"In 2072, a rogue artificial intelligence known as SHODAN lost her mind..."
Looking Glass Technologies has always proved to be an innovator. In the early 90s, when id's Wolfenstein 3D was garnering all the attention, Looking Glass released Ultima Underworld, a spin-off of the popular RPG series. Having features unheard of at the time (such as an inventory system and the ability to look up, down, and jump), Ultima Underworld was perhaps the first melding of the FPS and RPG genres.
Several years later, the same thing happened - id released Doom, and Looking Glass released System Shock. Considered by many people to be one of gaming's finest hours, System Shock combined a chilling storyline, one of gaming's most memorable villains (SHODAN), an interface with unparalleled depth, and solid gameplay. While the game ultimately sold over a hundred thousand copies (thanks in part to the CD-ROM re-edition with high-res graphics and voice acting), it was Doom that gained the attention, and the reputation for propelling the FPS genre forward - despite lacking anything as basic as the ability to jump. System Shock was a victim of its own complexity and uniqueness - the interface was simply intimidating until it was learned.
"In her limitless imagination, SHODAN saw herself as a goddess destined to inherit the Earth."
While not the commercial success that Doom was, System Shock still developed a hard-core fan-base, critical acclaim, and high replayability. In response to the wishes of the fan community, Looking Glass teamed up with Irrational Games, a fledgling development studio, and set about the unenviable task of creating a game that would improve upon the original, while still staying true to its roots.
"That image was snuffed out by the hacker who created her..."
Did they succeed? To a remarkable degree, yes, and in the process, Looking Glass has created one of the finest games of 1999.
"40 years later..."
Taking place 40 years after the events of the original, System Shock 2 takes place not within Citadel Station, but onboard the first faster-than-light ship ever created, the Von Braun. Due to Tri-Optimum's involvement in the SHODAN incident 40 years before, the UNN sends a ship, the Rickenbacker, to keep the mission on track.
"SHODAN is back, and humanity will never be the same."
Since System Shock 2 is a combination FPS and RPG, the player is given the opportunity to create their own character - a member of the military. After a brief tutorial, the player joins one of the branches of the UNN military - the Marines, Navy, or OSI. With this choice, the basic strengths and weaknesses of the character are defined. The Marines specialize in weaponry. Navy characters are experts in technical skills, such as computer hacking and weapon modification. The OSI, derisively referred to as "spooks", have highly developed psionic skills - the mage of the 22st century, if you will.
Once a branch is chosen, the player also goes through 3 one-year training programs. The choices allow a chance to customize the character more. Ranging from attribute increases (Strength, Agility, Endurance, etc) to skills or psionic powers, the tours of duty take little time, but give the character creation a more solid feel - it's not simply a matter of "Allocate 5 character points into skills", it's some CG, a description of the tour of duty, and the results are actually visible immediately. The fourth tour of duty is aboard, of course, the UNN Rickenbacker. Singled out for cybernetic implants by Dr. Janice Polito, the player goes into stasis, and wakes up several weeks later.
Like on Citadel Station, hell has broken loose. The ship is falling apart, mutants wander the halls, and corpses abound.
The skill system is truly the heart of the game. By allowing total customization of the character, Looking Glass has given the game high replayability. The effects of raising an attribute are apparent, instead of an arbitrary number. By raising agility, you move faster. Weapons can't be used unless you have a sufficient level of skill. Psionic powers must be learned individually, like spells. However, the only limit to what you can raise is simply the number of "cybernetic modules" you possess - Marines can learn as many Psi powers as they need, and an OSI character can wield that fusion cannon if wanted. Situations can be approached in a number of different ways - a Marine could destroy a security turret, a Naval character could hack the turret and turn it against enemies, and an OSI character could simply become invisible and walk past it.
The RPG elements also factor into the action itself. Like other RPGs, creatures have resistances and weaknesses. Biological creatures are highly resistant to energy weapons, but highly vulnerable to incendiary ammo. Armor piercing bullets do what the name implies. Money, in the form of nanites, is used for purchasing items, hacking computers, and making weapon modifications. In the end, the RPG elements aren't tacked on like in some games, but integral to the gameplay.
The interface is notable in its elegance. Action is handled just like any other FPS - a combination of keyboard and mouse is default, but it can be configured as the player wishes. The inventory, character information, and environmental manipulation is handled through a separate menu, but the player switches between the two with a single key-press - it is elegant in its simplicity, and it makes one wonder why it's taken so long for an interface this easy to use to find its way into action-RPGs. As a result, anyone with any experience with first-person shooters will be a master of controlling the game in less than 10 minutes, and novices won't have many problems adjusting either.
The graphics are one of the game's flaws. System Shock 2 is based on Thief's "Dark Engine". The environmental graphics are passable, though certainly nothing special in 1999. The character models are rather bad, though - both in model quality and the animation thereof. While it makes sense that mutants would be somewhat deformed, the humans don't look any better. To balance the graphics, though, the level designs themselves are terrific, and help create a believable environment to explore. The last level deserves special mention - fans of the original will feel right at home.
Sound and music are good. The music ranges from up-beat techno to slow-paced ambient tracks, and most fit their environment. Weapon and creature sounds are pretty good, ranging from the mechanical to the biological. Voice acting, however, is amazingly high quality. The voice logs each character leaves behind all are critical for telling the story, but would be worth listening to simply for effect. Whether it's Marie Delacroix talking about the mechanical flaws of the Von Braun, the logs of two stranded lovers, or the scientific narration of Prefontaine as he uncovers some horrific discoveries, the immersion factor is consistently high. Moreover, the Dark Engine allows full environmental sound for those with the appropriate sound cards - sound is a crucial element to surviving, just as much as seeing the environment.
Indeed, the immersion factor of System Shock 2 is incredible. Whether it's the pre-scripted events, or the voice logs, or the design of the maps, it's nearly impossible not to be drawn into the world of the Von Braun. Pipes break, mechanical systems malfunction, and victims take time to scrawl phrases in blood on the walls. (System Shock veterans may get an extra chill from some of them, such as "Remember Citadel.") Playing System Shock 2 in a dark room with a good sound system (or a decent set of headphones) is an experience nearly unrivaled in the gaming world, and rarely found. Comparisons to the Resident Evil games in terms of atmosphere are common, and well founded in reality.
The artificial intelligence is another strength of the Dark Engine, and it's evident in the game. Creatures react in various ways, from patrolling corridors to attacking in groups. When wounded, some retreat, while others become more vicious. Not only can they track you by sight, but also by the noises you make - like in Thief, stealth is of the utmost importance.
The story is very well planned out, and revealed mostly through the voice logs previously mentioned. Aside from the basics that have been already talked about, however, I won't mention any more about it - it's too rich to spoil. It should suffice to say, however, that things aren't what they may seem to be - though Shock 1 fans will have a bit more insight into the plot events, knowledge of the first isn't needed to enjoy Shock 2 - all the relevant information is covered both in the manual and in the game.
Good as the game may be, it's not without its flaws. One main flaw stems from the allocation of skill sets. The three main classes of skills are weapon, technical, and psi. Unfortunately, many of the weapons are reliant on having several of the technical skills to certain (high) levels. As such, a marine and a naval character will be very similar if they choose to rely on weapons - the only real difference is in the early game. Similarly, to raise skills and attributes to their higher levels requires large amounts of cybernetic modules, so a jack-of-all-trades will have some serious problems in the end game. Decisions must be made early about the character's direction - not a problem for most RPG players, but it can be very problematic to realize that a skill you had planned on using relies others to compliment it.
The game is short. My first play-through took about 15-20 hours, and a re-play took only about 12. This is due in part to the linearity of the game, but also in the fact that the difficulty varies wildly at times. Choosing a higher difficulty level mainly means your character will be weaker in the end due to a lesser amount of cybernetic modules - it's basically a non-rewarding way of increasing the game's difficulty. For the first half of the game, supplies are very hard to come by (especially psi hypodermics for the OSI characters), but are rather abundant in the late-game - again, it's not very rewarding.
Equipment also breaks far too easily. While it's nice to see weapons degrading after use in a FPS, they degrade much too quickly, and unless you've got very high levels of maintenance and repair skills, you can't do much to fix the situation. (A patch has since been issued that allows customization of weapon degradation rates, but it's still a rather annoying flaw).
The requirements for System Shock 2 are rather steep. While a Pentium 200 MHz with 32 megs of RAM is the minimum requirement, the game will be rather slow at that level. The game also requires a DirectX compatatible video card. Regardless of your system specs, expect very long load times - a side effect of the rather large levels.
In the end, though, the positive aspects of System Shock 2 greatly outweigh the small flaws. With the immersive atmosphere, cohesive gameplay, entertaining story, and terrific villains, System Shock 2 is one experience that anyone with a taste for gaming should try.