Blurring the Line: System Shock 2

Let us take a long look at an oft-mentioned classic, the FPS/RPG hybrid that would inspire the recent hit Bioshock, and the not-so-recent hit Deus Ex.

System Shock 2 is hailed by many as innovative and atmospheric, with gameplay that encourages multiple playthroughs to appreciate the breadth of the options it gives the player. Start to finish, it delivers an experience unlike any of its contemporaries, and it has decisively earned its praise throughout the years. And yet, it is not a simple matter to explain what makes the game great, for it succeeds despite some rather glaring problems that would be hard to forgive normally.

For those unfamiliar with System Shock 1, fear not. All you really need to know is explained in the game’s introduction: in the not-too-distant future, the rogue AI SHODAN attempted to destroy Earth from her ‘home’ on Citadel Station, but was taken out by the hacker that created her. Obviously, this will in no way impact the course of the story to come. Nevermind that it’s her face on the front of the box, her face on the CD, and her voice you first hear during the intro video. Absolutely irrelevant, all of it.

Anyway, the story is as follows: mankind is launching a historic mission into space with a ship capable of faster-than-light travel. You, a nameless military grunt, wake up from cryo-stasis to find the ship, the Von Braun, has been hijacked by… things. Parasitic aliens have infected most of the crew, turning them into semi-mindless killing machines, and the ship’s security systems have been turned on the few survivors. One of the survivors apprises you via e-mail of the situation, explaining you volunteered to have experimental implant surgery to give you a fighting chance against the aliens.

Shoot him in the head!  Shoot him!  Grab the shotgun!

Bearing in mind that the game is around eight years old, it can’t be fairly compared to more recent shooters. Nevertheless, the game is not going to impress solely through its visuals. Objects are short on detail, textures are low-resolution, and creatures tend to have an angular, boxy look to them. Animation, particularly creature movement, looks jerky and unconvincing, and there are clipping issues in the game’s many narrow corridors. This is concealed aptly in some of the sci-fi trappings, such as the aliens and the futuristic weapons, but there’s simply no getting around the game’s dated look. Environments are logical in their construction and generally easy on the eyes, ranging from crew quarters, engineering bays, medical labs and recreational areas, but grow less interesting as you proceed.

The sound has a few aces up its sleeve, with convincing acting and good effects work. The ship’s many inhabitants, human and otherwise, are mostly well acted, with only a few truly weak or mediocre performances. Sound effects are of consistent quality, with satisfying booms and cracks for the weapons and fitting audio for the monsters; infected humans groan, growl and mutter their half-nonsense, parasites skitter and screech, robots whirr, whine and relay information to central control. The music, conversely, is hit-or-miss, consisting largely of uptempo drum-and-bass beats and subdued techno. Sometimes it works, with the MedSci area and the start of the Command deck, but it tends to stay in the background where present at all; some areas rely on slower, more ominous industrial and alien noises, and usually for the better.

As for the gameplay, the reason this game blurs the line at all is its vaunted character-building system. Through the use of cyber modules, your character can upgrade base statistics (strength, agility, psi ability, etc), train in weapons or technical skills, and even learn psionic powers. This lends the player a great deal of flexibility in how they play, though there are some glaring issues. Put simply, some skills are essential, while others are nearly worthless; maintenance is king due to the speed with which weapons degrade, while there are enough auto-repair and auto-modification devices to make repair and modify largely useless. The standard weapons category reigns supreme due to the deadly assault rifle, while energy-based and alien weapons require considerable more effort and discretion to use, and are far less versatile. Even the game’s psionic powers are largely underwhelming, with only a handful genuinely useful ones; due to the lack of a competent physics engine, Telekinesis, for instance, is used solely to pick up items out of your reach, and some of those can be dislodged by gunfire or reached by other means.

So there are flaws here, make no mistake. But to focus on them, to dismiss the game because of them, is to miss the point. At every step of the way, the game succeeds because of its attention to atmosphere and versatile gameplay.

'Looks dangerous,' says the guy with a psi-ball hooked up to his *wrist*.

The control scheme, which is your basic first-person shooter layout (WASD+mouselook), is explained to you in the game’s prologue, wherein the character enters a military recruitment center and opts for virtual training in movement, interaction and combat. The interface generally works well, with easy-to-reach hotkeys for switching weapons, reloading, calling up your inventory and using/picking up items, and any player familiar with the genre staples should ease into the game with little difficulty. Following this training, which is thankfully optional, you are prompted to pick a branch of service: marines, navy, or the OSA (psionics). Each offers three one-year tours of duty, each of which determines what stat and skill bonuses you start the game with. On the default difficulty setting there are enough modules to allow any member of any branch to learn several skills, but on hard or higher players will have to specialize.

While the environments are far from cutting-edge in the graphics department, the set design goes a long way in suggesting to the player what has happened. Busted machinery and exposed wiring litter the ship, while radiation plagues the engineering deck. A pile of bodies, broken weapons and spent shell casings speak of a last stand, and a strange, living mass on the walls suggest the extent to which the xenos have infected the ship. Doors have malfunctioned, and nanite-based replicators (the game’s shops, which use nanites as currency) are occasionally knocked over, broken or shorted out. Internal water reservoirs have broken and some parts of the ship are flooded, and some halls have collapsed entirely. Within your own inventory, there is rich detail to be found, as everything you pick up can be examined for more information; learn how mankind still hasn’t conclusively proven that smoking causes cancer by analyzing a pack of cigarettes, or how that battery you’re lugging around was recalled by the maker just before the Von Braun left Earth.

Back to the sounds for a moment. It’s enough that the voices are quality, but the sound team went the extra mile in their production. The logfiles and emails left behind by the crew tell their accounts of the last few days, of the ship’s many problems during its voyage and of their encounter with the aliens; their words are scared and frustrated, greedy and opportunistic, stern and inhuman. Even the enemies you face are unique in the sound department, with infected crew muttering to themselves about ‘the harmony’ and how your ‘song’ is not theirs; “Kill me!” screams one as you open fire, as he himself tries to bludgeon you with a pipe. Protocol droids call to you pleasantly, offering to help even as they approach you with suicidal intent. Meanwhile, half-human, half-mechanical midwives tend to alien eggs and tell you how “it’s a mother’s job to worry” as they tear you to pieces. Ghostly apparitions appear and disappear, sometimes to say creepy things, sometimes to do them; witness a man bid farewell to his family as he signs the cross, puts a gun to his head, and pulls the trigger.

This will not end well.

Despite the balance issues with the RPG mechanics, the system is still compelling, and still encourages repeat playthroughs. There are many opportunities for a dedicated hacker or psi-user to even the odds against superior foes, or perform feats that a straight-up weapons user can’t; hacking security or tricking aliens to fight each other, or forcing your way into doors you weren’t supposed to open yet, to name a few. The humble research skill can reveal enemies’ weakenesses, or explain the use of alien artifacts. Even within weapons skills, there is room for diversity; a heavy weapons user can tear apart packs of enemies with a shot or two, and with select upgrades a pure melee fighter can be just as viable as any shooter or psychic – grab a wrench and start swinging ’till it’s all over. Enemy AI is a touch simplistic, but in an odd way it’s almost a blessing in disguise; kamikaze drones and alien spiders are unsettling enough by how they look and sound, and on higher difficulties the lowly hybrids can pose a significant threat to the unprepared player. Granted that reconstruction devices stand ready to revive you if you die, but you do have to find and activate them, and they’re not on every deck.

And so we get to the heart of it, the truth of why System Shock 2 succeeds as a shooter and a role-playing game when it clearly has varying levels of quality on both fronts. Looking Glass and Irrational took great pains to develop the game’s atmosphere, to tell an average sci-fi tale with way above average production values and attention to detail. The story is the same no matter how you play it, but that there is a ‘how’ is why it can mix genres so well. In short, System Shock 2 asks the shooter to think and the thinker to shoot, and rewards both with a vivid and memorable adventure unlike most on the market today.

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