I’ve said before that nostalgia can blind you when it comes to opinions on games. It’s much harder to see the flaws in something you love, and when you look back on a an especially good experience, it tends to make you believe that experience and the game itself are timeless. The GOOD news is, sometimes that feeling is dead-on accurate. The GOG.com release of Irrational Games’ and Looking Glass Studios’ System Shock 2 is, happily, one of those times.
How does a game remain so relevant fourteen years after it’s release? With an elegance of design that must be played to be understood. System Shock 2 remains a tightly paced, incredibly well written piece that shows a consistency of theme that forces the player to stand up and take notice. Hybridizing FPS controls with an RPG core simply has never been so flawlessly executed. The fact that in fourteen years nothing comes close is frankly a bit shocking.
Cards on the table time. System Shock 2 LOOKS dated. Even with hi-res patches (linked to on GOG.com and helpfully explained by forum members), the graphics are from a bygone era. To those to whom that matters, I ask that you stop reading now. Nothing I say from this point on will convince you to play. Just know that you’re missing out on an experience like no other. There are many other reasons why this has been the number one most requested game in GOG history. The story is harrowing. SHODAN is rightly considered one of the genre’s all time great villains, and for good reason. For those of you unfamiliar with her work, consider her to have all of the cruelty malevolence of GlaDOS with none of the whimsy. The tense dialog is never overdone, and the voice acting is by and large superb. Story and game are seamlessly integrated. The pacing, while perhaps a bit plodding and deliberate at the beginning simply can’t be anything else. You may remember I described the atmosphere of Aliens: Colonial Marines sometimes feeling that you’re not totally safe? In System Shock 2 that feeling is magnified 100 fold. You’re NEVER safe from SHODAN or the Many. When you gain additional powers or skills, you merely feel like you’re slightly more prepared to survive for a few more minutes. Frights are plentiful, both in simpler “jump scare” form, and at a deeper psychological level. Resident Evil may have set the standard for limiting resources to promote fear, but SS2 perfected it with its ammo and loot drops. You need to intelligently plan your way through the ship or else you WILL fail.
Fortunately, the tight controls make navigating the ship that much easier. A simple middle click (or Tab key press) alternates between standard FPS mode and the more RPG interactive mode allowing you to manipulate objects on the screen. It takes mere moments to get used to before becoming second nature. This is necessary, since unexpected challenges await at every turn. Being able to select three different starting characters, the weapons-based Marine, the caster-style Psi-Agent, and the tech savvy Navy recruit gives you more than enough reason to play through multiple times trying to come up with the perfect builds to survive. Puzzles are intelligently designed, and never make you feel like it’s anything other than your fault when you can’t advance.
System Shock 2 remains a master level class in storytelling and gameplay. It is almost criminally under priced at $9.99 on GOG.com. Night Dive must be complimented on taking code that has been a bit notorious in recent years for being finicky when trying to run on modern systems and allowing us to not only relive the glory days of PC gaming, but also remind us of what can be achieved when talent and care come together to form something truly memorable. It feels some days (like in the wake of Aliens: Colonial Marines) that they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore. . . That’s a feeling I’d like to have proven wrong.