System Shock 2
released on Aug 11, 1999
A first-person cyberpunk exploratory horror RPG and sequel to System Shock (1994) in which a soldier wakes up in the starship Van Braun in the aftermath of a disaster and finds himself in the midst of a conflict between SHODAN, the artificial intelligence antagonist of System Shock seeking mastery over humanity, and The Many, a flesh-based psychic hive mind led by the ship's corrupted AI.
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I can't think of a game that has a more torturous opening than this game. Just getting into the actual main space station and starting a build is a chore and you're often going to die just experimenting and getting to grips with the way mechanics work.
That said once you do, this game is peak fucking PC gaming. I'm still astonished that having played this 20 years after its release that it holds up impressively well (even if it asks a lot of your patience sometimes). I'm still flabbergasted by how good everything works and how much of the game is just genuinely creepy and throws SO many curveballs in its level design and narrative to keep you on your toes.
Has enough stellar sound design, creepy atmosphere, and intricate character building to remain a classic despite its age.
I like the sound design of this game, and the atmosphere. It is a worthy representative of immersive sims for its time, but at the moment the game has aged badly. The game is just not comfortable and boring. Also Horror I did not see here. The impact of the weapon is terrible. The gunplay are painful. I think it's overrated as fuck, in my opinion.
In 1992 the company that would go on to become Looking Glass Studios created the beloved “good game” genre known as immersive simulations with the release of Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss and in a multitude of ways changed the medium forever. Seven years later an off-shoot company named Irrational Games made up of ex-Looking Glass staff who still used their former company’s office space would co-develop the game this review is posted for which nullifies any sort of build-up I had in my mind because this isn’t a printed essay. Anyways, they made System Shock 2.
In more ways than one, it is hard to find anything fresh to say about System Shock 2 in 2023, 24 years after the game's release. I was only four months old when it hit shelves and the one thing that needed to be said about it was uttered in its first week of existence: System Shock 2 is one of the best games ever made. More so than any other game I have played I would consider agreeing with that statement to be a proper litmus test for if you should even be allowed to talk about video games.
It’s just that good.
As with every immersive sim ever made till the heat death of our universe, System Shock 2 is a game about its systems. And in utilizing the Dark Engine that was made for Thief: The Dark Project, Ken Levine’s team at Irrational, and those few helping over at Looking Glass, they were able to create the foundations for what immersive sims are meant to look like in the modern era. Along with Thief, System Shock 2 brought immersive sims into the fully 3D landscape of the late 90s — and it allowed for the entire genre (which at that point consisted of precisely four games) to reach new heights that games being released today can barely even touch while standing on their tippy-toes. Ultima Underworld I and II, along with the first System Shock, make up what I affectionately call boomer immersive sims; they were the first attempts, and while they were majorly successful and amazing video games that are unparalleled by anything in the medium of video games up to that point, it is in System Shock 2 where everything reaches perfection. Ultima Underworld’s biggest flaw stated by its own creators was its dialogue system which they viewed as functioning as a second game rather than feeling like an interwoven experience with the overall gameplay and was fixed by Austin Grossman’s idea to make the original System Shock’s story and dialogue be told to you through audiologs that are scattered throughout the world. System Shock 2 also utilizes this method of storytelling to a much greater effect. I adore the games Grossman has worked on and written. Still, System Shock’s audiologs are a bit heavy on exposition, and also due to the scuffed nature of memory on floppy disks and CDs Looking Glass seemingly didn’t know how much of the recorded dialogue they could fit onto disks and so when playing the game you are likely going to have to stop dead in your tracks and read text that in no way matches up to what the characters are saying which hurts the seamless nature the team obviously wanted. No such thing was happening in 1999 though and so the audiologs are not cut at all and you are able to listen to them as you traverse the horrifying corridors of the Von Braun. This allows for more audiologs as well, which lead designer/writer Ken Levine has proven himself to be the master of — while some still serve the function they did in the first game in giving you information on where to go next or a code needed to open a door, most of the audiologs in 2 are dedicated to cataloging what happened to the crew leading up to the start (and sometimes during) the game and you get to hear the final thoughts of those who — unlike our protagonist Soldier G65434-2 — do not have military grade implants and so died brutally at the hands of the Many. These logs are not only able to fully achieve a sense of immersion in the world but also able to generate a bountiful amount of empathy for those on board who are long dead by the time you wake up.
System Shock 2’s overall story was Levine’s first at-bat for his comic book-inspired approach of pitting two extremes against one another that you find yourself in the middle of. This time composed of Shodan, the egotistical, fascist AI who hates all things weak and composed of flesh, and her offspring the Many — the hybrid creations she began to create in the first System Shock, who are, well, made of flesh (and so clearly the inspiration for the Flood in Halo, it’s uncanny how similar they are). Naturally, they don’t like each other much. During the course of development, the team was at odds with Levine for his idea to make Shodan not the principal antagonist and rather begrudgingly need your help throughout the game to defeat the Many. I am glad that he stood his ground because she is a much more nuanced character in this game and rightfully deserves her spot on every “Best Video Game Villain” list because of it.
And then there’s the infamous/meme’d-to-death ending. Really I can only say one thing: if you aren’t doing backflips for the last ten minutes of the game then — like the Many — you probably have worms in your brain.
On the gameplay side of things is of course where all immersive sims shine and System Shock 2 is no slouch. The introduction of RPG mechanics to immersive sims started here and would continue to be seen in the genre, even just a year later with the release of Deus Ex (which sadly makes some people think that immersive sims are just RPGs with a pretentious name, but that’s a rant for another time) and led to what these games are likely most known for: multiple styles of play. Want to play stealthy? This game is using the same engine as Thief: go nuts. Want to only use melee weapons? Max out strength and get various OS upgrades just for that. You joined the marine core at the beginning and only want to blast things with hot lead? The game practically begs you to. Energy weapons? Become a literal space wizard? The list goes on. And depending on which difficulty you select at the start you can probably mess around with 2-3 options to your heart's desire.
And do I really need to talk about level design for an immersive sim? Does everyone checking this page already know that this genre does levels better than anything else? Well if not, let me be the first to inform you that the Von Braun is one of the most intricately crafted locations in video games. Everything in it is seamless, while I would occasionally get lost while playing both Ultima Underworlds and the first System Shock that never happened here. The number of different paths you can take to get around never feels complicated but instead organic with a plethora of secrets strung along the way depending on your aforementioned chosen playstyle. While there are two more locations near the end of the game, they are quite small and still work as an interwoven structure — unlike another beloved game for its interconnected world design, System Shock 2 never falters.
System Shock 2 is a wonderful game. It is also a game that only sold 58,671 units during its initial release and I am unsure how many it has sold now in its fate as a game that more people seem to know and reference through making Shodan their social media profile pictures than actually playing it, but I’m sure of those couple dozen thousand fleshy bodies the majority heralded it as one of the greatest games they’ve ever played — and I’m glad to be able to count myself among their ranks.