This review originally appeared in E77, November 1999.
Certain games, despite critical acclaim and innovative design, fail to pique the curiosity of the buying public. The original System Shock was one such title, lauded and name-checked thereafter by the PC press, yet widely ignored at retail. It’s hard to pinpoint quite why it happened – it did, after all, pre-empt Half-Life’s narrative-oriented progression, and was at least as atmospheric as Delphine’s similarly paced Fade to Black. Many gamers, then, will mistake System Shock 2 as a child of the current era – the post-Half-Life switch from ‘twitch’ gameplay to more involving firstperson adventures – when, in fact, its precursor was a pioneer of this fashionable gamestyle.
System Shock 2’s RPG leanings are revealed during its opening sequences, just after players have ploughed through short training sequences. You’re given the option to choose your career path prior to the beginning of the game proper. Although you do not actually play through these events, the behind-the-scenes experience they confer enhances your starting statistics. From weapon-handling to repairs skills, and Psi abilities to basic physical characteristics, these skills may then be enhanced further during your later adventures. The importance of this aspect of System Shock 2 cannot be understated, as balancing your character’s faculties is essential.
Many gamers, with their Quake-tinged sensibilities, will be shocked at how awkward combat can be in System Shock 2. With a slower, more realistic pace, and with opportunities to replenish meagre energy allocations few and far between, early exchanges are fraught with panic. System Shock 2’s combat system is, bar the introduction of a ‘lean’ function, no more sophisticated than that of any other FPS title. You point, you shoot and – clumsily, it must be said – you strafe. However, the relative vulnerability of your character adds an exhilarating air to proceedings. Ammunition is forever scarce, and the strength of your assailants grows in accordance with your own. There are, however, difficult sections where play continues in a staccato manner, while long reloads test the patience. System Shock 2’s razor-edged atmosphere does not come without a price.
With a tightly scripted plot, great audio, and measured, challenging progression, System Shock 2 is a far from typical FPS outing. Its engine is not at the cutting edge of PC graphics but, grasping the baton from its lamentably overlooked forebear, it succeeds in offering an advanced, progressive spin on firstperson gaming mainstays. With all due respect to Rebellion, this is the game that Aliens Vs Predator perhaps should have been.