So, System Shock ended on a positive note, with Citadel demolished, SHODAN destroyed and the Hacker getting away scot-free. Everything fine, right?
Aren't you forgetting a little something? Didn't we, like, jettison a section of the station, containing... something?
Fast forward 40-odd years. Tri-Optimum has recovered from the PR nightmare that Citadel was, SHODAN made the history books and all was seemingly forgotten. The experimental science ship Von Braun is about to test its new experimental super-duper doohickey that pretty much is a hyperdrive. In order to make sure it gets wherever it gets safely and stays that way, it will give a piggyback ride to the Rickenbaker, a military ship with a full complement of soldiers and psi-ops specialists. That's PSI-ops, not psy-ops. In the intervening years, ESP has gone from a pipe dream into a viable reality, making psionic combat practical and experimentation in psi-amps leading to actual weaponization of ESP abilities.
You, dear player, are no longer the Hacker. You are now the Soldier, one of the Rickenbaker's crew, and you can be one of three classes with a specific service record that you get to pick and mix and I've heard that one before someplace, right? You can be the tough-ass Soldier, focused on combat and versed in weaponry, the Engineer, learned in tools and implants and whatnot, or the Psionic, capable of killing stuff with your brain. They're named differently in the game, of course, but it all comes down to the traditional Warrior/Thief/Mage trifecta. This effectively turns the original game's action-adventure into a full-blown action-RPG, much like the original SS's ancestor, Ultima Underworld.
You wake up on the Von Braun's medical deck, amnesiac and disoriented, and are told over the radio that you've just woken up from an implantation of an experimental cybernetic neural interfa-- Whoa, Nelly, isn't that familiar? Perhaps, something you remember from an old dre-- Wait, wrong game. This is familiar. This is System Shock 1 all over again. Janice Polito takes over from Rebecca Lansig as your voice-over-the-intercom-that-tells-you-what-to-do.
It would appear that the Von Braun made planetfall on a planet orbiting Tau Ceti V (another familiar old dream, ha! But we will cover Marathon some other time, I promise), recovered some biological samples of the local wildlife, if it can be called that, and somehow went from studying alien worms to being turned into mutated zombies driven by a hive mind that has SOMEHOW managed to take over the ship's computer, XERXES. XERXES, in a polite and totally un-SHODAN-like tone, informs you that he serves the Glory of the Many, and they intend to cleanse your imperfections through their unity. Moreover, all the psionic bleedback caused by whatever bizarre crap is happening around you, makes you see ghosts here and there...
Functionally, this game is much more streamlined. Running on the Thief 2 version of the Dark Engine, System Shock 2 inherited all of it's brother's features - running, crawling, leaning, ecksetra, but also vaulting, pulling-yourself-onto-a-higher-obstacle and, my favourite, physics. The combat handles like in a common FPS - after you equip a gun from your inventory, point and shoot like you would in Doom, just keep an eye on your ammo and switch ammo types as necessary. The rest, however... You are now possessed of skills and abilities which you can upgrade through special machines - internally, this is treated as you upgrading your cybernetic implants. Want to take over security cameras? Be invisible to them instead? Be able to carry more weight? Shrug off more damage? Easy as pie, just use the upgrade modules to generate new implants for yourself. These are, of course, poorly-masked skill points you expend on skills, but it keeps in line with the overall style of the game - Deus Ex does the exact same thing, and a lot less gracefully.
You also no longer have to rely exclusively on scavenging - you can use nanofabrication vending machines scattered around the two ships to generate items for you. Sure, they are vending machines, so you'll have to pay for the stuff... but you can also hotwire them to produce illegal items (like guns and ammo) or to be cheaper.
Wait, this sounds familiar too? Of course, because BioShock was made by the exact same people and is actually the exact same game, just underwater instead of in space!
The storytelling goes the same way - you learn the plot and the backstory from terminals, data packets, e-mail, audio logs and intercom calls of the various characters, both dead and alive - but is slightly enhanced by the use of scripted cutscenes to show to you the fates (usually grisly ones) of the ship's crew as you watch their final moments as ghosts. An additional scare factor, however, is added by the fact that the former humans you encounter - the mutants and cyborgs (created by XERXES in much the same way as SHODAN created hers in the previous game) and human cyborgs serving The Many - talk. A lot. They ramble, they threaten and they plead. They gibber, they scream and they beg. And it's scary as hell.
And then there's SHODAN's return from the dead... You see, when you jettisoned the groves of Citadel Station where SHODAN was developing her humanity-killing virus, you actually ended up sending them in the general direction of Tau Ceti V, where they crashed on guess what planet? The virus interacted violently with the local life, producing the parasite worms that eventually formed The Many upon exposure to humans... and other animals present on the Von Braun for experiments. And those groves also contained a backup copy of our old virtual girlfriend-slash-nemesis... who actually needs our HELP, because she wants The Many destroyed as much as we do, because even though they (through XERXES, mostly) call her their mother, they also find her to be as limited as us humans are, and that means - set to be annihilated. So you join this three-way slugfest of death as an unwilling participant, co-opted by SHODAN as she stick-and-carrots you through the motions of defeating The Many... and then of course returns to her old godly ways. Marvelous!
The entire experience has been upgraded for the end of the XXth century - decent 3d graphics (which various mods bring up from their dated-even-for-1999-when-it-came-out look to a more or less awesome awesome-for-2005 look) with coloured lighting and realtime physics, 3d surround sound, co-op gameplay (once you install a patch or seven) and a lot of the features which will be overlooked by critics in this game and praised (and later plagiarized from for a great many games) in Deus Ex.
Since it was a lot easier to run, came out in a time when video games were far more widespread and was published and distributed by EA... System Shock 2 is a lot more famous, well-known and widely-played than its predecessor. Ask anyone if they played System Shock, and more often then not, if they had, it was 2, or they will say they did and quote and/or refer only to 2. It overshadowed the first one in a huge way, and even though it was well-deserved, I still feel a little sad that it went to the lengths wherein an equally awesome game gets pretty much forgotten by so many gamers.
Bottom line: It's legendary for a reason, although most of its achievements are actually rehashes of the first game's achievements with better graphics and a slightly bigger voice acting budget on top. But to victor the spoils, and this is NOT a game to be missed, especially if you liked the original, BioShock or Deus Ex, or just want a kickass FPS-RPG hybrid that's scary as all nine hells. It also inherits the original's memetic staying power, wherein quoting anything XERXES or SHODAN says will bring chills to their spine and shivers to their EVERYTHING. And that's as good a proof of a legendary status as anything.
"Do You Remember That One?" - System Shock 2 - "I. AM. SHODAN."
Blog entry posted by Noelemahc, Jun 14, 2012.
Fiannawolf likes this.
About the Author
A Russian Econ major with a minor in graphomania. Used to write for a Russian gaming magazine a while back, apparently wasn't very good or they wouldn't've cancelled his column to replace it with one devoted to listing erotic fanservice moments in videogames and anime series. Has a penchant for long-winded distracted rants and a bizarre affection for very old videogames.