I’ve been through basic and advanced training, spent my first few years doing tours of duty on IO and various other postings to beef up my technical and weapons skills, with a jot of psionics thrown in for good measure, and I’m a tough S.O.B. I’ve even been here, in this very situation before in another life but, wrench in hand, sirens warning of impending decompression, and with orders being barked at me, I still feel a shudder run down my spine as I step forth into the blood-stained corridors of the Von Braun.
It’s one of the most memorable game intros of all time for me, and what begins with a Informational intro video, ending with a chilling, interference-laced distress call, soon moves from the quiet calm of your formative, military years to the daunting and downright unnerving battle for survival on mankind’s very first faster than light vessel, the Von Braun, a ship that’s hit a lot more than an ice berg. Now overrun by strange, alien-human hybrids, you’re, seemingly, one of the last few survivors, trapped light years from home.
It’s a classic sci-fi horror setup, and Hollywood has seen its fair share of similar stories, many of which System Shock borrows directly from. But, with the then-unique blend of RPG, FPS and adventure, System Shock 2 was, and still is, far more immersive than even the best Hollywood offering.
The age old horror setup of isolation, constant, oppressive threat and the struggle to survive makes for an all-time classic video game, one that people can now enjoy again without having to dig out an old PC with a copy of Windows 98. And, you know what? It’s every bit as good now as it was back then. This is one of the finest examples of a title that’s aged, unlike the many weapons you use in the game, like a fine wine. Sure, visually, without the various mods that can address the issue, it looks very dated, but visuals are just a tiny part of what makes System Shock 2 so damn good.
What’s far more important here is the writing, and the pacing of the story. Rather than be assaulted with a tome of back story and readily spoon fed the game’s lore, you discover about the game’s universe, characters and events leading up to the Von Braun’s predicament by finding recordings from the crew strewn around the vessel. These excellently voiced recordings vary from mundane ship operation reports, to chilling last words of the now departed and disturbing confessions of those that have succumbed to the alien influence. The autopsy recording you find early on in the game is one of the best story mechanisms I’ve seen, and is a little bit of genius in a game packed with other such gems.
It’s this highly interactive way of telling the story that makes System Shock 2’s events so immersive. With each new area of the ship you explore you find more pieces of the puzzle, and uncover the true events of the ship’s mission. And, given that you wake up on the ship after a cryostasis ‘accident’ leaves you with no recollection of recent events, this makes for a totally all-consuming experience. It’s been replicated in other games since, but none have quite managed to best System Shock 2, not even BioShock, which did a great job all the same.
And, without spoiling the story for those yet to try it, the game’s major plot twist is superb, and is a story element not only in gaming, but in entertainment as a whole, I’ll never forget.
Alongside this deep story and thick atmosphere, SS2 also packs in some truly excellent gameplay. Unlike BioShock, which had a distinct lean towards action, System Shock 2 straddles the line between stealth, action and survival perfectly. It’s a game that gives you options, and lets you play as you like, never really forcing your hand. Even the game’s last boss can be handled in different ways, unlike BioShock’s anticlimactic final confrontation.
One of the elements of System Shock 2 I like the most, however, is the kind of survival horror gameplay that seems to be facing extinction at the moment. Early on in the story, you really do value each and every bullet you find, to the point that you pick up every broken shotgun, just to empty it of any shells before throwing the useless rifle away. You scour every container and corpse and the relief you experience when you find an energy recharge station that can breathe life into your empty laser pistol and stat-boosting implants is palpable.
Of course, combat, and managing the resources isn’t the only concern, but making the most of your other skills and abilities to survive are also at the forefront. Hacking door locks, avoiding and dealing with security cameras, fixing and modifying guns and enhancing your abilities and available skills all contribute to a deep and rewarding survival title, where the emphasis is heavily on the effort to survive.
And the game makes this no more apparent than when it’s throwing its cast of freakish foes at you, arguably with none more disturbing than the midwives, whose tremble-inducing biomechanical voices ring down dark corridors as they look after their ‘babies’. Trust me, the distinctive whine of their voice boxes coming from an as yet unknown position will be one of the scariest moments you’ll experience in gaming.
Even the hybrids, the grunts of the game, are unsettling enough, with their cries of “I’m sorry!” and “Kill meeee!” as they relentlessly try to cave your head in with pipes or blast you with shotguns. Even when they’re unaware of you, they’re creepy enough, chanting “We are, we are, we are, we are” over and over.
It’s a delicious mix of action and horror, and it’s handled so well it’s a game that stays with you long after you finish it. And, with the three available professions, and wide-open skill levelling system, it’s a game that begs to be played again and again. This is something that most will certainly do.
After completing the game over ten times, I can positively say that, with the exception of Deus Ex, I’ve played and completed few titles as many times as System Shock 2, and now that I can finally play it again without having to jury rig a PC to run it, I’ll play it a whole lot more. I strongly recommend you do the same, and now that it’s a mere $9.99 on gog.com, and works on all modern system, there’s no reason at all not to give it a go, and to challenge a perfect, immortal machine.