System Shock didn’t receive much public or critical notice when it was released, probably because it came right on the heels of Doom’s stranglehold on the market. Its choice of using a first-person interface had critics drawing unfair comparisons to Doom, and its complexity prevented gamers from the same pick-up-and-play enjoyment of its demon-blasting competition. As such, it was quickly dismissed as an uglier and unnecessarily convoluted Doom rip-off. Those that did play it sent whispers through the industry, eventually building the game’s reputation as a cult classic. Now, a decade later, we can look back and clearly see System Shock for what it really was – the defining cyberpunk game, and one of the best PC games ever made.
In 2072, the TriOptimum Corporation has placed itself in a prime position to gain exclusive mining rights to Saturn’s moons. A massive space platform, Citadel Station, has been constructed around the planet for this purpose, and is already populated with hundreds of medical and scientific researchers, engineers, and security staff. Their experiments offer the perfect cover for a sleazy, narcissistic TriOp executive named Edward Diego, who is up to the proverbial “no good.” However, when the heat turns up and he starts looking to cover his tracks, he hits a roadblock. SHODAN, the artificial intelligence monitoring and controlling the station, will not allow him access to protected log files.
Enter the player character; a rebellious, anti-heroic computer hacker caught breaking into TriOp’s network in the opening cinematic. Instead of going to jail, you’re mysteriously shipped up to Citadel for a face-to-face with Diego. He’s pulled some strings to secure you for one simple task: hack SHODAN. Your reward is a clean slate, and a military-grade neural implant that will allow you to interface with computers directly, ensuring you can hack with impunity for the rest of your days. It’s pretty much a “cake or death” scenario, and naturally, you choose the cake. The hack is a success, SHODAN is placed under Diego’s control, and you’re put in a six-month healing coma as the implant is installed. You fall asleep as Diego merrily deletes incriminating computer records, and SHODAN, free of its Asmiov-inspired ethical constraints, re-evaluates its priorities.
This is just the prologue to the masterful plot, which I still think would make a fantastic movie. (I toy with the idea of the screenplay about once a year.) After a well-made cinematic narrated by SHODAN herself, and a still instruction screen pointing out the complex layout of your HUD, the real game begins. You wake up on the medical deck six months later to find massacred corpses strewn about, the station’s benign maintenance robots suddenly hostile, and hideous mutants and cyborg monstrosities rampaging through the corridors. You shortly learn that SHODAN is somehow behind it all, and your cybernetic meddling has had some unexpectedly megalomaniacal complications. Making matters worse, she’s charging up the station’s mining laser for a strike on Earth. Using logs recorded during your six month rest, you must piece together what happened, how to stop SHODAN, and fight through the station’s new inhabitants to escape.
System Shock is a difficult game to label because it combines so many of gaming genres’ best parts into a rather unique experience. The best description would probably be to call it an adventure-horror RPG. Exploration plays an enormous role in the game, but so does combat, puzzle-solving, and strategy. It should come as no surprise that this genre blending is attached to the name Warren Spector, who is famous for producing this game, as well as the two Deus Ex games – also known for being great adventure RPGs.
The choice to go with a first person perspective was done so to place you inside the wrecked station, and bring the horror to a much more personal experience, not to offer the same in-your-face action of Doom. As such, the two games play entirely differently. System Shock is slow and steady, with its enemies more deadly, and supplies noticeably fewer. You have an inventory. Your combat effectiveness is limited by the weapons and ammo types you find. You’re generally only as healthy as your next medpatch. Blasting mutants is done much more safely by leaning out from cover, and then retreating as fast as possible. In Doom, if you even thought of using a hit and fade technique, you were either fighting the Cyberdemon, or were a pussy.
The game’s cyber interface is another step apart from other games. Your HUD is projected by your neural implant, and provides you with a plethora of options and multifunction screens. Weapon status, automaps, inventory listings, targeting data, and more all share the screen across three main displays at the bottom of your monitor. You set each independent of the others. The layout really has more in common with a flight sim than a typical FPS, and can often get clunky at times. Though all the information is useful at points, it’s not so useful in the heat of battle, where windows are appearing on the screen like pop-up ads on a porn site. You can click buttons to switch and clear displays, which is helpful, and most of the windows simply reappear when applicable. Also, your implant allows you to use certain combat modules, like night vision, or a window showing the view from behind you. Many of these are beneficial, and all are upgradeable.
The interface also allows you to jack into cyberspace at certain areas, where you can get info, critical codes, or unlock real world doors from within the computer. This is represented as a 3-D wireframe maze you fly freely within, interacting with visual representations of programs and data. It’s a neat addition, and one of the best representations of “cyberspace” in gaming. You can download programs to expand your abilities, including combat software to fight watchdog programs and decoding software to free protected files. Unfortunately, cyberspace is woefully underused. Very few things in the game are actually affected from cyberspace, and often, codes necessary to continue the plot can be found in physical areas of the station just as easily. You will have to enter cyberspace at least once in the game, but it’s enjoyable enough that you’ll wish you have more reason to.
The star of the show, unquestioningly, is SHODAN. Mixing a combination of HAL 9000’s cold logic with a chilling amount of pure malevolence, SHODAN serves as the game’s villain from start to finish. Unlike other games of the time, where the “villain” appeared only in cutscenes and a final boss fight at the end, SHODAN keeps her presence known with nearly every step you take. As you stop one plan to destroy Earth, she instantly comes up with a new one that makes further creative use of the station’s systems. She sends you emails taunting and threatening you. She uses her cybernetic influence over the station to lock doors and control systems. She sets traps and ambushes. Anytime you meddle with her plans, you can expect her to send a contingent of cyborg killers to squash you. You can even see her watching you through security cameras, or catch a glimpse of her face on a computer monitor. She’s evil, she’s cunning, she’s always watching, and she makes sure you know it. All of these actions are scripted, of course, but the first time playing though, you’ll be unnerved at the level of interaction she maintains and just what she has up her digital sleeves.
The difficulty level is completely adjustable across four points, which is actually quite clever. You can independently control the difficulty of combat, cyberspace, puzzles, and the plot. This allows you to create a mostly plot-free linear romp through the station, with tough and frequent enemies to blast. Or, you could make a quest-filled game that forces you to run back and forth through the station to complete your tasks, with weakened, sparse enemies. Or you can tailor the difficulty to something in between. The hardest of the difficulty options will impose a real time limit of seven hours on beating the game, which is highly realistic and highly tough to pull off.
If System Shock has but one downfall, it’s the wildly complex control system it imposes upon you. Nine keys control your movement, including turning, strafing, and leaning. Three control the tilt of your view. Three control your body position from standing to lying prone. None of these can be remapped. You also cannot use the mouse to look around, because the mouse controls an ever-present cursor on your screen. Left clicking interacts with world items and your cyber HUD. Right clicking fires your weapon wherever the cursor is pointing. Cyberspace further contains its own 3D control system, different from the rest of the game. The systems work reasonably well once you get used to them, and do keep the game’s multitude of options ready at your fingertips. Yet still, you can’t change the configuration, so you must use the keyboard for all character movement, and the mouse for all interactions. This is the gaming equivalent of patting your head while you rub your stomach.
System Shock’s graphics are reasonably good for its time, though they lack a bit of the polish, and definitely the speed, of competing FPSs. Your character moves slowly, causing part of the trouble, but the entire engine seems to be slightly sluggish as well. It gets visibly choppy when sprinting or spinning quickly. The enemies, pickups, and bodies are all sprite based, but the engine itself creates a convincing replication of 3D. If nothing else, the ability to look up and jump set the game apart from other period FPS titles. Lighting effects are fairly advanced as well, with lights that flicker, fade, and dim. Some areas are completely dark until activated with a light switch, and others must be navigated with a lantern that lights a small radius around your character.
The details put into the station are the most impressive part, and every level and every section has a distinct purpose and a unique feel. They help to make the station feel realistic and alive, which in turn makes the situation and sights more frightening. The monsters are also generally well-designed, though you’ll wish they could be more detailed. If you have half an imagination though, you’ll fill in the gruesome gaps yourself. Floppy users are stuck with original VGA graphics, but the CD release does include enhanced resolutions.
The major reason to track down the CD release the fantastic audio that comes with it. Station logs and emails become fully voiced by a pretty good cast, and it is here that you will get to hear the infamous synthesized voice of SHODAN, performed expertly by Terri Brosius. Alternating pitch between a child a monster, filled with digital distortion and a creepy trademark stutter, the voice of SHODAN is half of what makes her such a terrifying villain. Unless you simply don’t have a choice, you owe it to yourself to play the CD version. Other effects suit the game perfectly, from the unique chatter of every weapon, to directionally-based sounds of monsters and cyborgs. The CD release is really the only way to go, and worth any trouble you have to go through to find it.
If you’re into classic gaming, you should have already played this by now. If not, you owe it to yourself. This is one of the few games on the site that I can wholeheartedly recommend tracking down on Ebay or Amazon and going to the trouble of a purchase. It’s simply astounding as a horror game, an adventure game, and an RPG, and a knockout punch as all three.
One of the best games ever made. Do everything short of beating an old lady to get the CD version.
Wacky control system, hefty DOS requirements make it nearly impossible to run on Windows, but some research should find appropriate tweaks.