System Shock 2 Review (Part 1 of 2)

Note: This is part one of a two part review. Part one will deal mainly with story, some wider context of the game when it was released and some overall game design. Part two which will talk about element such as the rpg mechanics and gameplay, will be up on Tuesday the 18th of October. Thank you for your time and have a nice Friday.

— ALSO I spoil the crap out of this game ❤ —

— ALSO ALSO – Part 2 is now up

The BioShock franchise might be one of the most important of the last generation of gaming. It carried the torch for immersive storytelling in videogames and on a grander scale with higher fidelity graphics and bombastic set-pieces and thoughtful storytelling delivered with grandeur on a large scale and one of beauty and meaningful emotional intricacy with smaller momentary interactions with characters. Plus, it was really tense and creepy. Before BioShock, there was the System Shock series, one which we can discernibly notice the DNA structure of BioShock’s game design. The immersive yet claustrophobic environments, the anxiety of not knowing what’s around the corner and if it will kill you or not. They both artfully create interesting, human (or inhuman) worlds that have more to tell than just blank, grey walls but give signs of what lived there and what ordeals characters lived through.

System Shock 2 is set 42 years after the events of the first game, our protagonist wakes up from cryo-sleep on the Von Braun, a space ship exploring the cosmos, and finds it in complete chaos and disarray after it was infested by an enemy known as the Many, a parasitic entity that takes over host organisms, turning people into zombie hybrids and attempts to bind disparate consciousnesses into one overarching mindset, like the Borg from Star Trek. We are guided along the way by Dr. Polito, the no-nonsense chief scientist on board, who tells you what to do and where to go in order to save the ship, a lot like Andrew Ryan from BioShock. The game creates fear and unease from the get-go and that your life is at great risk in a place of dangerous threats that lurk along its corridors, and each new area discovered unveils more about the moribund Von Braun and the events that occurred.

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Sometimes it’s difficult for games to tell a lot about its story without the player feeling like it’s being shoved down its throat. Some are overwrought with bland, unimaginative cutscenes, others have you reading through miles of text. We see the world through the eyes of the protagonist but experience the story and mythos of System Shock 2 primarily through audio messages or logs that we pick up from the inhabitants of the Von Braun. They are a wide-ranged cast of individuals who will chronicle their struggle and eventual demise from the parasitic entity that takes over the ship.  These background characters would never be considered important perhaps for some developers but Irrational Games’ emphasis on having these characters give introspective insights into the relationships they share with the overall story that fleshes out the overall plot even more plus giving the player a deeper appreciation for the world this game creates.

The logs are also vital sources of information that we need to acquire in order to beat the game. System Shock 2 does not point out vividly current objectives but rather. There is a lot of noise in distraction sometimes in this game, often there will be a fast-paced, very nineties soundtrack along with the sound of enemies screeching and attacking you meanwhile, SHODAN is trying to tell you to go to a certain section on a certain deck and enter a code. Messages can be lost in this cacophony but can be accessed again later, as can messages from Dr. Polito or SHODAN

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The map system is truly of its time, a flat grid system with not much interactivity to work with. It feels flat and oftentimes difficult to read. However it is necessary to become accustomed to the map design given how easy it is to get lost in this game with some labyrinthine ship design at display here especially on Deck 5, Recreations where small corridors and rooms are packed closely together. Another issue I have with the map is that each deck has themselves different levels that you travel up and down constantly which adds further complexity to the map system, which often induces further headaches when trying to interpret it.

What information you can gather from the map changes as you go from one area to another, from the bowels of the Von Braun upwards to the Rickenbacker attached to it and beyond into some otherworldly domains. The map becomes less detailed on the Rickenbacker until finally we are left to our own devices when we encounter the Many or SHODAN’S respective lairs. The game however, becomes more straightforward, and the later levels, less complicated.

System Shock 2 places the player in a dark, moody setting that only exacerbates the tension and fearful mood this game creates, The Von Braun is full of uncertainty with corners and doors that might result in horrific death if we decide to go further. Each level is designed to fit a certain function on the ship, be it engineering or a recreation deck.. A lot these levels feel unique even though we notice a lot of the same textures and assets but re-purposed deftly to fit a certain function that we may not notice. There are also unique features that give each one their own individuality, making it more immersive and believable that this ship could contain its own microcosm of people living on it. The Von Braun also shows the wears of chaos upon its interiors and the environmental design showcases how this can be used to good effect with random graffiti strewn upon its walls or bodies and limps found all across the ship. The ship itself tells the story of how the Many could take over a ship so graphically thanks to this and the audio logs.

There are also other locations the player can visit in the game such as the Rickenbacker, which feels similar to the Von Braun yet more cramped and armed to the teeth with lasers. The Many map is an organic and complete contrast to the ships. It takes twists and turns but is fairly linear despite the fact that it appears otherwise. It’s mostly comprised of tunnels inside a large living breathing organism. The whole structure is designed to emulate that of an organism with stomach of sorts, a brain, and the minions that we encounter throughout the game become its blood cells, transporting things throughout the whole or defending the Many from attack. We also only experience SHODAN’s domain for a brief while but still feels fitting for a final encounter with the Big Bad.

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This game also treats the player to not one but two major key antagonists each one an enemy to each other as well the player eventually. The one that stands out in this game is obviously SHODAN who treats the players to many twists and unveiling of hidden agendas throughout the game. Its character traits are fitting for such an AI that has run rampant, with its god complex and desire to bend reality to its will. It will belittle the player much like in the previous game, giving the player their very own pet name, “insect.” Its ramblings of its own importance and the players inferiority are also delivered in a disturbing array of audio pitch changes and effects that makes SHODAN even more threatening and scary. SHODAN never stops adding to the sense of fear and anxiety that exists throughout the game with its dialogue and performance and will constantly remind you of the dangers that you will face when doing what it tells you to do.

The Many is the main threat you face throughout the game. Its parasitic nature and desire to unify all life into one are similar tropes we’ve seen in other science fiction but still remains an intimidating foe to face, thanks to the dangerous hordes of enemies it lashes out at us and there’s something scary about something that will take control of your body and consciousness without difficulty. The Many serves as a good contrast to SHODAN who seeks to control through her version of reality that accepts cold steel and wires over “the splendor of the flesh.” The final battle between the player and the Many is also a tad more difficult as a never ending swarm of hulking enemies try to end you while you attack its brain.

SHODAN and the Many are inextricably linked in System Shock 2. The Many exists because of SHODAN and SHODAN can use the carnage cause by the Many to inflict her will upon Earth. They are two pillars that help give this game structure that ends with two big boss fights at the end of the game. There is a sense of narrative cohesiveness in this game with all the major characters that are tied together in the game despite this game’s emphasis on fear and uncertainty. And the minor characters help give vital information about what happened to the ship before our protagonist woke from his cryo-sleep.

End of Part One.

 

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