System Shock became a cult classic when it was originally released in 1994, and there’s no denying its influence on the modern gaming landscape. Long-running series such as Deus Ex, Bioshock and Prey have all been listed as spiritual successors building on the foundation that this space horror adventure built, making it a seminal point in gaming history. The remake, first announced in 2015, promised “a faithful reboot” of the game that would offer “a modern take” on its Kickstarter page. But delivering the perfect balance of familiarity and innovation is a very delicate dance, and now that the remake is here, there are going to be some mixed reactions on how well developers Nightdive Studios have managed to perform.
When it was released, System Shock was innovative in its approach to narrative delivery, using the discovery of audio logs and emails to slowly build out the world of Citadel station. While this type of environmental storytelling-driven narrative is now more familiar to many players, it’s still an interesting way to tell a story when done effectively. For the most part, System Shock’s plot remaining largely unchanged in the remake is a fine choice, with the tale of a mysterious criminal protagonist known as “The Hacker” trying to evade the clutches of sassy rogue AI SHODAN to survive on a largely corrupted space station still holding up as a compelling story. It’s a good yarn, but the way it ties into the game’s progression creates a few frustrations that feel as if they could have used an update.
Many of the audio logs that contain information about the goings on of the station will also be the only way to gain information about how to progress through the various levels of the station and eventually (hopefully) take down SHODAN. This means that I spent a lot of time scrolling through the emails and logs I’d acquired to figure out which one told me I needed to be in a specific place, what was in that place, and where that place was. There are no quest markers or hints about where you should be going next to progress the story, only reminders of your end goal. Which is fine, that’s how it was in the original, but to throw you into the deep end and ask you to find your way through feels unnecessarily fiddly and at times incredibly frustrating.
You may have a better time with it, but after running around a space station and dying a bunch of times, I for one struggled to recall the very specific details that the game seemed to want me to remember. You could keep notes (though it’s hard to know which information will be important when it’s being presented to you) or spend time rereading through emails or logs but it just doesn’t feel fun. Plus, there is at least one instruction given to you by a character over the radio that isn’t recorded as a log but does contain crucial information about a place you should be seeking out, which would have been okay if I hadn’t missed most of what she said because I was trying not to die of a toxic sludge attack from an unavoidable droid. It just doesn’t quite feel fair.
Which is something oddly true for most of the game. Full disclosure – I’m not great at it, and some of my frustration is absolutely my fault. But I’m a games journalist and that means I play a lot of games and get by just fine. I’m not terrible. But this made me feel pretty terrible. The game gives you a minimal tutorial and then puts you into the path of increasingly difficult enemies in a series of levels that require you to run around until you hopefully stumble across something that points you in the right direction or opens up new areas to explore. Exploring those areas while staying alive is a difficult task even on the easiest difficulty setting, and I spent a lot of time retracing my steps and searching desperately for the next respawn point so that I wouldn’t spend the next ten minutes trying to get back to where I was inevitably about to die.
Again, these are all likely things that fans embraced about the original, and though the combat and inventory systems have been reimagined, it still feels like a game from the early 90’s. That will be a plus for some, and a frustration for others. The new inventory system is grid-based and highly reminiscent of (the also recently remade) Resident Evil 4’s cache. Once you’ve worked out which of the million things you’ve collected on your journey are or are not functioning weapons that you should keep, inventory management works pretty well, and a scrapping system allows you to make use of the otherwise useless things you might accidentally pick up along the way.
Combat, for many reasons, can be tricky. Enemies are weak to different types of ammunition, but trying to maintain stocks of a wide enough range of ammunition to take that into consideration when taking them on is also difficult. If you don’t have the right type of ammo when an enemy attacks, you can empty a whole clip into a cyborg or a mutant before they fall, and you’ll immediately be vulnerable again. You can buy ammo from kiosks scattered on the various levels of the station, and melee combat is an option, but many of the enemies have attacks that injure you upon death so dealing a killing blow to something with your lead pipe can ultimately be the thing that kills you too. Sometimes it’s an impossible situation. It just doesn’t quite feel adequately balanced.
There’s no denying that 2023’s System Shock is a graphical marvel that when paired side by side with the original is presumably the stuff of 1994 players’ dreams. It feels like the devs have finally been able to create the world that was originally imagined, and the dark cyberpunk aesthetic of the remake is visually stunning. From a distance, the environments feel clean and polished, exactly what you would expect from a modern Unreal Engine 4 creation, but when examined up close, items return to their pixelated roots in a very intentional way. It’s such a clever way to give a nod to the game’s origins, and will be the thing I think about most when I think back on this game. Occasionally, the rendering of these environments is so good that it’s to the game’s detriment – objects I’m supposed to interact with look exactly the same as random server lights on a computer that I’m supposed to ignore – but that’s just another example of this game’s refusal to hold your hand.
Really, this is a lot of words to sum up what I feel is quite simple – this is a remake for the fans. If you’re already well-versed in the language of this game and are used to the mechanics of games made at a similar time, you’ll fall right back into those patterns and have a great time exploring this updated world. If it’s new to you, you’ll come up against some frustrations, your tolerance for which may vary. Mine was low, and many of the frustrations stopped this game from being both fun and scary in the way the devs intended, and I’m disappointed. Sometimes, updating a game means deviating from the source material in meaningful ways to bring it to a new audience, and while there have been deviations here, I’m not sure they’re for the better. More modern, yes, but more intuitive? I’m not so sure.
Player 2 reviewed System Shock on PC using a code kindly provided by the publisher.