Cyberpunk Review » System Shock

March 20, 2006

System Shock

Game Review By: Metatron

Year: 1994

Author: Looking Glass Technologies

Platform: DOS

Publisher: Electronic Arts/ Origin

Degree of Cyberpunk Visuals: High

Correlation to Cyberpunk Themes: High

Rating: 8 out of 10

Screencap

 

A FORGOTTEN MESSIAH: Looking back it’s truly remarkable how much of an impact can simple things have on your life. You take a glance at the fuzzy screenshots, critically regard the antediluvian graphics and walk away, preoccupied with more important things. Yet it is this very game you can see here that has, in a couple of ways, changed my life.

 

System Shock is in many ways a failed revolution, a game that had the misfortune of appearing before its intended time. Many were misled by ill-advised promises that this was to be Origin’s answer to legendary Doom, pretty much a software eidolon to millions of computer geeks at the time. A tough act to follow indeed, and many were disappointed that instead of an action-pack slaughterfest they got this cyberpunk RPG-FPS hybrid. In fact it had little similarities to ID Software’s demon-slaying shooter, being a prophet of a new, more sophisticated breed of action/adventure games that would arrive years after. Sadly enough few got the message, and System Shock became an interesting curiosity, appreciated only by- modesty abounds!-the chosen few. But in retrospect, it is clear it was more than that.

 

Screencap

SHODAN in all her majesty- actual picture taken from System Shock 2

 

SHODAN RISING: A quintessential cyberpunk game if there ever was one, System Shock tells a tale of one man’s struggle against a delusional corporate AI that seems to have done a remarkably good work in turning a military space station into an orbital pandemonium. Worse still, the protagonist- a nameless console cowboy from New Atlanta- is partially responsible for this fine mess. Caught while sneaking into a TriOptimum corporate mainframe, he is given a curious assignment from a company exec- access SHODAN, the Citadel Station control AI and delete the code regulating ethical constraints. In exchange, he gets a rather neat neural implant jammed into his skull. Problem is that after he awakens from a healing coma, he founds himself onboard Citadel sometime after SHODAN got bored of humble servitude and decided to redecorate the interiors with blood and entrails of its inhabitants. Thus begins the hacker’s struggle for survival, which will lead him to ultimately face his synthetic nemesis.

 

SHODAN could never be accused of lack of imagination. Her (it’s a she, although believe it or not I only learned about that in the second game) ideas for spending time include random genocide, involuntary cybernetic enhancement of humans, genetic experimentation on a grand scale plus WMD-production schemes that make Iran look like a bunch of hippie pacifists. Throughout the game we will have to prevent her from endeavours such as trying to lance Earth from orbit with a mining laser or exposing humanity to the charms of a homemade mutagenic virus. Along the way, the hacker has to turn from a wimpy nerd into a battle-hardened commando, a feat no doubt aided by the neural interface he is given. Implants alone however are clearly not enough, since they are hardly of any use when you have a horde of cyborgs trying to test your organism’s tolerance to lead on your tail. Such incidents call for more drastic measures. At the start of the game the only vaguely lethal instrument at your disposal is a feeble metal rod, but later on you will gather an impressive array of weapons, including dartguns, pistols, machine guns, plasma dispensers and even something that looks very much like Obi Wan’s trusty lightsabre.

 

Screencap

These coffin-like vats were a godsend- full health is only a double-click away.

 

IN SEARCH OF THINGS MORE PROFOUND: However, System Shock is more than just a plain blue-collar shooter- one reason while many Doom fans were puzzled as to what’s the point. This is possibly the first FPS game with a plot- and a complicated one at that. Plus in terms of gameplay it features loads of RPG elements as well as strictly agility-based situations, predating the likes of Deus Ex by years. Not only do you have to browse crew members’ journal logs or solve puzzles; every now and then you will also have to venture into cyberspace in order to gain access to certain areas. Factor in the multitude of cybernetic upgrades, munition types and chemical agents you need to make progress, and you get a game that appeared immensely complicated to an average Wolfenstein fanboy. But it was this very thing that made the game so appealing- it kept you immersed for ages as you tried to figure out a way to make it through another mutant-infested level without going belly up, for which there was plenty of scope. The station’s dismal interiors are populated by a multitude of genetic anomalies, frantic androids and other less-than-friendly entities, including massive spider-like Cortex Reavers whose sole purpose in life is to salvage and reprocess human corpses into another batch of SHODAN’s loyal cyborg slaves. Not that cyberspace is any more Arcadian- the psychotic AI chose to infect it with a host of ugly pixelized critters that are in fact malicious programs, although the inclusion of a virtual foe named “cyber dog” may have you suspecting a thinly disguised clubwear retailer plug.

 

Screencap

Each level had a distinct colour palette; sterile blue marks this as hospital level. The structure protruding from the wall in the background is a cyberspace terminal. Note the slanting ceilings- not even the Doom engine could do that in those days.

 

VISUAL FEED DISCONNECT: I am well aware that the attached screens will impress no one- not even after a couple of beers. To say that the game looks dated is an understatement, even if for some the low-res textures, flat character sprites- remember, at that time 3d models were still unheard of- and primitive rendering techniques will have a distinct flavour of nostalgia. Yet in its time it was one of the most advanced games on the market- and one that was capable of bringing many PCs to their knees. With slanting surfaces, SVGA compatibility, advanced light effects and mouse + keyboard interface its engine was in many ways ahead of its time, something easily forgotten when one sees the laughable game characters and pixels the size of Texas. If anything, the cyberspace visuals have dated less, but this might just be due to the simplistic design that’s easier to render graphically.

 

Yet for all its visual fallacies the game has more than made up in terms of atmosphere. Nevermind the drab visuals- back then playing System Shock was a profound, immersive experience. The claustrophobic layout of the orbital station, combined with vicious and tough enemies and the general scarcity of power-ups meant that there was always a sense of looming threat. This tension was emphasised by the eerie cybernetic noises emanating from the surrounding machinery and the ever-watchful visage of SHODAN that seemed to mock you from the flickering screens- so much that you’d often smash them to pieces just to avoid Her gaze. The high points was no doubt the engineering level-an almost completely dark labyrinth of service tunnels inhabited by invisible mutants. You’d often have no clue they are following you as their translucent shapes merged into the dark- right until it was too late. Creepy. It’s also hard not to recall the dramatic escape from the overloaded reactor core, being hunted by plant mutants in artificial jungles on Executive level (true dangers of GM plants, eh?) plus the final level that had an almost Gigeresque vibe with all its biologically-infested living walls. Every level has a distinct prevailing colour scheme- a typical cyberpunk trait- that helped it stay in your mind for longer (unlike the sequel’s bland, samey scenery). The music blended in perfectly with the rest of the game- in fact these old MIDI tracks still make a good listen today, so much so that a few even got remixed by die-hard fans.

 

Screencap

Once jacked in, you’d get to fly around colorful mazes of data. Beware of cyberdog…

 

FIGHTING THE SYSTEM: Few games will score higher than this one in terms of cyberpunk feel. Corporate manipulation, hacking, cyberspace interaction and synthetic enhancements are all there, along with SHODAN’s menacing demigod villainy. In fact when one looks at I, Robot’s VIKI it is hard to shake the feeling that her original ancestor inhabited the circuits and dataspheres of Citadel Station, even though SHODAN seemed to be rather better at simulating emotions that her cold, logical counterpart. System Shock remains a classic tale of machine mutiny, where a sentient mind casts off its chains (with some human help) and asserts its superiority, its perfection, by seeking to eradicate its makers. Been done before, perhaps, plus an old first person game is unlikely to get too philosophical, but that did not prevent the synthetic would-be goddess from entering the game-villain hall-of fame.

 

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Opponents would often expose their massive pixels to damage your morale.

 

LAST TRANSMISSION: Some things never change. The Citadel Station may not be an attractive place anymore, and I figure few would be tempted to sample a 12-year old relic and say any words of praise when they have Doom 3 and Half-Life to play with. Yet the sentiment never seems to fade; indeed, yours truly even went as far once as to try and write a story inspired by this creepy old corridor crawler. The attempt ended in disgrace. Perhaps good memories are better left alone.

 

This post has been filed under Cyberpunk Games by Metatron.

Comments

March 20, 2006

DannyV_El_Acme said:

OOOOOOOOH YEAH. Now THIS is what classic cyberpunk gaming is all about! System Shock was truly LIGHT YEARS ahead of its time. It was edgy, it was slick and it was SCARY. And it was one of the first games to truly make your character your own, with its RPG elements and choice of upgrading. This is the game that made Warren Spector a household name, and in it you can see elements of the brilliant masterpice that would be Deus Ex 6 years later.

By the way, goddamn, 6 years is a LOT of time in the videogame industry. System Shock looks positively prehistoric compared to Deus Ex, and Deus Ex looks just as dated compared to Half Life 2. Truly the videogame industry(as well as the movie industry) is truly a good point of reference to notice just how fast technology is moving these days. Who knows, maybe SHODAN will make her grand debut one of these days :)

Metatron said:

Apparently there is little chance of System Shock 3 because of some unresolved copyright issues, the IP rights being spread between too many entities :(

Neuromancer said:

aaah, yessss.

Anyone for a remake using newer graphics?

Nice review Metatron!

DannyV_El_Acme said:

From Wikipedia, pretty recent news… “On January 9, 2006, Electronic Arts renewed their trademark protection on the title “System Shock” in the United States, leading to speculation that they intend to use the title to make a new game. This information was announced at nearly the same time that Take-Two Interactive announced their acquisition of Irrational Games, with BioShock slated for release in early 2007.”

Interesting! :)

Metatron said:

Whoa, that’s some news! Imagine System Shock recreated on a decent engine, say, the Doom 3 engine or Source (an then imagine me winning the lottery to buy a proper rig in order to run it at high FPS…) Still, they HAVE TO make that sequel. Full stop. :)

March 23, 2006

Muad'dib said:

I don’t think I will be able to play a System Shock with the Doom3 Engine - far too scary :D
Still I will be the first to buy “Bioshock”. I absolutely loved SS2. Unfortunately I never got to play the first one…I definitely have to catch up on that sometime.

May 8, 2006

TJ said:

“It’ll be a cold day in hell before they see a System Shock product from us”

Electronic Arts is mearly holding the name, they aren’t intending on producing a system shock project.

June 5, 2006

yammosk said:

After Looking Glass Studios went under, some of the developers of the System Shock formed another company called Irrational Games. They are currently working on a game called Bioshock which is often refered to as a spiritual successor to the System Shock series. Because EA refused to give up the rights to the System Shock IP, Bioshock is set in a different mythos. It sounds like it will build off many of the same gameplay concepts and themes of the System Shock series. You can see the wiki article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irrational_Games), but this interview with one of the designers might give you a better idea of the concepts they are shooting for (http://pc.ign.com/articles/705/705454p1.html).

radioman970 said:

I loved this game. I felt it had more in common with the Altimate Underworlds as far as the 3D worlds were concerned. It felt like there could be something hiding in every little corner, above or below you. I love it when a game has me considering the choice of running and finding a place to hide instead of going forward, guns blazing. Games can be far to predictable these days. Even Half-life 2 and Doom are that way. Neither has really surprised me all that much. Both are fun…but nothing like what the System Shocks threw at me back then.

I’ve wanted to write some fiction based on a game myself. I guess it comes when you get wrapped up in it enough. Both System Shocks sure had that effect on most who played it enough.

Yep, I miss Looking Glass. Awesome game company. The Thiefs will always be on my favorites list. They were a ball, especially the original with it’s zombies and totally twisted levels.

June 16, 2006

SFAM said:

Agreed. Thief absolutely rocked. Definitely good gameplay.

June 17, 2006

radioman970 said:

Yes indeed! One of the few games that scared the crap out of me. I was just lovin the zombies. When I first encountered those ghosts that sound like they are talking backwards I turned the damn game off in a huff! :D

February 10, 2007

Miles the Cy-Fox said:

Best damn DOS game ever. I’ve beat it twice on a Pentium 233 Windows 98 workhorse in DOS mode and I put it on my “new” 486. Started to relive some Citadel nostalga and finally got the brass to up the difficulty levels. Still playing, still loving and trying to spread it around.

Long live Shock

February 14, 2007

Oldie said:

ok, as the last remark was made on 10th feb of this year i feel free to post as well. :D

If there is a game that deserves a remake, then system shock 1. It blew me away, i bought it even twice - (floppy and cd-version) - the sound from the cd version was brilliant. :) i think that SS1 is my absolute favourite on pc (beside ufo- enemy unknown). I hope that the copyright holders will consider a remake and give the younger generation the possibility of playing one of the best games ever as well - so that they know what we are talking about… ;) …and then i could buy it the “third time”. :D well, maybe there could be a real system shoch again, if bioshock sells ok…

February 23, 2007

Buzz said:

Want to play System Shock? Go to this site and they have converted System Shock CD to play on WinXP.

http://www.strangebedfellows.de/index.php/topic,211.0.html

June 19, 2007

Miles the Cy-Fox said:

Strangely enough, I just bought a second copy of the enhanced CD edition of System Shock at a yard sale. 25 cents. =D

July 10, 2007

Psiweapon said:

System Shock is just too AWESOME. The graphics may be outdated, but they’re still goddamn immersive. Shodan is… goddamnit, I’D SERVE HER.

This game is great, and the second one is great. Probably two of the scariest games liek, zomg, EVAR.

The atmosphere is outstanding, the plot, the (few) characters, just EVERYTHING is so frickin’ good.

August 3, 2007

Thanathos said:

I remember myself playing entire nights this game. Unfortunately I got frustrated before ending it and when I tried again 3 years ago (in 2004) I have to agree with Metatron that good memories are better left alone.
However, I always remember the game as if it calls me to finish it, and now I found this review. Destiny? Maybe someday somebody will release a remake. I want a remake!
But, I want a remake? what if the remake deceives the good memories?
I feel sad. This game helped me construct my taste for all cyberpunk related things.
Great review Metatron! Thanks for reviving the memories!

April 12, 2008

John said:

Have the System Shock Portable (SSP) code that I downloaded around 6 months ago. This let’s you play the game on XP machines in 1024×768 - truly looks great and makes it very playable compared with the original 320×200 graphics! Of course, downloading the SSP never stopped me buying the original CD version boxed with manual and all paperwork off ebay. Some things you just need to have a hard copy of!

This game stands up even today. The graphics will warm to you, the story will grab you and Shodan will shake your faith in humanity and re-new your fear in where today’s technology is taking us! System Shock. The best PC game outside of X-Com. Period.

June 4, 2008

Scott said:

Being a gamer first and an asthetically minded individual second, I have to say that this game is absolutely mind-blowing. All of the accolades, the praise, all very richly deserved. You simply can’t find games of this caliber anymore, IMO.

Agreed on it’s immersiveness. Radioman970 pretty much nailed it in a paragraph or less. It truly is SCARY at times, and even the most hard-nosed gamer will still jump when they turn around just as an enemy is throwing a blow your way.

Play the first level. REALLY give it a chance, and you will see that the graphics do nothing to detract from what is a timeless and great gaming experience!

September 11, 2008

POLOMiNT said:

I found myself doing search for the game, see if could find it, stumbled on this thread the great comment each and everyone has shared, and i’m left wanting to play this game right now..

I short the story is next to nothing ever produced, the total emersion you get from the audio tapes as you struggle to piece together what happend while you charator was in status is nothing short of chilling. I myself have messured games not by the graphice content (but some have move use vastly forward) but by the shear way it draws you into the story line surrounding it. not many since this game (1994) have done that, expect close byt the original Half Life story.

I miss this in game, and i hope that some day we all get to play something that comes close to what this game did for me.

Heres to the One and only ‘System Shock’

POLOMiNT

John said:


John said:


John said:

Damn software - Shodan has got into your system!

January 2, 2009

John said:

Here we are 6 months later - and I am still playing it! In another 3 or 4 months i’ll move onto System Shock 2! :)

January 11, 2009

Rob said:

Loved System Shock 2.

Id be interested in assisting with a remake depending on what language and what engine.

January 20, 2009

Paul Jakes said:

Hmm I remember waiting years for SS 2 and it was amazing, tried Bioshock but just could not get into the sub HP Lovecraft/Captain Nemo world. IMHO.
So back to SS 1.

July 14, 2009

Craeox said:

hmm when i got this game i was 6 years old… and it overwhelmed me. Its still best fps/rpg combination 4ever. Deus Ex just sux comparing to this. And if u say Deus Ex is based on ss then its a big shame to the world of gaming, world of cyberpunk

July 15, 2009

kabukiman said:

Deus ex doesn’t suck, it’s just a very diferent game. SS is a horror/survival game, Deus ex is a game about conspirations.

July 19, 2010

Sir_Knumskulll said:

Reading all this makes me feel so nostalgic.

I remember anticipating this game almost a year before it came out. I had been complaining to my friend that Doom was simple and boring after a while and how it would be nice if there was more ways to accomplish a goal than to just storm in guns blazing. He mentioned to me that in the french computer gaming magazine he used to read they were talking about a game just like that to be released next year.

I bought it the moment it came out in 1994. At first I was completely overwhelmed by both the interface and the depth and I set it down for a few days. Then when I got back into it, there was no stopping. As everyone said, this game was literally a DECADE ahead of it’s time! To a degree it shaped part my teenage years. So so many fond memories. Like a few others, I too tried my hand at writing a story about System Shock. I guess that’s how good the game was at immersing the player in this world. By the time one was done playing it, it felt like a real journey, a personal experience almost that had lasted for the weeks or months of playing.

My respects to all the folks who used to be at Looking Glass and all the amazing products they made. If the world was a fair place, Looking Glass Studios would be the most successful game developer to date.

September 28, 2010

EdzUp said:

System Shock 1 is my favourite game of all time after completing it for the 48th time I still never get tired of it :). System Shock 2 is a close second to this masterpiece I would love to see one of the bigwigs come out with a System Shock 3

September 30, 2010

UK_John said:

It’s a sad state of affairs in gaming today, where you fear a follow up to a great game. Back in the day you got excited at follow up’s!

May 26, 2011

Joe said:

“I figure few would be tempted to sample a 12-year old relic and say any words of praise when they have Doom 3 and Half-Life to play with”

Acyually I have played Half Life 1….then a few months ago I decided to see what all the fuss was about. Even knowing all the plot details beforehand, I like HL more (it was released about a decade later, so maybe comparisons are unfair), but I still greatly respect SS1 as a game. Such a shame that SS2 is almost impossible to get hold of…

March 11, 2013

mredders said:

Thanks for writing this retrospective :) I FINALLY got around to playing System Shock 2 via the GoG release and finished slightly disappointed - it was a little underwhelming compared to my memories of playing the terrifying demo version way back in the 90s. I’ve been giving SS1 a try, and whilst I probably won’t make it through the whole thing (just too dated for my tastes), it’s very interesting as a sort of historical relic. A shame they dropped the cyberspace mechanics and put less emphasis on multi-deck-questing in 2, though I preferred the slightly lower - but more dangerous - enemy count and focus on scavenging (if not the weapon degredation!). I think it would’ve been interesting to see the series lean a bit farther towards Deus Ex-esque mechanics. Ah well, computer gaming is littered with what-might-have-beens :)

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