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System Shock Review

System Shock key art

System Shock Review

After years of hype and multiple delays, Nightdive Studios’ remake of the seminal FPS and immersive sim classic System Shock finally arrived for PC on May 30, 2023. With the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series versions of the title set to release on May 21, 2024 (almost a year to the day of the title’s original release), it seems like the perfect time to revisit what is, for better or worse, a completely faithful reimagining of one of the most important games of the 1990s.

The original System Shock from 1994 represents one of the more important titles in PC gaming, sitting alongside other contemporaries of the decade such as Deus Ex and Half-Life in transforming the landscape of both first-person shooters and RPGs and signaling a new golden era for experiences that simply weren’t possible on consoles. Though he didn’t work directly on the original System Shock, Looking Glass Studios (makers of the original game) would be where legendary developer Ken Levine cut his teeth, going on to design the influential sequel System Shock 2, and later, its spiritual successor BioShock.

As one of the more foundational and important titles of PC gaming in the 1990s, love for System Shock and its sequel are fairly widespread among gamers of a certain age, with the founders of Nightdive Studios forming their team specifically with the goal of obtaining the rights to the franchise and making both a remake of the original game and an official sequel in System Shock 3. Though those rights are now up in the air after being acquired by Tencent, Nightdive has done commendable work in both making System Shock 2 more readily available on modern PCs and in delivering a faithful remake of System Shock that smooths out most of the game’s rough edges.

“Welcome to my world, Insect”

System Shock gameplay

©System Shock gameplay screenshot – Original

The opening to System Shock introduces players to a dystopic vision of a near future in which corporate greed and technological advancement have given way to a great divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Similar to the original game, a ship zooms over the city of New Atlanta in the year 2072 and eventually settles in on a view of a lone hacker working away at something in their modest apartment. That hacker is you, and the remake allows players to assume control of the protagonist directly during their attempt to break into the files on the TriOptimum Corporation’s Citadel Station. Of course, as you might expect, things quickly go awry, leading to the hacker’s arrest.

Waking in a mysterious corporate office surrounded by TriOptimum Corp security, we meet TriOptimum executive Edward Diego. The hacker is now aboard the Citadel space station they were so desperately trying to uncover hidden information about, and are given an ultimatum by Diego — remove the ethical restraints from the Citadel station’s AI, Shodan, and all charges will be dropped. Without any other option, we comply, and things quickly begin to fall apart in spectacular fashion.

Awakening once again in the station’s Medical bay, it becomes very obvious that something is amiss at the station, with both mutated humans and robotic sentinels relentlessly hunting down the player. Not long after making our presence known, Shodan comes over the intercom to greet, taunt, and threaten us all at once. Shodan is planning on using the station’s mining laser to destroy every human settlement on Earth and declare itself a god, leaving us as the last line of defense capable of shutting down the rogue AI and saving humanity. All in a day’s work, I suppose.

What’s Old is New Again

System Shock gameplay

©System Shock gameplay screenshot – Original

One of the most remarkable things about the System Shock remake is the way that it deftly straddles the line between faithful homage and innovation. Naturally, the passage of time continues to chip away at the veneer that the original System Shock previously held, with its visuals and gameplay not quite holding up in the same way as those of its more profound sequel. Nightdive’s remake immediately stands out thanks to its impressive visual upgrade, bringing the Citadel Station and its many horrors to life in gruesome detail all while maintaining the same art direction as in the original game. But this visual upgrade is just the start of Nightdive’s improvements to the game’s source material.

Though the System Shock remake is still very reminiscent of the original 1994 classic, the subtle improvements made to the game’s navigation and HUD make it feel like a brand-new game (or, at least, what the original should have been like). The ability to pull up a mini-map of the floor the player is on is a massive improvement over the original mapping system, complete with real-time tracking when it becomes confusing regarding where to go next. Inventory management receives a similar upgrade, with the new ability to quickly cycle between 9 different quick access slots making combat a much smoother experience that facilitates using all the tools at the player’s disposal.

Nightdive Studios continues to be one of the best working teams in the art of game preservation and remasters of classic FPS titles, and the System Shock remake’s combat sees it putting all their skills and knowledge to good use. Shooting and melee combat in System Shock feel great, which is a blessing considering how integral it is to the experience.

Embracing Tradition and Modernity

System Shock gameplay

©System Shock gameplay screenshot – Original

When the hacker isn’t bashing in the brains of mutants or cybernetic Citadel security forces, much of System Shock‘s original DNA remains intact in the remake. The game is still an immersive sim that requires the player to investigate their surroundings and pick up audio and text logs to decipher clues about where to go or what to do. This environmental storytelling was groundbreaking in 1994, but in 2024 it’s been practically done to death. Players have now seen plenty of titles (including the games that the original System Shock inspired) utilize environmental storytelling to drive the player forward and invest them in the conflict. But newer games allow us to skip over these story elements at no penalty. System Shock actively punishes you for it.

Puzzles are just as important to System Shock‘s core gameplay as its combat and exploration, and the remake does at least provide some welcome accessibility options when it comes to their difficulty. Right from the game’s outset, players can choose between a variety of difficulty options that affect the challenge inherent in combat and puzzles, with the default setting skewing closely to the difficulty of the original. While the puzzles themselves are never too obtuse to not be fun, there were some times when power panel puzzles seemed to have impossible solutions. It wasn’t until discovering the subtle visual cue of plugs having one or two active lights that I began to realize there were differing voltage levels. User-error? Perhaps. Design flaw? Definitely.

Bottom Line

System Shock gameplay

©System Shock gameplay screenshot – Original

Ultimately, Nightdive Studios fixes the elements of System Shock that have not aged gracefully (visuals and audio, combat) while leaving the rest of the game mostly intact. That faithfulness is a two-way street, with the game retaining a healthy challenge reminiscent of its era that may turn off players used to newer immersive sims. Truthfully, though, there’s an argument to be made that the System Shock remake’s difficulty is one of the title’s best features, making every inch fought for a worthwhile measure of progress and pushing the player to take down the evil sentient machine engineering our misery.

As a remake, System Shock excels by retaining the same bleak atmosphere and sci-fi/horror leanings of the original game but adding in several quality-of-life improvements to make playing it a much more palatable experience. System Shock might be the definitive version of one of PC gaming’s most important titles, and it makes a compelling case for Nightdive to capture lightning in a bottle twice with a System Shock 2 remake.

Rating: 8.5/10

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