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Updated January 9, 2008

System Shock 2
More fun than Half-Life! Scarier than The Blair Witch Project! The sequel to one of the PC's best games ever is every bit as stunning as the original. Better bring along extra underpants.

One of the great tragedies of the gaming industry is that whenever a publisher takes a risk and creates an original and groundbreaking title, more often than not its efforts are rewarded with crates of unsold boxes. Such was the case with 1994's System Shock. It met with universal acclaim from the gaming press (including a stratospheric 96 percent rating from our good selves - see sidebar) and those who played it quickly elevated the game to the top of their all-time best list. Unfortunately, very few people actually did play it - so few, in fact, that it's a small miracle we're even seeing a sequel.

Still, when System Shock 2 was announced, my excitement was tempered with skepticism. After all, the original holds a very special place in my heart, and without the participation of original producer Warren Spector, I had doubts Looking Glass would be able to do the game justice. Thankfully, my fears were completely unfounded. From the word go, System Shock 2 is, hands down, the most unsettling and frightening game I've ever played. There is no doubt that something very, very bad happened aboard the starship Von Braun, and the horror is conveyed masterfully by the game's graphics, the pacing of the story, and its unbelievable sound effects. The whole riveting experience is pulled off seamlessly, and the result is one of the year's most spectacular achievements.

It's been forty years since the events of System Shock, which saw the rogue AI program known as SHODAN attempting to take control of the Citadel space station. SHODAN viewed herself as a goddess, destined to inherit the Earth. The results of her madness were horrific, as the people aboard Citadel were either butchered or transformed into cyborgs and mutants, charged with carrying out her sadistic plans. Mercifully, one lone surviving hacker managed to defeat SHODAN.

TriOptimum, the corporation that built Citadel, fell on hard times after the SHODAN incident, but gets a second chance when one of its scientists, Marie Delacroix, discovers a way to travel faster than the speed of light. In the year 2114, the faster-than-light ship Von Braun sets off on its maiden voyage, escorted by the military ship UNN Rickenbacker.

Unfortunately, military folks and civilians still don't mix well (some things never change, I suppose), and tension between the two groups erupts four months into the deep-space journey. Just as the situation threatens to come to a head, a signal is received from the surface of the planet Tau Ceti 5. A joint team of soldiers and scientists decides to go planetside and investigate, hoping to make first contact with an alien race. To say things go horribly awry is something of an understatement.

You awaken at the start of System Shock 2 with no memory of who you are or what has transpired aboard ship. The Von Braun is now a ghost ship - bodies are strewn everywhere, the walls and floors covered with blood, limbs, and severed heads. XERXES, the Von Braun's primary computer, has been corrupted by an alien force called The Many, which grows and feeds by assimilating humans. Hybrids, humans that have been merged with The Many, patrol the ship per XERXES' commands, looking for any poor souls they may have missed the first time around. During your suspended animation, you were outfitted with cyber-implants (which you can upgrade as the game progresses) that allow you to perform all manner of special tasks, from researching unknown objects to hacking into security systems and using alien weapons. And so, initially armed only with a pipe wrench and assisted by the mysterious Dr. Janice Polito, you must unravel the mystery of what happened aboard the Von Braun, all the while avoiding the Hybrids and the Von Braun's security cameras.

System Shock 2 is technically a roleplaying game, just like the original. But it's really much more than that: adventure-style puzzles must be solved, and the combat plays out more like a first-person shooter than an RPG. When the game begins, you choose between one of the three branches of the military - marine, naval officer, or OSA psionic agent - and head out for training, which adds additional character abilities. Once properly trained, you are assigned to the UNN Rickenbacker.

As the game unfolds, you must upgrade your character through careful use of Cyber Modules and by collecting weapons and armor. Unlike most roleplaying games, though, you won't be able to "max out" your character. Instead, you'll need to make some really hard choices and focus on two or three areas for improvement. Choose incorrectly, and it could come back to bite you on the ass in the late going.

The story unfolds brilliantly via the audio-logs of the dead. (I really wish I could reveal more about the story, but since doing so would ruin some great surprises, I'll keep my mouth shut.) The voice-acting is top-notch, and over the course of the game, nondescript characters become real people; entire dramas unfold as the final fateful days of the Von Braun play out. Additionally, there are random audio-logs tossed here and there that are sometimes nothing more than the screaming of someone being killed, or the sounds of a desperate crew member making a last stand against an encroaching horde. The result of these snippets is both immediate and long-lasting, serving to immerse you fully in this horrifying reality.

Adding further to the story and the overall sense of dread are the inclusion of ghosts. These apparitions fade in and out without warning, and no matter what they're doing, be it simply standing at a bar or acting out their unfortunate and violent demise, the ghosts are a brilliant - and very creepy - touch.

Using a modified version of the Dark Engine (the same engine that powered Looking Glass' Thief: The Dark Project), System Shock 2's graphics perfectly capture the mood. There are a few dropped balls here and there, such as the lack of a muzzle flash on weapons that really ought to have them, and the explosions don't always look as good as they might have, but overall, the game will not disappoint 3D graphics junkies.

Complementing the great visuals are some downright awesome sound effects. All the requisite ship-style sounds are present, such as escaping steam and the hi-tech swooshing of doors opening and closing. The voice of XERXES is chilling beyond belief, alternating between pre-recorded messages intended for the ship's crew (such as advising them of how many shopping days are left until the holidays) and messages aimed directly at the player in an effort to intimidate and frighten. The sounds of cybernetic gears can be heard, as well as the patter of bare feet treading across steel floors. Some of the Hybrids even call out to you when you're near, taunting you by advising you to run and hide.

But the most terrifying sound of all comes from SHODAN herself. Her voice is appropriately condescending and alternates between a normal female voice, a metallic female voice, and a malfunctioning combination of the two that also mixes in the voices of children and other weird sounds. The intended effect, that of a computer gone hopelessly insane, is realized brilliantly.

Adding the final key element to the game's atmosphere is the Von Braun itself - the level design is fantastic, and perfectly captures what it would feel like to be alone aboard an empty starship out in the depths of space. The usual areas, such as cargo and engineering, are all present, but you'll also find a gym, a shopping mall, and a movie theater, all of which add a frightening degree of normalcy. These are areas where people relaxed, shopped, and enjoyed themselves. And now all those people have been butchered and you are all alone. So very alone.

Another benefit of the Dark Engine is the advanced AI it utilizes. Much like the guards and other baddies that patrolled the worlds of Thief, the enemies in System Shock 2 are perpetually on the go, checking hallways, entering and exiting rooms, always on the lookout for any wayward survivors. And since the sounds are so well engineered, you'll hear them doing all these things - it's truly freaky. That said, the AI is not perfect, and occasionally you can see the puppeteer pulling the strings when enemies spawn right in front of you, but these instances are rare.

Of course, a game this complex would fall flat on its face if its interface was a pain to use. Happily, System Shock 2's is quick, clean, and easy to navigate. You can toggle through your weapons with the keyboard number keys, and to access your inventory you simply press the TAB key and use the mouse to shuffle objects around. There are also hotkeys to make it easier for you to reload and use items, such as medical packs and your various hypo-sprays.

All this glowing praise aside, System Shock 2 does suffer from a few hiccups. First off, levels take forever to load. This is counter- balanced somewhat by the use of the Quantum Bio-Reconstruction Machine (which act as save points within the world and bring you back without reloading the level) and the levels are pretty dang big - once one eventually loads, you'll spend a good deal of time in that particular area. Still, many gamers (myself included) are quickly becoming impatient with this trend of increasingly long load times; come on developers, crunch that code a bit more!

System Shock 2 is also (surprise, surprise) a bit of a system hog; even a system that matches our recommended specs will suffer a drop in frame rate from time to time. If you're using anything lower than what we recommend, you're going to notice a severe performance hit.

And lastly, System Shock 2 will tax the gaming skills of even the most battle-hardened gaming veteran. It's challenging throughout, but the later levels in particular become incredibly hard. While this isn't necessarily a fault, it's something less experienced gamers should be aware of.

Just like the original before it, System Shock 2 is a unique and terrifying experience. There were literally moments in this game where I would come to a door and hesitate; I didn't want to go in; I didn't want to see what horrors awaited me on the other side. To me, that sort of vested emotional interest is any computer game's greatest ambition, and System Shock 2 achieves it in style. It's fitting that our first ever Game of the Month award should be given to the stunning return of a classic dating back to PC Gamers early days. Second chances this good don't usually come around - do yourself a favor and don't miss out on the ride this time.

-William Harms


 FINAL VERDICT
HIGHS: Incredibly detailed story; great atmosphere; terrifying gameplay.

LOWS: Long load times; difficult at times; steep system requirements.

BOTTOM LINE: One of the most immersive, emotive, addictive, and just plain fun computer games we've ever played.
PC Gamer 95%

   

100% - 90%
EDITORS' CHOICE - We're battening down the hatches and limiting our coveted Editors' Choice award to games that score a 90% or higher. It's not easy to get here, and darn near impossible to get near 100%. Games in this range come with our unqualified recommendation, an unreserved must-buy score.

89% - 80%
EXCELLENT - These are excellent games. Anything that scores in this range is well worth your purchase, and is likely a great example of its genre. This is also a scoring range where we might reward specialist/niche games that are a real breakthrough in their own way.

79% - 70%
GOOD - These are pretty good games that we recommend to fans of the particular genre, though it's a safe bet you can probably find better options.

69% - 60%
ABOVE AVERAGE - Reasonable, above-average games. They might be worth buying, but they probably have a few significant flaws that limit their appeal.

59% - 50%
MERELY OKAY - Very ordinary games. They're not completely worthless, but there are likely numerous better places to spend your gaming dollar.

49% - 40%
TOLERABLE - Poor quality. Only a few slightly redeeming features keep these games from falling into the abyss of the next category.

39% - 0%
DON'T BOTHER - Just terrible. And the lower you go, the more worthless you get. Avoid these titles like the plague, and don't say we didn't warn you!


Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties  77%
Brigade E5: New Jagged Union  54%
EverQuest II: Echoes of Faydwer  85%
Eragon  22%
Drakan: Order of the Flame  69%
Driver  78%
Drome Racers  59%
Ducati World Racing  28%
Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project  75%
Dune  25%
Dungeon Keeper 2  89%
Dungeon Siege  91%
Dungeon Siege: Legends of Aranna  80%
Earth & Beyond  80%
Earth 2150: Lost Souls  80%
Echelon: Wind Warriors  79%
Elder Scrolls III: Bloodmoon  84%
Emergency Fire Response  70%
Emergency Rescue  24%
Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom  72%