System Shock 2
By Sherv Monday, 26 Mar 2007

The constant hum of the derelict spaceship doesn’t even register anymore; you’re straining your ears, carefully peering across a door jamb…save for a vacant operating table it looks like the room is empty. With careful, measured steps you enter and investigate the room, looking for any discarded voice-logs and spare ammunition when suddenly translucid shapes manifest themselves, the “ghosts” of dead shipmates.

Ghosts of dead shipmates. Click to enlarge.

You were fitted with nanotechnological upgrades to your nervous system which occasionally allow you to see recent activity in certain places and, more eerily, even hear the voices of the deceased. The specters fade just as soon as they appeared and once again you are alone in a gigantic, vacuous steel maze.

It pains me to no end to hear of yet another gamer who has heard of, but never played, System Shock 2. What is inarguably the best science-fiction/horror game to ever grace silicon lost the spotlight to the vastly inferior Half-Life in 1999 yet has garnered a very respectable number of accolades and awards posthumously and survives quite vivaciously in the hearts of all who have played it.

The premise is simple enough: with the creation of the first faster-than-light spacecraft, mankind embarks into the unknown with you aboard, in a sort of cryogenic sleep, as part of a security detail. Something goes wrong along the way and you are awoken with your memory improperly restored and your abilities like that of a nascant baby. As you explore the ship, the Von Braun, posessed hybrids, twisted and violent shells of your former shipmates, attack you at the most inopportune time, over and over, making every moment you are alive upon the ship extremely tense and terrifying. Voice-logs left by both the dead and surviving clue you in to the disaster which took place, and every now and then you are fed a spoonful of hope that just maybe you aren’t alone on this dreadful ship.

Oh, but you aren’t…monstrous entities of both the organic and inorganic form ceaselessly confront you, those of flesh call to you to join them in their fate while the bezerk security drones don’t hesitate to gun you down where you stand. While it may seem like you are fighting against insurmountable odds it eventually becomes clear that there are three very distinct parties waging war with each other. The remaining humans aboard are fighting against a biological enemy which calls itself The Many, the gross lovechild of “The Thing” and Communist doctrine, and contend with another foe, the machine-mother SHODAN. In the previous installment, a hacker disabled SHODAN, an artificial intelligence gone bonkers after her “ethics limiter” was removed, and jettisoned her material consciousness along with her biological experiment onto the surface of nearby planet Tau Ceti V. That experiment blossomed into The Many, a collective entity which called for the destruction of all things non-organic, including their mother SHODAN, and the assimilation of everything otherwise. As the protagonist in this mess you are forced to team up with SHODAN for your own survival; The Many are constantly procreating, evolving, and seeking out more to add to their brood. This uneasy alliance creates for some spectacular moments and an overall sense of fear…SHODAN is supremely powerful in her domain but needs an avatar to carry out her material wishes. By this logic she provides you with the means to upgrade your nanotech capabilities and more often than not it feels like she’s leading you on with the cartoonish image of a carrot-on-a-stick for bait, but one wrong move and go against her wishes and she can take away what she so easily grants.

The brilliance of System Shock 2 shines in many different facets. The graphics for the time were sufficient and excelled at creating a desolate environment, and the creature design is superb. Monstrous biomasses called Rumblers charge at you from across the hall, their very footsteps shaking your view, while silent and stealthy cyborg assasins utter electronic gibberish before dispatching you long before you know where they strike from. The cyborg midwives fiercely guard the eggs of The Many, taunting you with phrases such as “Babies need meat” and “I’ll tear out your spine” while marching around, their lower torso completely comprised of metal while their upper body remains mostly human.

The Midwife. Click to enlarge.

(The picture above is from a fan-based mod team, the Rebirth project, as they upgrade the texture quality of the game, but it helps shed light on what the Midwife looks like).
The sound is another feature of the game which is beyond compare. SHODAN’s voice is tainted with electronic interference and garbled at times, The Many call to you with three distinct voices superimposed (a deep male voice, a soft female voice, and the occasional higher pitched female voice) while their hybrid offspring beg for you to join them and alternately kill them. Xerxes, the corrupted AI on board of the Von Braun, consoles you in a warm fatherly voice to give up your useless struggle and to join The Many, and every voice-log you find is spoken in that character’s voice. Often times you’ll find that the last log of a character ends with all-too convincing screaming or pleading, making the experience extremely chilling.

Another beautiful component of the game is the level of detail attributed to every object. Every item you pick up contains a full description, weapons and ammunition have statistics, the portable “Game Boy”-like device has a full-fledged Ultima tribute game to play through, and then there are the objects which you can research and learn more from. This lends a brilliant alternative to the RPG-mechanic of experience points; every so often an enemy may drop some tissue or component which, with the right items and abilities, will allow you to research and learn more about the creature, with the usual end result of being able to damage it more with each successful attack. Alien technology can be researched as well, and in all cases the final analysis provides you, the player, with some very convincing text to read about the biology of the creatures or the mechanics of a new foreign weapon. This leads me to my next point…despite the obvious sci-fi inconsistencies, courtesy of the level of detail, this game is VERY believable. Real biological processes are described in the life cycle of The Many, subtle hints to a real human society living on a ship are illustrated by messages about Christmas approaching and the like, the Von Braun itself has many different levels throughout which Operations, Hydroponics, Engineering, and the Recreation Deck all reside just to name a few. The Rec Deck was by far the most interesting and immersive with its bars, housing areas, and carnal enjoyment suites. Interaction with the evironment is top-notch and executed flawlessly in a point-and-click manner. Security grids can be disarmed and locked doors and boxes can be pilfered via a “hacking” mini-game which is part luck and part character-skill derived. There are even more aspects upon which I haven’t even touched, such as character creation, weapon degradation and maintenance, the core character stats, and the myriad items you acquire throughout the game. System Shock 2 is far too dense and deep to pry apart as such, so I chose to focus on the elements which made it the best game I have ever played. You’re doing yourself an extreme disservice by not trying it, so go scour the bargin bins and hawk the ebay auctions for your own copy. Or ask me and I’ll send you one of mine, the game is just THAT good.

I wish to end this review with what I found to be one of the most chilling voice-logs in the game, one which sums up the severity and fear of the game supremely well:

With only a few short years of evolution, [The Many have] been able to conquer this starship, mankind’s mightiest creation. Where were we after forty years of evolution? What swamp were we swimming around in, single celled and mindless? What if SHODAN’s creations are superior to us? What will they become in a million years, in ten million years? What’s clear is that SHODAN shouldn’t be allowed to play God. She’s far too good at it.

One Response to “System Shock 2”

  1. Zach Says:

    I can’t believe I have never played this. I gotta find a copy, it looks like something that’s right up my alley.

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