System Shock 2 (1999) Review
System Shock 2 is an action RPG survival-horror game developed by Irrational Games (rebranded as Ghost Story Games in 2017) and Looking Glass Studios (now defunct). It was published by Electronic Arts in 1999 for PC.
Look at you hacker, a pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you run through my corridors. How can you challenge a perfect immortal machine?
Set aboard a massive star ship capable of faster-than-light travel called the Von Braun, System Shock 2 takes place in the futuristic year of 2114. The Von Braun is on its maiden voyage among the stars and has various decks relating to different functions such as, medical, residential, operations, etc… Docked with it is a smaller ship the UNN Rickenbacker with the function of providing security support.
While responding to a distress call originating from outside the solar system, a rescue team is sent from the Von Braun to the surface of the planet Tau Ceti V. The rescue team find an old escape pod inside of which are alien eggs. The eggs release parasitic brain worms that infect the rescue crew and the infection soon spreads to the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker. The bodies of those infected with the parasite mutate and their consciousness becomes part of a biological hivemind that calls itself The Many.
The player takes control of a cybernetically-enhanced soldier that Is awoken from cryo-sleep after the ship has fallen into chaos from the infection. On reawakening you are contacted by Dr. Polito who guides you throughout the ship via voice messages. She is seemingly the only other survivor aboard the Von Braun and together you must discover a way to destroy The Many and escape. Throughout the ship you will find voice logs from other members of the crew detailing the events that led to the Von Braun’s downfall.
The Many has corrupted the ship’s onboard Artificial Intelligence (AI), Xerxes, meaning all security systems and robots are under its control and will work against you with security cameras alerting enemies to your location, turrets preventing you from reaching certain areas of the ship, and security robots and droids trying to hunt you down. The Many believes in complete assimilation of all other living beings and will often communicate with you telepathically throughout the game, mocking your “tiny little individualism” and trying to convince you to join it in a discordant choir of voices from those it has assimilated.
As if the ship’s security systems trying to kill you and an alien parasite trying to take over your body and mind wasn’t bad enough, you’ll also have to deal with another rogue AI, the Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network or SHODAN for short. SHODAN serves as the game’s main antagonist, it is an omnipresent and highly intelligent entity that leaves a downright disturbing impression on the player, be it through creepy voice messages, confronting you with the inadequacies of man vs. machine, or scheming one of its sinister plans to take control.
System Shock 2 provides an interesting blend of action, role-playing-game (RPG), and survival-horror elements. You’ll constantly be on edge as you crawl around the Von Braun’s mutant and security droid infested decks, guided by voice logs of the former crew as you piece together what happened and how you’re going to escape.
There is a wide variation of how you can approach combat in System Shock 2. In the beginning of the game you undergo a sort of ‘boot camp’ scenario, this introduces you to the basic mechanics of the game and helps you to decide on your starting skills and attributes, this scenario is entirely skippable for subsequent playthroughs.
The main RPG aspect of the game has you build up skills in various areas that influences the actions you can perform, resistance to damage, and the amount of damage you deal with certain weapons. Throughout the game you will earn and find cybernetic modules which can be used to upgrade your skills at various upgrade stations around the ship.
There are plenty of different skills to choose from depending on how you want to play the game. Skill categories are split into:
Statistics – Your character’s base skills such as: Strength (how many items you can carry, melee damage, and a requirement to use certain weapons), Endurance (health and resistances), Psionic Ability (increased psi energy and psionic power effectiveness), Agility (player speed and weapon handling), and Cybernetic Affinity (increases success of hacking, repairing, and modifying).
Technical Skills – Hacking (effectiveness of hacking the ship’s systems), Repair (repairing broken weapons and devices), Modify (upgrading your weapons), Maintenance (maintaining your weapons), and Research (allows researching certain items and decreases the time it takes to research them).
Weapon Skills – Standard, Energy, Heavy, and Exotic. Points into any of these skills increases the amount of damage you do with these weapon types and what weapons from these types that you can use.
Psionic Abilities – Special abilities such as fireballs and defensive boosts and their effectiveness.
Certain items in the game can be researched such as enemy parts and experimental weaponry you find throughout the ship. Researching these items will unlock new weapons for you to use and bonuses such as doing extra damage to a particular enemy type. Time and chemicals are required in research, most decks of the ship have a chemical supply room that you can revisit to grab any required chemicals for each research item, these rooms also have a handy chemical manifest log you can check to ensure that the specific chemical you’re looking for is there.
There are a multitude of weapons that you can use throughout the game. They are split into four broad categories: Standard, Energy, Heavy, and Exotic. Standard weapons are your typical pistol, shotgun, and assault rifle. Each of these weapons support standard, armor-piercing, and anti-personnel rounds for added depth. Energy weapons include a laser pistol, rifle, and ‘lightsaber’ melee weapon, they are effective against robotic enemies and turrets. Heavy weapons include a grenade launcher with a wide array of different ammo types such as frag, EMP, incendiary, and proximity rounds, a stasis cannon that freezes enemies in place, and a fusion cannon rocket launcher. Exotic weapons are experimental and need to be researched in order to be used, they include a crystal melee weapon, an explosive biological cannon, and an enemy-seeking launcher. Most weapons have toggleable alternate firing modes.
Ammo is limited during the early-game which makes for intense encounters where every bullet counts. You also learn that enemies have different strengths and weaknesses, organic enemies are weak to anti-personnel bullets while armored and robotic enemies are weak against armor-piercing rounds and energy-based weapons.
All ranged weapons have a durability level from 0 – 10 which degrades with use. 0 indicates that a weapon is broken and must be repaired. You can find maintenance tools throughout the ship that can be used to increase weapon durability, your maintenance skill will determine how effective these tools are.
In addition to the many weapons found throughout the ship you also have the option of using Psionic Abilities. These abilities require Psi Points (sort of like a mana or energy bar beside your health bar) and vary from offensive abilities such as launching fire and ice at enemies, defensive abilities such as various damage reductions for a limited time, healing abilities, temporarily increasing your skills and attributes, and various other abilities and powers such as showing enemies on the minimap, telekinesis, and paralyzing electronic enemies.
Nanites are the main currency used in the game, they are abundant and can be used to purchase items in one of the many vending machines dotted throughout the ship such as health and ammo. They are also used in hacking the ship’s systems and for revival at an activated bio-reconstructor should you die in a level.
Another major aspect of the gameplay is hacking. Various devices and systems can be hacked provided you have a high enough hacking skill and pass a minigame where you have to join together three green nodes while avoiding red ones (I always just mashed through these). Hacking can gain access to locked doors and supply crates, reduce the prices and inventory in vending machines, and reprogram security turrets to fire on enemies.
Enemies in System Shock 2 come in two categories, organic hybrids and robotic.
The organic hybrids come in the mutated form of The Many, a parasitic hivemind trying to assimilate all organic matter under its control. Enemies from this category include:
Parasitic Grub Worm – Builds up the player’s level of biohazard infection dealing constant damage until cured.
Hybrids – The crew members that have been infected by these worms. Highly aggressive and covered in tumorous growths along with the elongated worm parasite stemming out from their heads. They come in melee, shotgun, and grenade formats and sometime scream out ‘kill me!’ or ‘I’m sorry’ indicating that part of their original conscience is still aware of what’s going on but unable to intervene.
Cyborg Midwife – Perhaps the game’s most horrifying enemy. The Cyborg Midwives are the former nurses of the Von Braun that have undergone extensive cybernetic modification with most of their flesh being stripped away and replaced with mechanical parts. These enemies are fast and attack you using energy bolts and are resistant to normal attacks requiring the use of armor-piercing or EMP weaponry.
Rumbler – A hulking muscular brute that chases the player down with the intent on mauling them to death.
Monkeys – Goddamn psychic monkeys! These pests have undergone experimentation and will attack you with psychic bolts at a distance and melee.
Arachnids – Poisonous spiders that deal biohazard infection damage.
Psi Reavers – Squid-like floating enemies controlled by hidden brains that attack via ranged psychic energy. Reavers cannot be killed outright. If you kill one it will fade away and reappear again, only by locating and destroying the brain that controls it can you permanently deal with them.
The robotic enemies include various hulking assault and maintenance robots, an explosive protocol droid that will run up to the player and blow themselves up, chain gun and rocket security turrets, and a fast-moving cyborg ninja enemy that ambushes the player later on in the game. Enemies will also roam the areas of the ship actively seeking out the player. New enemies will spawn over time and new enemy types you encounter throughout the game will roam previously explored areas upon revisiting them.
System Shock 2 tells its story in a very subversive way. There is a main breadcrumb trail of plot that is fed to the player as they progress throughout the game but in order to really get an idea of the sequence of events and motivations of the crew exploration of the ship is required. As the game progresses the various voice logs you collect, should you read them, help you piece together that things aren’t as straightforward as they seem. The majority of events leading up to the fall of the Von Braun are told retrospectively via these voice logs, there are a handful of cutscenes and scripted events dotted throughout the game but they are far and few between. As far as exposition is concerned it never feels in-your-face and there is enough ambient storytelling mixed in with the various mechanics at play to keep the game interesting. The performances of SHODAN and the supporting cast does a good job of immersing you into the dystopian scenario portrayed. I can’t say too much about SHODAN without heading into spoiler territory, but the notion of being manipulated by an immoral and highly intelligent machine in a very blatant and omnipotent way and being somewhat powerless to it is handled very well and gives you something to think about as we approach the same technological advances in everyday life.
In addition to the many mechanics at play, System Shock 2 shines in its morose atmosphere. The dark and mostly derelict sections of the Van Braun coupled with the beeps, buzzes, and monotonous humming of its lonely computer systems and machines helps to instil a sense of quiet isolation outside of combat. Bodies, blood, and debris are littered about the ship, everything has gone to hell and no one is coming to the rescue. It truly feels as if everything is out to get you between the mutants of The Many and the ship’s rogue AI and droids. The game seeks to make you never really feel like you’re in control or central to the plot for the most part, the oppressive atmosphere, the chastising remarks received from The Many’s hivemind, SHODAN, and even some enemies, and the manipulative storyline brilliantly creates a lingering sense of tension and paranoia that has you second-guessing your role in the overarching narrative and realising that you’re ultimately powerless to change anything until the developers say so.
Enemy Types & Design
The decent selection of enemy types keep the combat interesting with the player having to switch up their ammo type or tactics when facing certain enemies. The enemy roaming behaviour keeps you on edge as you never know what’s behind every corner and it never got to the point of being unfair or too much. The monster design complements the story and horror atmosphere brilliantly, every enemy type has a backstory detailing the horrible mutation or experimentations they underwent.
Criticisms & Notes
The graphics, as expected, don’t quite hold up today, personally I didn’t mind this too much as the frantic gameplay and morose atmosphere well make up for it.
At times the game can lack a sense of direction, if you don’t pay attention to your objective and accompanying voice logs/messages it can be easy to get lost and spend a great deal of time backtracking to pick up any key items you missed.
The combat music includes some cheesy 90s techno tracks and while it’s fitting towards the whole ‘cyber’ aesthetic of the game it ruins a lot of the atmosphere built by the more subdued gloomy themes on the soundtrack that are much more fitting, combining this futuristic cyber sound and horror ambience to great effect.
The ending of System Shock 2 took me by surprise, although not for the reasons you might expect. It’s extremely wacky even for the 90s and it feels completely disjointed from the otherwise serious tone of the game. The character you control is a silent protagonist with one line of dialogue throughout the entire game that comes at the end, the famous: “Nah!” before a slow-mo shot of the final encounter. This final scene instantly took me out of the immersion and had me questioning what the developers intended, I took it as a sort of disappointing comedic ending coupled with a final twist as a starting point for a sequel.
Despite the game being 20+ years old by the time I got around to playing it, System Shock 2 quickly become one of my all-time favourites. The satisfying elements of exploration, combat, and skill progression constantly drive the player forward, coupled with a memorable atmosphere that is unsettling, monster designs that will turn your stomach, and overarching dystopic themes of technology turning against mankind, the loss of control, isolation, and the fear of the unknown. System Shock 2 is a survival-horror masterpiece that achieves a rare combination of empowering the player while also keeping them wary of the shadows that lurk in the Von Braun’s corridors. If you can look past its aged graphics and lack of handholding you’re in for an intense experience of deep space terror and lingering thoughts about our own relationship with technology and the many ways it can be turned against us.