[Ghosts Of Gaming Past] A Review Of ‘System Shock 2’


Welcome to Ghosts of Gaming Past — here we’ll be reviewing older horror games, classics and non-classics we missed when they were originally released. Have a game you’d like reviewed? Send us an email.

Written by Jason Nawara, @JasonNawara

Playing System Shock 2, I feel like I hopped in a time machine, set the date to 1999 and then somehow landed in the future. You know, the future 1999 that featured flying cars and skyscrapers in the clouds. The kind of society-on-the-fringe Ken Levine writes about in his scripts. System Shock 2 blew the world away nearly fifteen years ago with its forward-thinking game design and storytelling techniques, and I remember the hype well.

Everyone at the time said it was outdoing the exemplary Half-Life that graced PCs about ten months prior, and playing this horror masterpiece over again on this GoG released in 2013, I dare say System Shock 2 makes Bioshock and Bioshock: Inifinite feel like a simpleton little brother mixed with Call of Duty, and it stands the test of time better than Valve’s 1998 masterpiece. Harsh? Maybe. It’s not Shodan-level harsh. But I don’t think I’m in the minority with that opinion.

From 1998 to the fall of 2000, PC Gamers were bombarded by three huge releases pushing forward the first person genre and gaming as a whole: Half-Life, System Shock 2 and Deus Ex. To me these games must forever be intertwined as the high water mark for progressing how we perceived videogame storytelling, and brought gaming narrative to the standard we expect today. System Shock 2, specifically, is like the Grandad of Portal, Dead Space and of course Bioshock and Bioshock: Infinite.

Play the first five minutes of System Shock 2, and it’s obvious that creator Ken Levine has been striving to bring his pure vision to life through his games for years, or decades even. It’s all there: the disembodied voice that you probably shouldn’t trust guiding you through blood-stained corridors with warnings scrawled onto the walls. Haunting audio files, providing exposition and clues that lead directly into forthcoming puzzles. Melee, psyonic powers (plasmids, basically) and gunplay.

There is even a good amount of stealth, possibly leftover from Looking Glass and Irrational’s Thief games, thrown in for good measure. The systems are all there, laid out like a fine blueprint that Mr. Levine would follow to great success for many, many years. Being a huge fan of the Bioshock games, I wonder which game, to him, represents his most pure vision. Because System Shock 2 is a ruthless, painful to play at time Role Playing Game.

Its difficulty is almost legendary, and in this new era of gaming where hand holding is as common as collecting a gold coin, actually searching for clues to find a door code or a certain circuit board seems almost ambitiously cruel, despite being in an old game such as this. But after my fifteen hour journey through System Shock 2, I can confirm that a sadistic difficulty isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, I think it makes the game better.

Let me clarify: Nowadays, even in Ken Levine’s current games, usually your item of interest is highlighted or you have a big fat arrow pointing to it on your mini-map. SS2 is as old-school as it gets. There are so many little instances of absolute joy I have swirling in my head that I want to tell you about, but it would just be unfair to ruin these great “Ureaka!” moments, so let me put it like this: This game reminds me of Metal Gear Solid’s best moments on PS1. You know, the actual searching for clues and reading of e-mails or files to find out the answer to a puzzle.

It’s little things like this that make the game far more immersive than high tech graphics or some fancy physics engine. SS2’s old-school values are a breath of fresh air in today’s gaming climate, where most games in this Horror/FPS/RPG genre of today are little more than interactive movies with shooting galleries every few minutes to keep the thumbs happy. That’s fine, and Bioshock: Infinite, despite its strong and heady story suffers from this. Let me put it this way: It must be mentioned that the best survival horror game of this last generation – Dead Space – was long rumored to have been started in development as System Shock 3.

Okay, to the game. You begin your journey waking up from hypersleep (don’t you always?) on the starship Von Braun. Something, of course, has gone terribly wrong. Alarms are blaring, death fills the halls and something has begun to run rampant. The macabre permeates the recycled air, and the air, and you scramble to safety.

Luckily in the prologue, you took part in some brilliant military training that acted as a tutorial, and it’s time to use that training to survive. Telling you anything beyond this would be an absolute shame to spoil, so just trust me when I say that System Shock 2 has one of the most engrossing plots in a videogame ever. Like I mentioned above, the method in which the story unfolds is familiar to gamers now with the Bioshock games, and the same tactics are used to envelope the player on the Von Braun.

The manner in which the game unfolds is brilliant, as you would expect from the lineage of the Bioshock games, and the history of the Von Braun and how it’s presented to the player feel as fresh as ever playing this in 2013.

The game runs well out of GoG, controls are responsive and once again, I’m left wanting features in SS2 to be put in the current Bioshock games. Leaning around walls, the somewhat arbitrary skill system, it all works perfectly. I love it. I wish you could lean in Bioshock and Infinite (ugh). You can add mods to your game to fix some long-dormant bugs or update the graphics, but even running vanilla settings, System Shock 2 looks fine for a fifteen-year-old horror game.

The lighting effects set the mood and atmosphere, the voice actors are top-notch, especially considering this era in gaming. Granted, this could be a nod to the fantastic writing by Ken Levine and company, but still, all credit due to the voice acting. Lightshafts cut through the darkness and the general uneasiness of navigating your way through the Von Braun is punctuated every so often by a gutted scream, or vision of the dead. Good stuff.

As far as how the game handles, a certain, evil AI my say you move like an insect and think like an insect, but I would beg to differ. I did need to fiddle with some presets on the controls to move keys to a more ‘2013’ setting (no one wants S as the button to crouch), but outside of the key presets, the game feels like it could’ve been made yesterday. You can approach battles head on, with stealth or by using your psychic powers, I mean plasmids, er, whatever. There is a hacking minigame, which is a must-have to the “Shock” lineage, and like many great survival horror games – it’s all about resource management. You will run out of bullets. You will be searching desperately, panting and sweating, running though the corridors looking for items to fill your finite inventory space, and the choices you make with your inventory can mean life or death.

I played through System Shock 2 twice, and I will say that I enjoyed myself much more the second time through. Each playthrough took about fifteen hours, and it was met with some decent frustration at times. The game is hard, ridiculously hard, but the game can also become very easy when you pick up a few specifications and know how to start out your adventure. Once again, I don’t want to give anything away, because feeling the horror growing in your stomach as you realize you’re not getting your pathetic flesh and bones off the Von Braun, well, that’s the beauty of the game.

I will say this though: save your ammo. Melee as many early enemies as you can, and enjoy the ride. Listen to logs, and pay attention to the moments when your systems pick up energy and interprets them as light and sound (heh). You have to keep moving, as enemy respawns are old-school and maybe even cheap, and play the game on easy your first time through if you want to. In my opinion there is no shame in that, especially with this game. The story is just so fantastic.

This re-release on GoG gives us 2-player online co-op, which I wasn’t able to run, as well as some extras such as an old Ken Levine interview from the late 90’s, some artwork and the original pitch document. So for $9.99, you’re getting some cool historic content along with a stellar game.

Like any good game, System Shock 2 leaves me wanting more. Namely, a sequel or at least a visitation from a certain universe-jumping female from another “Shock” game in some future DLC *cough cough*. Excuse the pun, but it’s rather shocking how great this game is this many years later. Much like Half-Life and Deus Ex, System Shock 2 stands the harsh test of time that seems to age some videogames faster than dog years. What we have here, nearly fifteen years later, is a tight, interesting and horrifying survival horror RPG that is still better than most releases today. Yes, that includes its brethren under the ocean and in the clouds.

The Final Word: Get over the inventory system, punishing difficulty and and somewhat wonky controls, and you have one of the best $9.99 purchases in a long, long time. Just remember: Beware the Machine Mother.

  • tannhausergater

    First let me thank you for doing this review. It really took me back to one of the all time great games ever made and one of the most memorable gaming experiences I can remember. SS2 scared the bejeezuz out of me! I can still recall the moans of the zombies stalking the corridors (while my character probably hid somewhere).

    To you point about difficulty — I also worry that the current generation of gamers don’t realize that “back in the day” games were hard! And they were meant to be. So much of a good RPG back then was discovery and puzzle solving. Nowadays, as you hit on, there is almost always hand-holding and convenient pointers to what you must do next. Even to the point where markers are on maps essentially pointing you where to go (so much for having to find said quest item/person yourself, ho hum).

    I used to love the effort that went into finding some vital clue, stumbling upon a secret passage, and even (at times) navigating my way thru a maze to find the way out. Heck, you could even say the original Legend of Zelda had more in the way of discovery with randomly burning bushes to find a secret. Most games today just don’t appreciate the fun in that, sadly. :_(

    And having played most of the major RPG franchises these days (Dragon Age, Witcher, Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls) I must sadly report (as you probably already know) that things have definitely taken a turn for the worse.

    It seems game developers today think they only need to make the bosses difficult, which amounts to combat/tactics, and not about the journey of getting to said boss. What puzzles there are seem almost an afterthought and usually very simple.

    The closest I’ve seen to the gameplay System Shock II is Deus Ex Human Revolution. DE seemed to get it right with regards to clues and providing multiple ways to skin a cat. I anxiously hope they expand upon that gameplay in a subsequent release. But even at that, it will still a bit on the easy side.

  • JasonNawara

    Thanks for the awesome comment! I agree with all of your points, and even the new Deus Ex still felt a little too easy for me. What I want is for Ken Levine to make a game like Gone Home or Dear Esther. A game where he doesn’t feel like he needs to put needless combat in the game. Just story.

    A lot of people feel like those titles are signaling the end of gaming as we know it, but I feel the same way about CoD and such with set piece moments trying to make the game feel like a movie.

  • Psychosomatic

    I think the statement of it making Bioshock, and Infinite look like simpletons makes you come off a simpleton, that’s not even an opinion it’s someone trying to justify how much they love 1 game over the other. All 3 games were brilliant and you should recognize that before touting something so idiotic, other than that I agree with most of what you feel about the game. I still own the game and the box as I have from day 1 on it’s release for the PC and I remember the joy I was able to share with others when a Co-op mod was released and was able to get others in to playing it.

    1 nitpick, I’m pretty sure she’s the “Metal Mother” not the “Machine Mother”.

    • Clay

      Gee, someone’s getting all defensive for Bioshock. The fact of the matter is that the Bioshocks ARE simpler games. They were deliberately designed as mass-appeal console games, meaning they’re almost garishly pretty and don’t require gamers to think much.

  • Clay

    “Ureaka”? “GoG”? Sigh…