atmosphere - a mix of 2001, Alien and Starship Troopers with heavy technology overtones - and this carries through to your eventual posting on a star cruiser called the Von Braun.
Those who remember the first System Shock will be familiar with what happens next: suddenly you're woken from cryogenic sleep to find everyone around you murdered. "Did I do this in my sleep?!" you ask yourself. But before you have time to find out for yourself, the game bursts into alarm mode and a voice calls out with the warning: "The compartment is depressurising. Get the hell out of there!" and suddenly you're fighting your way through falling debris and exploding pipes trying to find a way out (while simultaneously filling your pants). Recompense for the earlier false start it most certainly is, and it also sets off System Shock 2 magnificently.
Things do quieten considerably once you make the right airlock - into the Medical Science block. A quick look around unearths a few blood-soaked bodies, a PDA, some crates, some blue consoles on the wall, a door with a keypad, some wall-mounted information consoles, and a lift. The warning voice heard earlier was that of Dr Janice Polito, a Von Braun bigwig who's still alive on the ship and constantly supplies you with sporadic hints and tips via email. She suggests searching the bodies for keycode access numbers: "Go on, don't be squeamish," she says. You don't find any numbers, but you do find Version I Hacking software on one dead guy. If you're not a complete numbskull you'd have probably worked out that this means hacking the nearby door open, therefore revealing its hidden delights.
Hacking plays an important part of System Shock 2 - after all, this is a game about technology of the future. The process itself is fairly simple, and gets easier as you find and add software implant upgrades by plugging them into your skull. To successfully hack a door, a security crate, a vending machine, or anything else for that matter, you must match four white (positive) nodes from a set selection of 14. Some of the nodes are negative (black) - hit too many of these and whatever you were attempting to hack will either break or blow up in your face (nasty). Hacking costs money each and every time you attempt it (the denomination in this game being Nanites), and if you find you're on a losing streak you can hit Reset on the hacking panel and start over.
After breaking the code, you then turn your attention to the blue panels on the side of the wall. These things, called Upgrade Stations, play a vital role in System Shock 2s role-playing system, because they enable you to upgrade your skills in any one of four different areas: Stats (strength, endurance, psionics, agility and cyber), Tech (hack, repair, modify, maintain and research), Combat (standard, heavy, energy and exotic) and Psionics (too many to go into here). To advance a level in any of these disciplines you have to collect and spend Cyber Upgrade Units (CUUs) at the nearest available upgrade station, plenty of which are dotted around the Von Braun.
Depending on your initial choice of career, you'll want to spend your hard-earned CUUs on skills that befit your style of play. Joined the Marines? You'll want to pump as many of your resources into Combat and Stats. In the Navy? Your technical skills should be 'maxed-out' as soon as is humanly possible. Signed up for the OSA? Then pick up a Psi amplifier, plug it into your arm (cool!) and buy as many of the 35 psionic disciplines (read: futuristic magic spells) as you can.
CUUs are pretty scarce initially - they're awarded for achieving difficult tasks, or found lying around in dark, hard-to-find comers - and there can often be a fair bit of soul-searching before spending them. That said, dripping CUUs to you in this way prevents you from advancing too quickly and contributes to System Shock ?s incredibly tense atmosphere - the balance between hard work and reward Is, we think, close to perfect.
Once you've acquainted yourself with these essential gameplay features, it's then off to explore. Up the lift, out the door, and into the face of the nearest monster... Yes, there are lots of hideous creatures patrolling the Von Braun, from mutant hybrid human beings to over-zealous robots with a penchant for combusting in front of your face.
Grunts (humans turned into zombies by a large parasitic worm buried in their heads) patrol the darkened Medical Science corridors crying out chilling one-liners such as: "Kill me!", "You have left us!" and "We remain!" in a wicked Evil Dead/Exorcist, choking-on-your-own-blood kind of manner.
Just like in the original System Shock, security cameras keep watch at key locations on the map and alert nearby monsters to your presence if they catch you. These cameras can be heard when you near them, and you quickly learn that your only concern is to avoid detection. Initially, there are two ways to do this. Firstly, you can twat them with the wrench (if within reach), and this will clear the way. This can be hazardous, because if a camera spots you and sets off the alarm you'll suddenly find yourself besieged by monsters until the alarm is shut off by locating and using the nearest security computer terminal. The second (and safest) method is to successfully hack a security access computer, which will temporarily deactivate all cameras in the area, giving you time and freedom to smash them at your leisure.
The Plot Thickens
Further exploration of Medical Science reveals more of the game's wicker basket plot. Or Polito's emails tell you that the ship's computer, Xerxes, is now in control and that all access to other decks is restricted because the elevators have been shut off. She also explains the use of Quantum Bio Reconstruction Machines (an infrequent feature of the Von Braun, capable of bringing dead humans back to life), and the presence of residual psychic emanations (ie ghosts), which sometimes give you clues as to what you're supposed to be doing. The rest you find out the hard way.
As the plot thickens you begin to fill your inventory with all kinds of techno gadgetry. It's at this point that the true scope of System Shock gameplay becomes apparent. Most items can be used or combined, some even degrade in quality over time and must be periodically maintained or even repaired if broken. Every weapon in System Shock 2 is subject to these rules, and keeping them in tip-top working order is as easy as clicking on a portable maintenance tool (if you can find one) and dropping it on the relevant weapon in your inventory. Most weapons can also be upgraded to hold more ammo, fire at faster rates, use less charge (in the case of energy-based weapons), or dampen the recoil. It's a fascinating combination of features that add even more depth to an already cavernous game, and gun fetishists - not to mention tech groupies - will love it.
Upgrading costs Nanites and carries an element of risk as well. The process is similar to hacking - find four positive nodes, avoid the negative nodes - but fail and you break the weapon. To repair it you have to go through another similar process, but fail that and the weapon may even disappear forever. It's worth the risk, but you've only got yourself to blame if you mess up - which is the beauty of it.
Sound Men Take A Bow
Talking of beauty, we haven't yet had a chance to pause for breath to mention the graphics. As you can see from the screenshots here, System Shock 2 looks shockingly good (Groan - Ed). Looking Glass have managed to squeeze the best out of the latest 3D cards - especially TNT, which looks much better than Voodoo alternatives - and the use of colour, smoke, transparency, translucency, light and dark is nothing short of inspirational.
And stand up Looking Glass' sound designers, because those guys really know how to put the icing on the cake. Not because of the music, which is sparsely implemented (by today's standards), but because of the incredible sound effects that accompany each and every step you take. And no, we're not talking about footsteps here (even though the subtle sound of boot meeting carpet has been expertly captured), we're talking about monsters that groan in the distance and get louder as they near you; the calming sound of the machine that goes 'ping' in the medical wards; the crackle of the Geiger counter; the satisfying thud of dumm dumms hitting monkey torso; the low, vibrating hum of Xerxes, the ship's computer... those kind of things. Combined, they bring the whole environment to life in a way that has never been seen for as long as this reviewer can remember.
The sum of this audio-visual conundrum equals one hell of a gaming atmosphere. System Shock 2 is hardly a'jolly' experience, we must note, and unless you're either a) such a tit that you refuse to be scared, or b) a cabbage, it's pretty much guaranteed that you'll jump out of your skin on more than one occasion - it's that gripping. Man-eating worms leap out at you from of alien eggs (haven't we seen that somewhere before?), hideous spiders drop on your head from above, wandering lab monkeys launch psionic fireballs at you... In fact it's one big, bad, scary jungle out there, if the truth be known, and surviving all the way through to the end is not easy - even on the lower of the four available skill settings.
System Shock 2 is tremendous. It's what the public want - it's a massive, involving experience with one single overriding factor that makes it such an essential purchase, and that's the fact that the game is so addictive that you won't be unable to put it down until you've solved the mystery and completed the game in full. Days will become nights, and nights will become days as you move from one problem to the next, refusing to leave the game alone until you've "cracked this one last puzzle".
If there is a downside, it has to be that there isn't much in the way of character interaction, as was done so well in Half-Life, but that isn't the point - in System Shock 2 you're supposed to be out on your own. It's the idea behind the game: you, by yourself, against not one common enemy, but many.
There are some great surprises and plot twists too, and fans of the original System Shock will be more than satisfied with this sequel after having waited so long for its arrival.
System Shock 2 must rate as having the most suspense ever seen in a computer game. It's almost certainly one of the deepest and most enjoyable role-playing games we've ever played, requiring focus, skill and determination. It's a game you will complete, then play through again: It's nothing short of a classic of its time. Go out and buy it now.
Trapped Inside The Von Draun
Get to know your way around the ship
You're caught up in some god-awful mess on a huge self-contained cruiser out In deep space. Familiarising yourself with the inner workings of this vast structure Is of the utmost importance. Here's a handy cut-out-and keep guide to help you find your way around...
This section of the Van Braun is the first you encounter because the cryogenic unit you arrived in is located here. Weird lab experiments abound.
Engineering is where the reactor core lies, and is therefore a hotbed of radiation. Watch out for the dark, cavernous (and scary) storage bays.
The key to your success lies here. Why? Because this is where all the ship's computers are kept Warning: there's a very high camera density.
If you're bored, why not nip down to Recreation for a quick bet In the casino? On second thoughts, don't - everyone's dead and it's crawling with monsters.
The humid atmosphere of the Von Braun's hydroponics facility is an ideal place to grow organic flesh-eating monsters. Or so it seems.
Download System Shock 2
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features: Single game mode
2018-12-13 System Shock 2 game added.
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