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Vol. 2, Issue 4
December 2, 1999
The Top Shelf:

System Shock 2

by Austin Grossman

Six 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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