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System Shock 2: Looking back on the game that inspired BioShock

One of the most influential first-person adventure games recently came to GOG.com, making it more affordable and accessible than ever before. Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios released System Shock 2 in 1999, but it would go on to inspire BioShock (also made by designer Ken Levine and Irrational) and titles like Dead Space and Mass Effect by intelligently blending first-person shooter and role-playing game elements.

To understand what makes it so impressive, you have to look at its depth, narrative design and atmosphere. System Shock 2 provides an example of emergent gameplay, where the player’s unique interactions lead to unexpected scenarios and solutions. Think of it a bit like how SHODAN, the female artificial intelligence (much like GLaDOS from Portal) trying to take over the Van Braun and Rickenbacker, adapts to the threats to her dominance while also circumventing your attempts at rebellion. She’s not always working against you but instead calculating what would best serve her needs at the given time.

The way players react and choose to play — excelling either as a hacker, combat specialist or psionic expert — shapes the experience, and what’s left over leaves room for creativity and experimentation on the monster-infested ships. You can master any combination of weapons and techniques (I beat the game using only a wrench, pistol, shotgun and the Crystal Shard; I didn’t even bother with psi abilities) and find different ways to approach obstacles and manage resources.

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Sometimes this depth can produce dangerous complications. This is a horror game, and it’s intensely challenging even on the default Normal setting. Players must survive, and much of that perseverance involves quick-saving and loading from multiple back-up files. Health, ammo types, nanites (the in-game currency for hacking, resurrection from death, healing and purchasing items), cybernetic modules (which unlock upgrades) and other valuable assets are scarce. Weapons wear down, jam and break. Enemies respawn. Radiation and toxic poisoning are frequent maladies that require special remedies to cure. A million things can go wrong, so every decision is precious.

That makes for tedious and stressful — albeit highly rewarding — gameplay, where acceptable progress can be slow as players repeat minutes of play for near perfection. At any moment, you could hypothetically face an unwinnable scenario that no amount of backtracking could correct. A constant feeling of tension underscores the whole 10-15 hour game. It’s a testament to how well-designed it is that the possibility never comes to pass.

For me, that breaking point almost happened in the penultimate fight. System Shock 2 invests more in enemy encounters than bosses, so no previous experience prepared me for the challenge. Online strategies advised me to use invisibility, but I had ignored psionics for most of the game. I had specialized in other areas and employed practical tactics to help me along. I almost gave up, convinced that success was impossible. I couldn’t last two seconds on this alien battlefield, let alone the minutes I needed to complete the necessary tasks.

So I devised my own Hail Mary and made it through alive.

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I was lucky, though. Players can enter any game knowing survival basics — the importance of conserving health and ammunition for the final hours — but System Shock 2 pulls a few twists that may easily blindside them. That fight was one of them; another was what happened afterward, where a few seemingly useless items I had stored for no particular reason proved to be my enemy’s undoing and my triumph.

Eventually, you figure out how to respond to the game’s difficulties and think ahead. Players are dumped into this world with barely any idea of how to operate within it. The first few hours are daunting, allotting barely enough resources to endure, and it’s easy to feel several steps behind. Soon, determining what’s valuable and what’s not becomes clearer. The first time through, you realize it’s better to work with your strengths — what comes most easily and the path you’ve perhaps inadvertently chosen — rather than strive for total mastery. You start distributing stats more effectively, cope with enemies and danger more strategically and gain insight into what could lie ahead and how to plan for it.

Few games achieve that kind of organic learning curve. The story develops just as naturally through audio logs, transmitted messages and occasionally, apparitions. You hear the crew’s last thoughts and find them dead, the cause observable in their surroundings. They speak of betrayals, terrible discoveries and horrors you pray you won’t have to see as they record their plans for desperate actions. They change into something less than human, turn against or murder their colleagues, lose or die, admit mistakes and failure and very rarely, enjoy small victories.

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That’s part of what makes System Shock 2 frightening, but it isn’t an over-the-top breed of horror. Many of the enemies, like spiders that inflict poison with one hit and monkeys that can shoot psionic energy blasts, are so overused that they're more annoying than scary. Instead, the environment fosters fear. Hope of locating fellow survivors grows dimmer as you happen upon countless bodies and lose the opportunity to connect with those who tried to establish contact.

Then there are the little idiosyncrasies, like when self-destructive protocol droids spot players from afar and wave — or when doors whoosh open and shut, but an extra, telltale sound could indicate that something else is following and has activated the door.

Like with most of the enemies, you can always hear the droids often before you see them. Even when you’re alone, a new threat is never far off.

The detail and depth that went into System Shock 2 makes it endlessly immersive. With a practical interface, fully customizable controls, tons of leeway in play style and seemingly limitless possibilities, it’s one of the most enjoyable games you’ll have the pleasure of playing on PC.

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Tags: GOG.com, System Shock 2, Looking Glass Studios, Irrational Games, Night Dive Studios

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