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The Top Shelf:
System Shock 2

Vol. 2, Issue 4
December 2, 1999 

The combat is as intense and nerve-wracking as anything I've ever found. Some of the critters are very nasty, ammunition is scarce, and you'll find yourself peering around every corner, trying to make every shot count. Frankly, this is a scary game, and you never ever get a free ride. There are lots of audio cues to tell you what kind of enemies are nearby, and you'll need to pay attention and have the proper kind of blaster in hand, with the proper ammunition loaded.

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Quirky robots (63k)

I'm not sure if other players shared my experience, but I found the weapon-balance a little arbitrary -- some of the later weapons that I expected to pack a big punch, didn't. Certain weapons do work better on certain critters, but even so -- midway through you get the semiautomatic rifle with armor-piercing rounds, and none of the fancy sci-fi arms I got later improved on it. This was a big disappointment, given how hard I worked to get the necessary skills to use them. Where was my payoff there?

Shock 2 is a hard game, and it just gets harder. Gamers, prepare to be tested -- I have rarely felt such bleak isolation in a game, such terrified hopelessness, as when I got launched into that giant alien biomass. You're low on ammo, surrounded by enemies, and in the wrong damn solar system -- it makes Die Hard look like a visit to Grandma's. When I survived I felt I had really earned it -- I walked out of that mess I feeling that I had balls of solid titanium steel.

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The inventory system (84k)

Thumbs up for System Shock 2. It's great to see that narrative depth in first-person games is trendy again, and that game developers are finding new, effective ways of telling stories in an interactive situation. The narrative-light mid-1990's were, I feel, a useful transitional period -- Doom and Quake had almost no story, and this meant getting rid of heavy, pretentious exposition, burdensome complex stories that nobody wanted or cared about.

Now story is coming back in new forms, as a part of the game rather than just window dressing. Half-Life and System Shock 2 led the way, with Daikatana and Deus Ex hopefully soon to follow. This is the kind of evolution in the medium that we all hoped for.


- Austin Grossman is a game designer who has worked for Looking Glass Technologies and Dreamworks Entertainment.


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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.