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Vol. 2, Issue 4
December 2, 1999

The Top Shelf:

System Shock 2

by Austin Grossman




ix years ago I did the preliminary game design work on System Shock, spending three or four months on it before I left Looking Glass Technologies for graduate school. Naturally, when System Shock 2 came out I was eager to see what it was all about. It was like coming back home after many years. Mind you, a rusted-metal, cyborg-infested, virus-ridden, insane-AI-controlled, derelict drifting-in-space sort of home.

I had had a brief glimpse of the work-in-progress in December '98, and I had read the rave reviews on the web. I got hold of a copy and booked some time on my roommate's computer. I was unemployed, and kicking SHODAN's ass was my new occupation. I took the job pro bono.

click to enlarge!

Woo... creepy (67k)

The game makes a good first impression. I had a smooth installation on the first try, even on my flat mate's mongrel system. The introductory screens ooze production values. Character generation is quirky but fun, an involved process that gives your guy a little prehistory, harking back to the old Traveler system -- by joining one of three government services you give yourself a boost in one of three skill-areas -- physical combat, technology, or psionics -- and your subsequent job assignments give you further skill and ability bonuses.

System Shock 2 has a vast array of skills, and although your service choice gives you a head start in one direction, you can gain ability in any of them once the game starts. There's a kind of compromise here between a skill-based and a class-based character system, that left me feeling a bit lukewarm: it aroused in me an initial hunger for character-differentiation that then went unsatisfied when I realized how fluid the system was. I started out trying to build a kind of hacker-technician character, but as soon as I got into the game I panicked and started buying up combat skills left and right, and by the end I felt sort of generic. Okay, arguably I have only myself to blame.

On the other hand, the designers did succeed in creating a complex skill-system in which the skills have a tangible effect on your abilities in the world. There are so many numbers -- including both character stats like strength and agility, and skill ratings -- it's no mean feat to have made them all matter in the game.

The story premise is terrific -- it's fully in the spirit of the original, but creates a whole new chapter. I'll try not to say too much: mankind's first faster-than-light voyage ends in disaster, as the colony ship and its military escort become a battleground between human scientists and sinister (and, may I say, disgusting) other forces. (One can feel a whole future-history taking shape here, a surprisingly complex dystopia dominated by corporate interests, and it makes me wonder if anything further will ever be set there.) As usual you're caught in the middle: you wake up with your memory gone, equipped only with a state-of-the-art neural interface and a stubborn will not to get be iced.

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Credits: Illustration © 1999 Dan Zalkus. This review is © 1999 Austin Grossman. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited, goldarn it.