System Shock 2: review

It’s always easy to pick on the elderly. They’ve had their time, lived to their fullest and no longer need to justify why they were good back then, even if time hasn’t been so kind to them. As such it’s always hard to review a re-released game by today’s standards, and with System Shock 2 appearing on Good Old Games more than a decade after its heyday, this will be no exception. Whatever you get from it today though, there’s no denying that in its prime, System Shock 2 was a fun to play pioneer of the genre.

Why is it relevant that the game’s been re-released today? Well, it actually marks the first time the game has been available as a digital download. As with many great IPs, this series is caught in a massive web of law, bickering suits and awkwardness. Fortunately, a tiny thread has been picked away to make this very important game available to download via the classic PC game service.

SS2 pic 1

“Feel the power of my science-magic orb!”

Being a 14-year-old title, you might be slightly concerned about the compatibility with your newer machine. Fortunately there’s no need to be, as the highly optimised installer from Good Old Games had no problem dropping it straight onto our Windows 7 system. In fact, it’s a little scary how quick and hassle free it is, especially when we fully expected to muck about with compatibility mode. We have to say, it runs like a dream, booting up instantly with barely any of this ‘loading time’ newer games are so fond to include.

The start of the game and initial assignment of stats is handled exceptionally well in System Shock 2. Whereas a game like Mass Effect has you choose your background information and starting attributes from a menu, SS2 lets you choose which institute or military posting to attend by boarding the appropriate shuttle going there. Okay, it only really boils down to walking through a specific door to trigger a cutscene, but it’s a nice way to flesh out your character’s backstory whilst simultaneously setting them up.

Your first choice is to choose which military branch to join, which is generally asking whether you’d like to specialise in firearms, support abilities or psionic attacks. Firearms are the obvious gun related skills, whereas support has you upgrading hackery and other such skills, then you have psionic powers. As well as the standard magic-like projectile attacks, psi abilities also let you add buffs to your character at the expense of the very mana-like psi points.

SS2 pic 2

Gosh. I wonder what happened here?

Plot and gameplay elements like this are beautifully woven into each other throughout the game, right from your first moments aboard the Von Braun. The parallels to Bioshock are immediately obvious: something has gone wrong, you’re armed only with a spanner, and something creepy is close by with hostile intentions. It almost exactly mirrors your first steps out of the bathysphere into Rapture, or rather, the team at Irrational looked back over their past works for inspiration for Bioshock and decided to copy System Shock 2’s masterful opening. Of course, having been spoilt by the lush visuals of the 2008 title, going back to System Shock 2 takes a little something away.

And that’s the problem with replaying System Shock 2 in 2013 – everything has been done better more recently. It’s obvious that this game laid foundations that so many new games have built on, heck, even lifted directly.

Unfortunately, with the cherry picked moments feeling overly familiar, it just makes every flaw stick out like a unicorn at a yeti convention. The real-time inventory system that relies on you clicking on the environment isn’t just clunky, it also seems stupid and counter-intuitive. It’s easy to see why the majority of games now simply highlight items near you and throw a “Press X to pick up” command in your face. It’s easy and non-disruptive. But on the other hand, those games have years more experience on their side, whereas System Shock 2 has been locked in stasis unable to change.

SS2 pic 3

Do we trust robots yet? Nah, better blast it

Well, we suppose that’s not entirely true. The ever so lovable modding community has been very kind to the game, with mods to improve graphical textures for just about everything, as well as enhanced music, new weapons and a whole lot more. It’s all very simple to do too, with a number of handy guides that are simple enough to stumble upon after a browse on your search engine of choice.

For all of its age related short-comings, System Shock 2 is still masterful in a lot of ways. The pacing of the story is brilliant, filled with unforeseeable narrative twists and turns that easily stomp over the tripe churned out by the Hollywood movie machine. It also gets survival horror right, not just throwing grotesque uglies your way, but forcing you to be resourceful with your equipment. Can you afford the psi-points to waste this enemy? Will you have enough bullets left to take out what lies around the corner if you shoot the foe in front of you? It really makes you think carefully.

At the end of the day, dropping a score at the end of this System Shock 2 review won’t mean a damn thing. Some will find approaching it as a game by today’s standards to be about as fun as tree bark and moss puppetry. However, if you’re in the mindset to approach it as a masterclass of good game design and an exploration into the roots of the modern FPS, you’ll get a lot more from it. Enjoy it as more of a nostalgia fuelled museum romp, rather than a balls out thrill ride of action trickery. Therefore, System Shock 2 gets a nice, safe and conservative seven. It’s an incredible game, but if you can’t get around the fact that the gameplay is 14 years old (just one year younger than Turok 2), then you’re not going to get on with it.

critical score 7

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Written by Anthony H

Anthony has been playing games for far too much of his life, starting with the MS-DOS classic Mario is Missing. Since then his tastes have evolved to include just about anything, but his soft spot lies with shooters and the odd strategy game. Anthony will inspire you with his prose, uplift you with his wit and lie to you in his biography.

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