System Shock II

Plague against the machine - System Shock 2 inherits the strengths of the original-the cybernetic upgrades, wide variety of weapons and equipment, constantly moving plotline, and fully realized environments full of alien enemies-and jacks it up with an updated version of the engine used in Thief: The Dark Project.

Although System Shock posthumously earned a place in the gaming hall of fame, most gamers missed out on this hybrid action/role-playing champ. Playing a cybernetically-enhanced hacker stranded on a space station taken over by the hostile AI, Shodan, your mission was to shut her down and get out alive.

Those who were lucky enough to play it clamored loudly enough for Looking Glass Studios to come back to the ring with this worthy sequel. System Shock 2 inherits the strengths of the original-the cybernetic upgrades, wide variety of weapons and equipment, constantly moving plotline, and fully realized environments full of alien enemies-and jacks it up with an updated version of the engine used in Thief: The Dark Project. System Shock never looked or played better.

You determine your skill set based on three basic archetypes--Navy technician, Marine combat grunt, OSA psychic--and three years of intense training. Your fourth year of duty is on the Von Braun, the first faster-than-light spacecraft. You've risen from suspended animation to find that most of the crew is dead and those who are left are fighting for their lives against mutants who are taking over the ship. As you explore, the plot is prodded along via email messages from survivors and logs found near dead crewmen. This fairly simple setup blossoms into one of the most intricate and engrossing plots in any 3D-action/RPG game to date.

Which career path you choose in SS2 is very important. The Marine is a carbon-scored roughneck who does the Doom Marine proud, the Naval Officer is a MacGyver/Hacker-type who constantly makes use of the tools around him, and the OSA spooks overcome challenges with their psychic powers.

At the same time, each job has drawbacks. The Naval Officer might not be able to use all the weapons he finds, but he is able to modify the useable ones so that they do more damage, hold more rounds, and last longer. Similarly, just because the marine is a walking death machine doesn't mean life is easy. Unlocking caches of weapons and medical supplies requires hacking skills he likely doesn't have.

Although the graphics are standard fare with your usual breakable objects, simple particle effects, and colored lights, it's really the sound in SS2 that delivers. The murmuring voices of zombies wandering the halls, the mindworms slithering through air ducts above your head, the buzzing electric lights and humming motors are all a part of a rich, immersive soundscape that places you squarely in the game, scared and alone. You find yourself turning your head to hear better where enemies and security cameras are. In one area near the ship's engines, it is so subtle that at the end when the sound quits to load the next level, I realized I hadn't noticed the extremely deep bass rumble of the engines until it was gone.

That said, the game has a variety of weak points. Weapons disintegrate far too quickly as you use them and require constant repairs. The enemy models are low-polygon-count messes. Even with the powerful map function, you are forced to wander and backtrack through the ship frequently. There are clipping issues a-go-go. Watch as the gun you drop goes sliding on the floor and right through the wall. Worst of all, it is possible to play yourself into a corner by over-specializing in any one skill (e.g. Hacking), forcing you to quit and restart the game! Some fine-tuning and longer play-testing might've helped SS2 come closer to perfection.

That these problems don't influence my confident claim that this is one of the best games this year is a testimonial to how engrossing this game is. Never has a game gripped my attention so completely, it was able to throw me from my chair while trying to dodge an attack, lean forward to be one inch from the screen, or throw my mouse off the table in an effort to get away from an enemy. To be drawn in so deeply is a rare and delightful experience. Thank you Looking Glass.

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