System Shock 2 - Brutal Backlog

April 23, 2018

Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best games will stand up to scrutiny today.

Before BioShock (which I loved) and BioShock Infinite (which was OK, but not a patch on the first), Irrational Games developed a futuristic horror named System Shock 2. It’s staggering to think that it’s almost twenty years old now, but the impact it had on the FPS genre is such that the likes of Deus Ex owe a huge debt to it — despite it being a huge commercial failure. Even so, it remained one of those iconic games that grew mouldy in my Steam library. No longer. If Deus Ex remains as playable today as it was in 2000, then surely this 1999 forerunner is still worth booting up? I really hope so.

Fifteen Minutes In

I’ll admit it: I’ve been spoiled by modern graphics. When the game loaded and a windowed, pixel-heavy cutscene kicked off, I had to fight off every instinct to shut it down. It’s like when you look back at games like Wolfenstein 3D and wonder how on earth you managed to navigate the map. Yet, I have to remind myself that I absolutely loved Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2, which came out three years earlier than System Shock 2. And when the game environment loaded, I was genuinely relieved. The design is clean, familiar, and….very early millennium. There are the customary training sections which are as clunky as you might expect, the hilarious weapon-changing animations which look like someone practicing gun puppetry, and the rooms with people in which have no discernible entrance. How did they get in there?!

You'll need more than Vanish to get that out of the sheets.

Still, I’ve had to choose between one of three disciplines — Marines (armed to the teeth), Navy (hack-tastic), and OSA (psionic powers). Rightly or wrongly, I assumed that I’d be able to use guns even if I wasn’t a Marine, and OSA seemed pretty fiddly, so I’ve opted to join the Navy. I play pretty much every FPS game as a stealth build where possible anyway, so this seemed the logical choice. I hope I don’t regret it…

One Hour In

After the tutorials I was pushed into mission select stages, which took place over multiple years. I was told what the outcome of each mission would be in terms of an increase in my stats, but instead of actually doing the mission, I simply got given a synopsis of what happened. It seems like this was some sort of character build mechanic, but it feels a little strained. Why not just incorporate it into the start of the game? Also, while things like movement and shooting are explained, stats such as Research and Endurance are not. I made blind guesses based on very few facts, hoping they wouldn’t cripple me early on. Ten minutes later, I was given tutorials about how those same stats worked. Arse about face doesn’t come close to describing it.

FMV sequences bookend the game. They haven't dated well.

Soon after, a lot of exposition planted me on a ship in the future, taken over by some “things”, and with only a friendly voice to guide me through the decks. So far, so BioShock, right down to the freakily voiced enemies. They may look like a Minecraft version of Twi’leks, but when they appeared after I set off an alarm I felt genuinely unnerved — the excellent audio deserves a lot of the credit here.

Three Hours In

I am beginning to wonder how people can “enjoy” playing games like this today. The story is fine so far, but the interface? The gameplay mechanics? Horrendous. Ranged weapons are just about passable with the crosshair, but melee is laughable. I find myself running back and forth between monsters, trying to time my attack while dodging the collision detection of theirs. Yet even this is bearable when compared to the inventory and skill system. It feels like it’s been designed by someone who was really good at Excel 97 and decided to make a pretty interface for it.

While you can switch weapons with the mouse wheel, many of those weapons jam and cannot be repaired without the appropriate skill. You can unload the ammo from them (an extra action) and dump the gun, or move — as I did — to Psi powers. Even then, the GUI gets in the way, forcing me to switch between powers in a sub-menu. Combat becomes less about fighting monsters and more about fighting the interface. You can hit TAB to bring it up, but then the camera is locked vertically, leaving you vulnerable. I have spent around a quarter of my total play time just moving things around the inventory to make them fit. That this came out a year after Half-Life shows the incredible gulf between the two engines. Goldsrc, a heavily modified version of the Quake Engine, ensured the former game is both playable and enjoyable today. System Shock 2, using the Dark Engine, is a mess.

Grr! Argh!

Beneath the clunky surface is an intriguing sci-fi horror, as well as the seeds of brilliance which would end up informing classic games like Deus Ex and BioShock. Audio logs — often ridiculed today as a lazy storytelling trope — make sense here, mostly. The environments which feel dated now were undoubtedly at the top end of the graphical spectrum upon release, while secret containers, ammo and nanites (the game currency) are placed in nooks for the curious to discover, often to their peril — but there is something addictive about the world which makes me want to open that next door and poke around, rather than just blaze through.

Except, just as I feel like I’m starting to like the game it does something to make me furious. Maybe it’s the laborious pacing which forces me to check every inch of wall for cameras, lest I set off an alarm that hurls xenomorph enemies at me for a solid two minutes. Perhaps it’s the unfair way I get picked off from unseen locations by monkeys hurling energy balls (no, seriously). Mostly it’s the environment itself: clunky, remorseless, repetitive. The open world environments you’re used to today were nowhere to be seen at the turn of the millennium. Instead, you move from area to area under the guise of finding the next important person to help you figure out what happened, all disguising a simple “get key, unlock door” scenario which repeats itself until the bitter end. It might be a keycard or a passcode. It might be a cargo bay or an R&D lab — it doesn’t matter. The objective is the same, even if the corridors are a slightly different shade of grey.

Something...bad...happened here.

Why my Psi weapon looks like a cut-down sphygmomanometer is another matter. Perhaps Irrational thought that it would be a subtle visual metaphor for the game’s tension. But after the fifth moaning corpse shambles towards me, the shock value is well and truly spent.

Ten Hours In

You know what I really hate? Degrading weapons. Especially ones which can jam at any moment, when you’re desperately trying to shoot a hybrid while on practically zero health. Degrading weapon quality is something that has never, ever been a fun game mechanic. It’s not been portrayed in a realistic way to date. So why do we continue to include it in games, such as the latest Zelda? It boggles the mind. Thankfully, my trusty wrench and Psi powers have managed to get me through most encounters. The former is more about gaming the system, since I just circle around enemies out of the range of their attack while swinging at them. It probably wasn’t in the spirit of the game, but combat is so unenjoyable that I’m trying to get through it as quickly as I can.

Twenty-Four Hours In

I’m in what I assume to be the final area, a mass of biomaterial which is as horrible to look at as it is to navigate. The last few hours have been awful. Toxic creatures infected me, and I had no anti-toxin. Ammo is like gold dust, and I’ve resorted to using my Psi invisibility to get past every major obstacle that wants to kill me. But the body of The Many is another level entirely: a relentless gauntlet of enemies smashed into an environment that, if it were alive, my keyboard would recoil at the thought of me traversing. Jumping is frankly horrific, an unresponsive, uncoordinated mess of a function which would likely have seen my controller flung across the room, if I’d been using one instead of the mouse and keyboard. I get into a building, and am immediately set upon by flies, spiders and a fleshy monster. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve reloaded. Every part of me is screaming to quit this game, but I’ve invested so much time into it now that I need to grit my teeth and see it through.

Xerxes is the original ship computer, but mainly just locks you out of places.

Twenty-Nine Hours In

It wasn’t the final area. There was yet more. A sort of Tron rip-off, followed by a boss fight that required hacking. Given hacking had a varying chance of success, I had to resort to saving between each completed stage to finish the game. If I hadn’t, I’d probably still be playing in 2030. The plot left orbit not long after the UNN Rickenbacker did, disappearing up its own mutant sphincter. Did we really need this much game for so shallow a story? And don’t get me started on the final scenes which contained more corn than a field in Iowa. I cannot believe that ending was the payoff for so much graft. I’m exhausted and more than a little angry.

Oh, Shodan. You disappointed me so much.

Final Verdict

When Jump Dash Roll launched Brutal Backlog, we made the decision to judge a game by today’s standards for a number of reasons. Truly great games have mechanics which still render them playable and enjoyable, one, two and even three decades after release. System Shock 2 is not one of these games. It is horribly dated, has developed an inexplicable cult following, and may well be one of the most frustrating first-person experiences I’ve had in many, many years. What it does contain are the elements which would appear in many later, better games by the studio. However, I simply cannot understand the amount of love this was given at the time — it’s a pedestrian FPS with RPG elements and a weak story at best, and a horrible, clunky mess of an experience at worst. Thankfully the former is more predominant than the latter. Perhaps in 1999 we were a lot more forgiving as an industry. If you’re thinking of going back to play this now, I would advise against it —  there are games that have aged far better than this one.

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Worth playing? NO - it's unlikely to be worth your time.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.