System Shock: Hands-on Preview
SHODAN, the AI supercomputer that saw humanity as a plague to be altered and ultimately destroyed through robotic experimentation and ultra-violence, has long been forgotten. Through two games she established herself as one of the most feared antagonists in video games, chilling all who encountered her machinations to the bone, but then, the world moved on. Stories of SHODAN remained as the player base grew older, she became something of a campfire legend. “Sure, GLADOS was creepy” we would tell the young folk “But let me tell you about a truly diabolical computer” but the fear was gone and her legend faded into the recesses of the collective memory. That is, until now. SHODAN is back and let me tell you, she is just as terrifying as ever.
Thanks to a recent press event hosted by Plaion, I was lucky enough to spend a good chunk of time with the System Shock remake and once again feel the fear that only SHODAN can emanate. It was the same build that was playable on the PAXAus floor, but I purposely avoided playing it there. Why? Well, a busy show floor is not where I wanted to encounter my old adversary for the first time in well over 20 years. No, she deserved a much more intimate rendevous and that is what this event provided. I am very glad I waited because I feel like I would have missed the impact had I played this in amongst the hustle and bustle of PAX
The first thing that is immediately obvious is that this is a game that is designed for those that played the original. The feel, the ambience, and the look are all designed with nostalgia at the forefront. The graphics, while at a distance look quite respectable, but in close everything is pixelated and grainy. This is intentional and it gave me the “nostalgia glasses” effect. Essentially, the game looks like how I remember the game looking, not the reality of how it actually looked. In this modern era of remakes keeping the basics of the game being remade and everything else being souped up to modern standards, it is a bold choice, but one that works with this property. Half the fear and tension in the original game was created by the poor lighting, hard-to-see environments and grainy visuals, to lose that would have potentially lost the heart and soul of the game.
There have been some important modernisations of course. The original System Shock came out in a time before the humble “mouse-look” function was standard. You had to use WASD to look around and the arrow keys to move. Thankfully that anarchism has been done away with and we can all look freely around this tortured space station as god intended, with a mouse. The sound design has come a long way too, with spatial and 3D audio effects being a long way from what was capable on an 16bit Soundblaster card back in the day. I am not sure if they got the original voice actor for SHODAN back or if they have simply cleaned up the old audio files, but it is a powerhouse voice performance that still leeches bravery from the player in ways very few antagonists can. What the dev team have smartly done is only improved things that add immersion to System Shock, they haven’t fiddled with the core at all and fans of the original are really going to appreciate that.
My biggest worry about this release however is how modern gamers will approach it. For fans like myself, it is an easy win, a smart update of a game we already love. But there are a lot of things that younger gamers have never had to deal with, anarchisms that may put people off. There is little to no signposting, spotting interactive items can be tough, inventory management is a bit of a chore and it is very easy to lose your way and get turned around in this labrynth-like setting. The fact is, games aren’t like this anymore and for those that haven’t experienced it, it may be a bridge too far.
Worries aside, I am very excited to spend more time with this long-awaited remake. System Shock and its sequel are such pivotal titles in both my gaming history as well as the medium at large. Games like Dead Space, Calisto Protocol and Prey have all sprung out of the territory that System Shock pioneered and it is wonderful that a new audience will get to see those genre beginnings for themselves. As for the older crowd like myself, the ability to once again revel in the tension it provides is a gift that I fully intended to appreciate once the game is finally on my home PC in March next year.