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System Shock Review

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Trapped in a hell he helped make, a lone hacker aboard a space station far from home sneaks and fights his way through horrible mutants and killer robots in order to take down the monstrous artificial intelligence behind it all: SHODAN, one of the all-time great gaming villains. System Shock pioneered so many first-person shooter concepts back in 1994 that now feel fundamental, simultaneously paving the way for the entire immersive sim genre. Nightdive Studios has done masterful work with this 2023 remake, taking a fantastic game that the years have made hard to play and updating it with modern conveniences that will let it be enjoyed for decades to come.

Nominally a shooter, System Shock is more about exploring the labyrinth that is the TriOptimum corporation's Citadel space station than any combat that takes place within it. Your Hacker and their military-grade neural implant are responsible for the significantly degraded situation here, having disabled the AI SHODAN's ethical limitations. So, naturally, SHODAN has chopped everyone into bits and stitched them back together as horrible cyborgs, made her own strain of a world-ending mutagenic virus complete with freaky mutants, and now wants to export her godlike divinity to Earth proper. We love SHODAN for this, because she's just so delightfully unnerving while she does it. Evil artificial intelligences can often be depicted as cold, calculating super geniuses – SHODAN isn't that. SHODAN is completely, transparently bonkers, inflicted with the delusion that she is a god and delightfully obsessed with both herself and her often extremely bad plans.

System Shock Remake Screenshots

If SHODAN's body is the giant Citadel space station, then you are a horrible little parasite killing her from the inside out. Figuring out the extent of her plans and then foiling them is what you do. System Shock is old school in the oldest-school way, with levels that are deliberately-designed mazes of interconnecting corridors, rooms, and locked gates. It's basic design that holds up thirty years and a hefty visual update later, giving you a space to delve out that's hard to navigate by its nature and providing a very satisfying challenge to learn your way around. There isn’t really any main-quest hand holding, no log of what you're doing next (though there is now an optional difficulty setting to change that), so stopping SHODAN means you actually have to explore, listen to audio logs, and figure out what plans the now-dead crew had cooked up.

The awesome setting and style as you poke around is fuelled by one hundred per cent pure grade uncut spaceborne cyberpunk vibes. Cyberware? We’ve got that. Cool smart guns? We’ve got those as well. An evil corporation-turned-government? But of course. The revamped visuals and effects are great, and I loved the semi-pixelated textures and blocky objects at work, probably best exemplified in the power interface panels. The new music and sounds are a superb accompaniment, too. It all works together to remind you that you're still playing a game that's 30 years old, but that this version of it has been brought forward in time for you to more easily see what made it so special in the first place. You can even tweak the interface color if phosphor green isn't your thing.

Combat is probably where this remake has changed most.


As you might expect, you are going to have to bash, shoot, burn, and blow up some nasty monsters to escape Citadel. While the heart of System Shock is undoubtedly exploration, there's still a lot of fighting to do along the way, with some enemies requiring a pure firefight to take down while others necessitate the exploitative stealth ambushes of a survival horror game instead. Brute force won’t always work, so you’ll often have to cleverly sneak around corners and through maintenance shafts to take down enemies that are far tougher and more dangerous than you are.

Combat is probably the place where this new System Shock changes most from the original game. Enemies were previously fairly slow and unintelligent, and the whole concept of what a first-person shooter even was hadn’t been nailed down in the way it is today. That meant many of the coolest weapons on paper were hard to use in practice, and enemies weren't very good at fighting back. Most experienced players would just run at everything and rip it to pieces with the Laser Rapier, a kind of electro-charged lightsaber, but that’s no longer as much of a viable option.

That's not to say the Laser Rapier is weak now. Please note: The Laser Rapier is still awesome.

But other weapons are cool now, too. I don't think I ever did anything with a grenade but kill myself in the original, whereas this time around I not only used them, I got to fire them out of a really cool grenade launcher. Other weapons like the magnum and assault rifle also come into their own thanks to more modern design sensibilities, and for the first time I felt like System Shock was a real FPS. It's a testament to how thorough and thoughtful this remake is that I kept having to check if certain weapons and moments were in the original at all. The new stuff just feels completely natural.

The cyborgs, mutants, and robots that serve SHODAN have received even bigger improvements. The clunky movements of times past are long gone in favor of enemies with proper AI that know how to maneuver out of your line of fire, duck behind obstacles, and rush you in groups. The gruesomely gooey spliced-together cyborgs are really the ones that benefit most from their visual upgrade, going from kinda-goofy movie frankensteins to brainwashed surgical nightmares.

Bosses that were once tedious encounters are now tense fights.


I really appreciated the unique designs that went into how each of these enemies fights and behaves, too. The jury-rigged work robots rush at you, as do the more brainless mutants, but most of the cyborgs will try to out-shoot you. The heavily armored enemies will move implacably towards you, shooting all the while, before ripping you apart in melee. Bosses that were once simply tedious encounters – like the vicious Cortex Reavers, militarized gun platforms powered by an unwilling human host – are now tense fights that require you to gather the right equipment from around the station to win, and probably not without dying a few times.

On death, you revive at the nearest medical chamber you've unlocked, gear and equipment intact. It's a pleasant respawn mechanic that punishes without ever frustrating and serves the goal of encouraging you to explore really nicely. Rushing through levels can work, but it's easier if you've found a way to revive nearby when you accidentally step off a platform and fall to your death.

Immersively Stimulating

The finest in splashing yourself down in another world for a while.See All

It's a nice bit of older design that aged well, which is good because how you move around the station hasn’t. Your hacker's movements can at times feel clunky and slow, unable to perform some actions that have become staples of modern games like sliding down ladders. That one I can forgive, but I'm not sure we needed to be forced to crouch-jump in order to get on top of objects anymore – that's a bit of old game wisdom best left in the past.

Speaking of the very few things I didn't like: Cyberspace. At certain points in System Shock you find terminals that let you enter the station's cyberspace mainframe, where reality is instead a kind of “six degrees of freedom” shooter with mediocre wireframe graphics. Questionably, but perhaps to its credit, the remake is very faithful to these sections by leaving them intact, but that still doesn't change the fact that they could often bore me to tears.

Extremely to its credit, however, the remake lets you adjust individual difficulty settings for four separate areas of gameplay: combat, puzzles, cyberspace, and the main story missions. If you dislike exploring blindly and scouring audio logs, the lowest mission difficulty will give you clearer directions to follow. If you, like me, hate cyberspace, just turn the difficulty down and quickly blaze through those bits. If you want a more hardcore survival experience, you can crank up the combat and get absolutely dunked on by Cortex Reavers. I did this and it ruled.

I do expect that the most commonly tweaked difficulty will be puzzles, however. The Pipe-Dream-esque power rerouting minigame is ubiquitous in System Shock, and second to finding a security access keycard is needed to open many doors and activate pieces of sensitive equipment that have been locked off. I find these puzzles almost therapeutic. They ask you to step back, take your time, and let your pulse settle after being chased around by, for example, two-faced zebra gorilla mutants. I also just really like the clacky in-world interface of plugging and unplugging power cables.

Verdict

Where many modern games invite you to sit back and enjoy the ride, System Shock wants you to sit up and experience the SHODAN. Tweaking the technical workings of Citadel station to come out on top and foil SHODAN’s machinations is just as compelling as it ever was, making the original System Shock one of gaming’s classics for a very good reason. Nightdive’s remake masterfully brings most of the aspects that haven’t aged as well into the present day, with excellent new graphics and nearly all the modern gameplay conveniences you could want. Get out there and give her hell, hacker.

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