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The Top Shelf:
System Shock 2

Vol. 2, Issue 4
December 2, 1999 

Okay, 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 between levels.

click to enlarge!

The blood! (57k)

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 back. Cool.

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.

click to enlarge!

Creepy zombies (57k)

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.


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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.