It is 2072. Something has happened in the Citadel, a high-tech orbital research facility. First, the SHODAN computer security system begins malfunctioning almost immediately after its installation. Then, scientists are infected by a viral mutation agent (mutagen), and the culprit seems to be faulty computer software. Robots and computer systems go inexplicably haywire. Infected researchers begin showing psychopathic tendencies, and start dying. Riots begin erupting throughout the base. When a military transport is sent to sort things out, the space station’s defense weapons destroy it.
A short time later, SHODAN announces its intention to control all life aboard the Citadel. Robots take over the station and start slaughtering the human inhabitants. A brief message from some survivors state that Earth is in danger from SHODAN, then all contact stops. The massacre of the Citadel’s crew appears complete.
But SHODAN missed one person. It all began when you tried to hack into the Citadel’s computers. When you were discovered, corrupt vice-president Edward Diego offered you an alternative to going to jail: If you can hack him into SHODAN, he’ll give you your freedom -- and toss in a neural implant to boot. You keep up your part of the bargain, he keeps his, and for the last six months you’ve been in a healing coma on the Citadel, recovering from the neural implant surgery. You awake in the hospital, ready to make up for lost time -- but you discover a scene of total carnage.
Welcome to System Shock -- and get ready for the ride of your life. Simply put, there has never been anything like it. It is a complete evocation of a hellish future world, where you are part man and part machine. As the only human left on the Citadel, you must hunt and kill the mutants and robots, disable SHODAN’s security, and unravel its plans and secrets.
At first, all you have to protect yourself is a metal bar, but you soon pick up all manner of high-tech weapons. Slowly, you piece together the last days and hours of the Citadel by reading the e-mail of the final survivors. In order to progress through the eight levels of the Citadel, you have to get past locked doors by solving puzzles, killing almost anything that moves, picking up more neural enhancements, and, in the game’s most unique segment, exploring Cyberspace.
The implant provides you with a view enhanced by bio-monitors, multi-function displays, energy and health indicators, and numerous attachments that allow you to jack into cyberspace, map the base, auto-read electronic messages and logs, and generally start kicking ass and taking down names. As you go along you find other attachments: some give you a 360-degree view of your surroundings, others enhance your vision, and so on.
On each level, you can jack into the computers and explore SHODAN’s world. Unlike the 3D texture maps of the rest of the game, the Cyberspace sequences are composed of simple polygons, resembling nothing so much as Spectre VR. Once you’re in, you have a limited amount of time to explore Cyberspace, pick up various types of software to help you out, throw switches to unlock doors in the "real world," and generally harass SHODAN and thwart his plans. Spend too much time inside Cyberspace, and SHODAN will track you down and eject you -- forcibly, and painfully.
System Shock smokes. It is the most fully immersive game world I have ever experienced. Not since Looking Glass’s last big hits for Origin Systems -- Ultima Underworld I and II -- have I felt this much inside a game world, and so involved with the action.
The excellent game controls allow you to move in any direction at a variety of speeds. You can jump, crouch, crawl on your stomach, look all the way up or down, and lean to either side. And these are more than gimmicks: Certain spots can only be reached by crawling on your belly, and you can use a wall for cover while you lean to one side and fire on an enemy.
Monitors track your health, vital signs, and power levels, and new and more complex enhancements can be plugged into your neural implant to help you in your quest. The graphics, though often dark, are nicely done, and there’s a wide range of locations and creatures. Every level is full of rooms, hidden passageways, and tight places to discover and explore. Mutants charge out of the shadows, assassin robots stalk quietly through the corridors, and security drones emerge around every corner.
Hovering over it all is the godlike presence of SHODAN, who looks like a creature from H.R. Giger’s paintings. SHODAN ignores you at first, but when you destroy a crucial security station, he begins stalking you in earnest, and his rage knows no bounds.
The atmosphere is thick with danger and despair. You pick up logs and e-mails from the last survivors, who made a valiant and tragic stand against SHODAN. Their final messages are scrawled in blood on the walls; their mutilated corpses litter the floors. Weapons, ammo, health packs, grenades, mines, and all manner of objects can be found on each of the eight levels. You have to solve puzzles to get through certain doors, and slowly chip away at SHODAN’s security systems in order to erode its iron grip on the station.
There’s so much that’s unique and entertaining in System Shock that it’s hard to know where to begin. The game world is stark and fully-developed, and the story consistently intrigues. Sound effects are dense and effective, and the pounding, ominous music provides just the right atmosphere. Numerous configuration settings mean you can set the game for as much or as little combat as you desire, make the story more elaborate, or increase the difficulty of puzzles. There are so many options that no matter what kind of game you’re looking for, you’ll find something in System Shock to delight you. This is an exciting, entertaining, wholly unique game, so fully realized in all its diverse aspects and so completely immersive that it unquestionably raises computer gaming to a new level.
-- T. Liam McDonald