I’ve never played System Shock 1, so this is a bit of a departure from the usual rules in the name of… Well, legend. The name System Shock 2 has echoed throughout the ages, especially around the hallowed halls of Deus Ex, so when it appeared on GoG.com and people assured me that I didn’t need to play the first game to “get it”, I knew it was only a matter of time before I took the plunge.
So with Divinity II sadly squared away (I wanted moaaar), it’s time to trade irreverent fantasy for gloomy sci-fi horror…
System Shock 2
I managed to cripple myself for my first play, but that only lasted a couple hours before I turned around — I thought it prudent to try out being a Navy man rather than a Marine, so I’d have a bit of the h4X0r for all the bangin’ loot, but then the game was full of horrendous zombies so I canned it and started from zero as a gun-totin’ hoo-rah military man. Ended up with a load of h4X0r skills anyway, the levelling system is pretty open.
This was playing on Normal; sure, it’s unfamiliar territory, but I still tend to expect a reasonable level of ability to cope with unforeseen situations in the early stages of a game on Normal. I was intending to go through “owning” all my mistakes, but due to some of the mechanics discussed below I ended up in a bit of an inescapable hole and canned it. The game and I got along much better after I restarted.
So System Shock 2 is an RPG/FPS hybrid. There are stats and skills and they all impact what you can do and how you can do it — though Weapons skills just increase damage done with weapons (instead of Deus Ex‘s controversial aim-wander), stats like Agility affect your movement speed while Strength increases your inventory size…
Of course it goes deeper than that. Weapons degrade and must be repaired, assuming you have the skill and the tools. Crates and shops must be hacked, assuming you have the skill and the money. Mysterious alien organs and artefacts must be researched, assuming you have the skill and the chemicals.
The odd thing is perhaps that, in order to get each skill “off the ground”, you have to pay a larger cost in upgrade points than you do to increase it the next couple of levels beyond that. It might be okay to leave Heavy and Exotic weapons until much further through the game when you actually find a Heavy or Exotic weapon, but Research (which allows you to get not inconsiderable damage bonuses against some enemies) and Hacking (which allows you access to precious precious extra loot, the ability to disable security cameras, and more) are basically mandatory — so I spent the start of the game in a very weakened state saving up my modules to get these skills started.
Everything in the universe costs Nanites — from buying items from vending machines, to hacking keypads, to modifying weapons — the whole lot. Including respawning.
It kind of falls into the same hole that Invisible War‘s universal ammunition causes. Games like this are supposedly about choice, options; failing in one plan of attack still tends to leave many more open. But when you have universal ammunition, emptying your favourite gun means that you have emptied all guns. You’re never left with five rounds in that crappy one that’ll do in a pinch (or a PS20 you’d forgotten about).
Okay, SS2 doesn’t have universal ammunition, but it does have Nanites as its universal resource. Resurrection costs 10 Nanites, healing to full costs 5, hacking costs vary, items are expensive… Nanites are scarce, and an untimely death can send you into a spiral of doom — you can’t afford to resurrect, but you can’t afford to buy anything to bypass the next obstacle either.
This became most obvious when, later on in the game, I was required to perform a hack and then buy a 100-Nanite special item in order to progress. Unfortunately, I had just stocked up on repair tools and med hypos — I barely had 11 Nanites left. I had to go back around the rest of the ship that I had already cleared, desperately hoping that the few respawned enemies would drop Nanites or that I could find unhacked crates that would deliver the bounty. Having to grind in a survival game that’s all about resource scarcity kind of killed the mood. (Luckily I was well stocked on ammunition and had a Dragon’s Tooth so it wasn’t difficult.)
There isn’t a lot of room to manoeuvre in the levels either. While Deus Ex will pretty much always present you with an air vent or environmental bypass or three (hack the doors, explode the doors, pick the doors, steal the password…), SS2 offers little more than getting past a turret by smashing a window and jumping into the room beside it. If you can’t turn invisible and walk past the enemies, you’re going to have to go at them with the wrench and hope their friends don’t join in. (Even if their friends don’t seem to join in, the game is in no way above spawning new ones behind you.)
Although the levels are pretty “open”, a lot of the navigational activity feels more like awkward backtracking than meaningful meandering. Then again, there are no side quests (as such) or allies — you’re in a world entirely of enemies, where the only non-hostile characters tend to immediately die. As you get further up the decks, there is some semblance of live communication from other survivors, but the game always stops just short of actually putting you in the same room as one of them so you can have a proper chat.
Hmm. Structurally, it’s almost exactly the same as Bioshock. It plays similarly but with sci-fi trappings instead of steampunk trappings; the same kind of scarcity of resources, the same (mostly optional) gathering of audio logs, the same lack of friendlies and proliferation of zombie-like opponents in a contained environment that is neatly partitioned by locks, keys and obstacles, the same voiceover telling you what to do then plot twist then more of the same anyway (maybe the twist occurs a little bit earlier).
Well, it’s good enough I guess. I’m not mega-enthused, though after getting over that bad start I didn’t exactly have a Half-Life-level allergic reaction either. It’s fine, and no doubt a million fanboys have just expired from my saying that (but I die a little whenever anyone bags Deus Ex so I know the feeling).