With the news that System Shock 2 was finally available on GOG.com, we sent veteran James Pinnell back aboard the Von Braun for another dance with death at the hands of one of PC’s gaming’s finest creations.
Irrational fear: a persistent, abnormal, and unreasonable fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous.
Irrational fear perfectly describes the playing of System Shock 2. There is nothing in the game that can physically hurt, kill or disable you, obviously, but one of the most spectacular features of the game is the manner in which it manages to drop you head first into carnage, anxiety and sheer desperation. System Shock 2 is about disorientation and brutality; surviving the ship means exploiting every ability, weapon and piece of requisitioned tech you can find.
I had never though System Shock 2 would have the ability to mess with me again. It’s been 13 years since I first played the game at the tender age of 17, back when the graphics were cutting edge and the animations were revolutionary. But frankly, the late 90′s style of Half-Life-sque block on block jaggies, mixed with solid textures wrapped around even more blocks hasn’t dated well at all. At one point, a woman was running down a corridor screaming, her legs suffering from a bout of kneelessness, dropping to the ground like a jenga tower after a shotgun to the back. The sound effects were equally ridiculous, with generic cries and shrieks that wouldn’t sound out of place in a D-grade horror movie.
But as I explored the blood splattered corridors of the UNN Von Braun, I still couldn’t shake those feelings of dread. My first encounter with an enemy had me flailing my wrench in pure, unrelenting distress, the result of an ambush. The two shotgun blasts I sustained took a horrible toll, with my health and morale dismally low as I limped across towards the medical bay. Eventually, I acquired my first pistol and began the slow process of upgrading my cybernetics, with a focus on tech and hacking in particular. I was enjoying myself, in that while the game was still ruthless in its difficulty and its lack of guidance, it felt refreshing to not have my hand held.
I was on this ship to fend for myself.
I began to realize that the dated graphics and sound had not only failed to nullify the atmosphere, but had actually managed to extend its ability to shock. Scripted moments that may seem a little pokey next to the glossy shine of newer games still provided a few jump scares. The lack of light and reliance on psychedelic colours to illuminate most areas was not only disorientating but just downright creepy. Like an old asylum or industrial building, this now old ship had taken on an even greater sense of gloom and chaos, the cracks and creaks now born from age, rather than infection.
Every single sound was loud and jolting, simulated surround echoing around my head, as I hugged the walls trying to avoid contact with the infected. Eventually SHODAN began to taunt me, just like I had remembered. I won’t give away the twists and turns, but I adored reliving SS2‘s story — not only is it interesting and unpredictable, but perfectly paced. Not a single part of this title feels like it shouldn’t be there — it was crafted to perfection, and broke many conventions of how NPCs traditionally interact with the player. Not until BioShock did another title feel like it was playing against me from the beginning, begging me to invest everything for the sake of my own survival.
It didn’t get any easier to push through as I crossed the halfway mark. I still couldn’t avoid that cold sweat forming on my back, creeping up to my neck as I hacked my way through yet another door. I don’t like the unknown, nor the unexpected, but I had to know where things were going. I didn’t remember most of the plot, and it felt like I was watching an old movie again, picking up bits and pieces as I went along. The people you meet, from the Captain, to the Scientist, and even SHODAN are all struggling with their pasts and their place in the present. That irrational fear I felt was reverberating across every person I met, including the infected, who occasionally cry for forgiveness as they attack you, the tiny portion of their humanity screaming to be released.
The lead designer on System Shock 2, Ken Levine, wanted players to feel an almost continual sense of displacement, unease and distrust. There are very few points in the game where you are not in immediate danger, nor at ease. Encounters with NPCs are anything but conventional, with conversations that range from the philosophical to downright surreal. You are at times convinced you know what is going on, and how to proceed, when everything flips on its head. This lack of stability, and subsequently, a heightened sense of perception, in my opinion, has yet to be replicated in any title, BioShock or otherwise. You have no idea how things will advance, what you will face, or who you will meet.
System Shock 2, next to Deus Ex and Planescape Torment, is easily not only one of my favourite PC games of all time, but one of the best games ever made, hands down. Even a decade later, many of the gameplay mechanics are still yet to be outclassed by many modern shooters, and the story rivals Half-Life for depth, pacing and exposition. Sure, it looks a little shoddy in place and some of the effects are downright ridiculous, but even they function, as I mentioned earlier, as a sort of historical horror placement.
I not only recommend you play, but encourage you to do so as soon as possible. SHODAN is waiting to show you around her ship.
System Shock 2 is on sale at GOG.com for $9.99.