System Shock 2
Finally, a true action/RPG that gets both parts right
Publisher: EA
Developer: Looking Glass
Posted: 08/19/1999
Written by: Robert Mayer
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PREVIEW: System Shock 2
QUICK TAKE: System Shock 2
Shot One The game presents a very detailed rendering of a starship
Remind me never to go into space on any vehicle, station, or platform that includes an AI with a name. Veteran gamers will remember what happened on Citadel Station when the AI named Shodan went wacko; the ensuing chaos was subject of the 1994 action/RPG System Shock. Now, the world's first faster than light ship, Von Braun, is having a few, um, teething troubles of its own. In System Shock 2, the problems involve not one, but two named AIs, and an alien infestation to boot. Maybe space travel isn't such a good idea after all?

Shot Two The corridors of Von Braun are detailed and realistic
Though developed by newcomer Irrational Games, System Shock 2's design team includes a host of veterans from the original project, and the legacy shows clearly throughout the new game. For the uninitiated, System Shock was a first-person perspective 3D game that was rich in adventure and role-playing elements. Set aboard a space station taken over by a rogue AI named Shodan, the game offered fantastic atmosphere, great level design, and some of the best use of sound and light seen in the pre-3D accelerated era. It was popular with hard-core gamers and the press, but the masses never really caught on, partly because of the complex interface, and partly because the game fell between the cracks of pure action and pure role-playing.

Shot Three It's not the Blair Witch Project, but you do get ghosts at least
The sequel continues many of the themes that characterized the original. Once again, you are a pawn in a battle of titans, modified with cybernetic implants and stuffed away to heal up in cyrogenic storage. And once again, you're popped out of your sleepy time to face a world gone mad. You'll start with a simple weapon (a wrench in this case), find more interesting implements of destruction along the way, face computers and robots out for your blood, and go eye to sensory organ with all sorts of mutant and alien critters. In the end, you'll have to travel to the belly of the beast to save the day for humanity. All in a day's work for the spacegoing hacker, eh?

Shot Four Von Braun's bridge features the latest nifty holographic displays
System Shock 2 uses a modified version of Thief's Dark Engine, and the two games have a lot in common in terms of their 3D environments. Jumping and climbing are handled very similarly, and the fairly robust set of commands available in both is implemented cleanly and effectively. Where the newer game shines, however, is in its look, as System Shock 2 is much slicker and more sophisticated-looking than Thief. The former game takes place mostly aboard a spaceship, and the level architecture reflects this, maintaining the consistency and level of detail you would expect from a starship. Ironically, in some ways it's not quite as rich or interesting as Citadel Station was in the original game, despite the higher resolution slick 3D-accelerated graphics of the newer title. It could be that the developers nailed the look and feel of the clean, almost antiseptic environment of a space ship too well for their own good.

Shot Five This ugly cuss was once your buddy. Now kill him
What's definitely not cold or antiseptic is the detail in this game. Players have the option of controlling a Navy crewman, a Marine, or an OSA operative—a sort of psionic secret agent. This choice determines your starting skills and statistics, as well as your "career path," a choice of three assignments that will boost certain of your abilities. Characters sport five primary statistics (endurance, strength, agility, psionics, cybernetics), and can develop five technical specialties (hacking, repair, modify, maintenance, research), four weapons skills (standard, energy, heavy, exotic), and five tiers of psionic disciplines (with dozens of possible psionic abilities). The only limits are the number of cybermodules you can accumulate during the game. These, a sort of experience point system, can be found lying about, but are most often gained through completing what amount to quests. Once received, they can be converted into character improvements at upgrade stations throughout the game.

Shot Six We're going to the chapel and we're going to get slaughtered...
This is a game that truly defies classification in a single genre. It's an action game, and it's a role-playing game, in roughly equal proportion. It's a true action/RPG in ways that no other game has ever been. You have character statistics, like strength, endurance, and agility, technical skills like hacking, research, and repair, and offensive abilities like standard and energy weapons. You can develop psionic abilities, which are akin to magic spells in a fantasy game, or you can rely on finding weapons as you make your way through what used to be a functioning starship. Along the way, you'll have to use your first-person shooter skills to run, fight, and hide as you dodge a host of enemies all out to terminate you with extreme prejudice. Though the action is occasionally fast-paced, it's more often tactical, placing a premium on thought rather than on reflexes. The jumping puzzles are few, and the need for deathmatch-style moves minimal, but there's still plenty of action.

Shot Seven Your inventory of nifty stuff
The character system in the game allows for a fair degree of customization, but be advised that usually things will come down to combat. There really isn't any way to finesse the game. Unlike the original Fallout, for instance, you won't be able to talk your way through System Shock 2. Sooner or later, you'll have to deliver a beatdown, so you'll have to either be a weapons maven or a psionic stud to succeed. The game is really a true RPG/shooter hybrid—both elements are equally represented, and the net result is neither one nor the other. You'll need weapons or psionics to battle the robots and creatures in your path, and you'll gain power and items as you progress. By the end of the game you'll be a walking arsenal, but by then, too, you'll be facing your worst nightmare (and I don't mean the IRS).

Shot Eight Redrum! Redrum!
Combat in System Shock 2 lies somewhere between the relatively intense carnage of Half-Life and the stealthy blackjack in the shadows of Thief. You rarely face more than two or three foes at once, and a goodly amount of your fighting consists of peeking around corners and sniping at security cameras, or blasting cyborgs from a reasonably safe distance. At the other extreme, though, there's a lot of close-in melee work against alien worms, and, of all things, mutant lab monkeys. The tools of the trade are varied and generally satisfying, though the best are hard to use due to their high minimum skill requirements. In the early going your weapons tend to break very easily, something that improves later on, and the constant need to repair and maintain your pistol and shotgun gets old really fast.

Shot Nine Another very cool spaceship interior from the game
Half-Life does pure combat better, but that's not to say System Shock 2 is lacking in that department, really. It's just that this game is much more than a shooter, more even than just a shooter with a plot. Combat serves a purpose, it's not the reason you play. You're trying to find this person, or perform this task; you're seeking to unravel what happened aboard Von Braun and its escort, UNN Rickenbacker. In the process, you have to get medieval on whatever is in your path, and you'll need a variety of tools for that purpose. In that sense, the combat in System Shock 2 is perfectly adequate, and usually much better than that. It's also a lot harder than most games. Automatic weapons kick and rise, melee weapons take time to swing, and it's really hard to dodge a laser beam. Even on easy difficulty, this is one tough mother of a game.

Shot Ten Wow, these displays are better than cable
One thing that made the original System Shock so compelling was the design aesthetic, which nicely captured the sense of a sophisticated space station overwhelmed by a sudden human and technical catastrophe. The sequel is nearly as successful in its portrayal of the doomed starships you adventure through. Level layouts are logical and believable, and the textures used are well chosen and effective. Of course, you could also argue that the insides of space ships simply aren't that interesting, and you'd have a point; there's only so much you can do with crew quarters, for instance. Then again, you never, ever feel safe, even in the most mundane of environments in this game. Cruising the shopping mall with one ear and an eye peeled for wandering androids is not the stuff of relaxation. Partly this is because the sounds in the game are first-rate. Like the original, this is a scary game, one that uses 3D and positional audio to scare the crap out of you. Given that most levels are also dark and shadowy, and you have a great game to play with the lights out.

Shot Eleven Your trusty wrench, the weapon of choice early on
In terms of story, Irrational Games have delivered an excellent package. The plot is solid and very entertaining, especially for veterans of System Shock. While knowledge of that game is not necessary to enjoy the sequel, it sure makes a lot of what goes on more interesting. While the cutscenes are mediocre at best, the in-game plot events are superb, and so smoothly integrated into play that you never feel jerked out of the action. Even the by now expected radical change of environment in the endgame is handled well, and works far better than Half-Life's transition to Xen. Not much in recent gaming is as creepy and vaguely disturbing as the last few levels of this game. Trust me, it's not for the squeamish. The final level is superb, not because of the boss fight (which is easy) but because of…well, you'll have to see for yourself.

One thing that stands out as a bit jarring with System Shock 2 however is the way characters are modeled. They are very angular, almost ugly, and far from state of the art looking. This isn't a problem with the hybrids, cyborgs, and other icky critters you're fighting (after all, who the hell knows what they'd look like anyhow?) but when you're fellow crewmen look like refugees from a Spy vs. Spy convention you have to wonder. Does it detract from the game? Not really; it's a very minor quibble with what is overall an excellent graphic look. Just don't expect the level of detail you'd get from, say, Kingpin or any of the upcoming Unreal-engined games.

Shot Twelve Many parts aboard these ships are cavernous and grim, like this torpedo bay
Unlike most shooters, this one allows you to revisit nearly every level at nearly any time. While you'll eventually get to the point of no return, for much of the game you can freely use the elevators to travel back and forth between areas. Left that widget down on Engineering? Go back and get it. Need to visit the upgrade station in the Science and Medical area? Take the elevator and get pumped up. Nothing of critical importance ever vanishes or decays in the System Shock 2 world; only the bodies of recently slain enemies decay, and those fairly rapidly, so search corpses early and often. Given that much of the game takes place in narrow corridors and passageways, you really wouldn't want the bodies of your foes to stay around very long.

Shot Thirteen Yummy... looks like the bad guys got here first
The game isn't particularly long, but it's not terribly short either. It will likely seem shorter than it is because of how much fun you're having. You will probably find yourself spending far more time playing this thing than you'd expected, and it's awfully easy to devote several hours a day for several days straight to unraveling the mysteries of Xerxes and Shodan. It's scary, it's atmospheric, it has a great plot, and it rewards the thinking player more than the fragaholic. What's missing? Nothing, really. System Shock 2 has no multiplayer mode, at least not as shipped (and there is nothing on or in the box to imply the game is anything but solely single player). According to Irrational Games' Ken Levine, there will be a multiplayer patch issued "soon," which will allow for cooperative play by you and some friends, but you really have to assess this game for what it is, a detailed and lovingly crafted solo game.

If you liked System Shock, or Thief, or you just like single-player games that aren't afraid to shatter genre boundaries, pick up a copy of System Shock 2. If all PC games were this good, we reviewers would be out of business.

Gameplay: 4.5
Graphics: 4
Interface: 4
Multiplayer: N/A
Depth: 4
Stability: 4
It's Like: Half-Life with less combat and more story, only better
Pentium 200 MHz
3D accelerator
Not Available
(yet—a mod is forthcoming)

©1999 Strategy Plus, Inc.

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