System Shock Review – SHODAMN Good

System Shock Review – SHODAMN Good

My history with Looking Glass Studios and the many studios and titles it’s legacy inspired is fairly atypical – the first immersive sim I experienced was Deus Ex: The Conspiracy on the PlayStation 2 in 2004, a decade after the original System Shock wowed critics and players alike thanks to its innovative gameplay and unique environment. Smash-cut to 2007 and BioShock for the Xbox 360 further cemented the genre as one of my favourites, designer Ken Levine riffing on his earlier work in System Shock 2 to great effect. It’s always a joy to dig back to the roots of media we love and Nightdive Studio’s efforts on System Shock have done much to bring a 30-year-old classic to modern platforms complete with some of the baggage a sometimes-too-faithful adaptation struggles to relinquish.


System Shock puts players in the shoes of a hacker trapped aboard the Saturn-orbiting starbase Citadel Station following a coup by SHODAN, the station’s rogue AI now hellbent on destroying humanity. Citadel Station itself is comprised of a number of distinct floors which range from OH&S nightmares like the Maintenance and Storage section to the hardwood lined Executive Floors. Having previously enjoyed Prey 2017, it’s now easy to see where Arkane drew a lot of their inspiration from – going back to a title like System Shock is a fascinating experience which adds context and meaning to its many imitators and successors. Audio logs and notes scattered around each section of Citadel Station alongside some environmental storytelling communicate much of the narrative to players in a way that feels very ‘of the era’, in that players quite often need to piece things together to understand the sequence of events, let alone deduce exactly what it is they need to be doing in a given area to progress the story and defeat SHODAN.


In this way, System Shock may feel unforgiving to first time players and those used to the streamlining of modern titles, an aspect Nightdive have been restrained in practicing. I speculate this is one of many reasons behind the tumultuous development of the System Shock 2023: it remains unwavering in its commitment to the elements of the original, sometimes to the detriment of the experience in comparison to contemporaries. The UI and control scheme are fiddly and dated, while inventory management is punishing to deal with, exacerbated by a controller rather than a keyboard and mouse. The Cyberspace sections are those which to me have aged the most poorly and would have benefitted from a complete reboot rather than just a makeover – a cool concept with an execution that feels very much of its time. Combat is clunky and feels like an aspect which quite often detracts from what System Shock does well in terms of creating atmosphere and an environment that so compels exploration. In fact, much of my motivation to clear out enemies stemmed not from any enjoyment whatsoever with the combat itself, but purely because it meant I could engage in the aspects of System Shock I found fulfilling without interruption.


System Shock refuses to hold players hands which will delight certain demographics and ensure others never make it to the end credits, let alone past the first few areas. Exploration can lead to early deaths against enemies the player is unprepared for and failure to find key items, some of which are cleverly hidden, will make completing the game even more difficult (or incredibly easy if stumbled on to early in a playthrough). Fortunately, the game avoids what I like to term the ‘Resident Evil predicament’ of ending up in an area with not enough resources to complete a difficult encounter by including a respawn system for players via unlockable Regeneration Bays and a pseudo-infinite energy weapon, both of which are slightly offset by a respawn system for the enemies as well. Much like the original, System Shock has a fairly modular set of difficulty options around combat, puzzles and the dreadful cyberspace sections but be warned – these are unalterable once the game is started and making the wrong choice requires starting a new game.


Visually, I find the work Nightdive has done to be a respectable and stylish update; it eschews the ‘slick/wet’ appearance a lot of Unreal Engine games tended to take on in favour of something that captures the look and vibe of an early 90’s title made palatable for a modern audience. System Shock is by no means a visual powerhouse and it should run comfortably on most systems and gives the PlayStation 5 no troubles. Mixing aspects of Blade Runner and Alien, especially in terms of retro-futurism, colour palette and aesthetic, I have to hope Ridley Scott has a royalty cheque in the mail. A now-standard but once avant garde dynamic audio system and effective sound design kept me on my toes, listening for the distinctive barks and mechanical shuffling of bio and mech foes alike.


In keeping hold of many of the design decisions Looking Glass made when creating the original in the early 90’s, there’s a sense of Nightdive potentially repeating history with System Shock which is often remembered as a highly influential title that garnered a solid critical reception and yet achieved a relatively low number of sales. As Donald O’Connor once sang “You could charm the critics and have nothing to eat”, which remains as true now as it did in 1952 and 1994 – I was charmed by System Shock in spite of some of its flaws but realise unless many people like myself vote with their wallets, the incentive may not be there for Nightdive to follow up with System Shock 2. At the very least, anyone who has lost themselves in Deus ExDishonoredBioshock, Prey and many other titles that have cribbed heavily from the blueprint laid out here owe it to themselves to see where it all began. 

System Shock was reviewed on a PlayStation 5 system with code kindly supplied by the publisher.

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