System Shock 2
2, Issue 4
December 2, 1999
starting the game. The Thief engine looks stunningly good
here, I hardly recognized it -- this is a really successful engine
re-use. The environments are extremely detailed and lavishly realistic
-- you feel you can walk around and sense that people actually lived
here; it's a chilling effect, because their deaths then feel all
the more real. This is a great example of cutting-edge technology
and skillful artwork adding to the emotional impact of the game.
That said, one of the
game's foibles is that the art style isn't terribly innovative.
Graphically, the original System Shock was based on films
like Alien and Blade Runner -- claustrophobic, techno-dystopic,
biotechnology gone bad. Shock 2 stays very close to look
of the original, and by 1999 this visual style has become a little
dated; this problem is intensified by a lack of graphic variation
The game's interface
is a marvel, a triumph of careful forethought. The baroquely complex
set of skills, abilities, weapons, ammunition types, armors, power
cells, special items, not to mention an Automap, manages not to
slow down the game's action, and gives you a rich set of options
to draw from. The manual mentions the UI going through 6 or 7 different
revisions, and the work has clearly paid off -- it's a model of
parsimony and ingenious context-sensitivity.
Much as in the original
Shock, you walk through a derelict spacecraft, piecing together
bits of the past through log entries left by the crewmembers. A
few of the human crew are still alive elsewhere on the station,
and you can get e-mail from them, and from -- shall we say -- certain
other entities. Multi-sided carnage is happening onboard, and you
have to figure out what to do, who to trust, and which forces to
There's a new storytelling
device as well - a kind of psychic hologram effect, where you see
ghosts of certain past events as you walk through the deserted halls.
This is an eerie effect, but as the game progressed it doesn't take
on much importance, just an occasional vision. This is puzzling,
and a shame -- it might have been used to great effect as a part
of the main story.
The audio logs let you
trace the fates of various station personnel. The voice acting is
decent, but the stories are terribly hokey. As you search for clues
among the diary entries, prepare to feel cheap -- the crewmember
narratives are milked for every possible bit of pathos.
Meanwhile, though, you're
on the job and kicking ass: finding weapons and ramping up your
powers, and handing out punishment to whatever mutant, cyborg, robot,
or miscellaneous/unclassifiable folk cross your path. As you play
you allocate points to your skills -- hacking skills, various kinds
of weapons, psychic powers, first aid, and so on.
There's a bit of a struggle
to figure out which skills to buy -- at times I felt I was filling
out a huge, life-threatening tax form, or investing in dozens of
mysterious penny-stocks -- which one will pay off? Strength? Research?
Psionics? It's more fun later on, when you have a sense of what
means what. This is on top of keeping track of the various errands
and sub-quests; you tool around the station destroying things, turning
things on and off, powering on, powering off. One could make the
point here that although there is a good story here, story and errand
running are not the same thing. It might have been more effective
if I had had some overall sense of the layout and logic of the spaceship,
but as it was some of the errands felt arbitrary, an ad-hoc addition
to extend playing time.