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2, Issue 4
December 2, 1999
System Shock 2
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
Austin Grossman is a game designer who has worked for Looking Glass
Technologies and Dreamworks Entertainment.
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