Tag: System Shock 2

Game Review: System Shock 2

Some may consider it a bit of a cheat for me to go over a game I’ve discussed previously. However, a discussion of body horror in video games as part of a Halloween theme is not the same as a full-blown review. And since this game is now available on Steam, I figured now would be a good time to give it the full treatment. Let’s get right into it.

Courtesy Irrational Games

The Tri-Optimum Corporation, late of the original System Shock, has backed the world’s first faster-than-light drive, installed on the science vessel Von Braun. Tethered to the military cruiser Rickenbacher, this historic trip takes the crew of scientists and pioneers to the distant system of Tau Ceti V. When your character awakens, it’s clear that the trip has not gone very well. The Von Braun has holes in it, the AI has gone a little nutty, and the crew? Well… most of them ask you to kill them as they slam your face with a length of pipe.

Like the original System Shock, the setting pits the player, effectively alone, against sci-fi corridors full of active threats. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there are more layers to this game, and I’m not just talking about the multiple decks of the Von Braun. While the malevolent AI SHODAN was the sole antagonist of the first game, it doesn’t take long for a voice other than the Von Braun‘s computer XERXES begins to taunt the player. The game is full of reveals and changes in plot and setting that are well-paced, thanks to the layout of the starships and the ways in which the player upgrades their character.

Courtesy Irrational Games
They tell you to run. They beg you to kill them. They’re very effective creatures, and they’re just the beginning.

This is a true RPG with shooter mechanics, as opposed to shooters with RPG elements like BioShock or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. This isn’t to take anything away from either of those games, as they’re both excellent. However, the focus of more modern games is on the shooting as opposed to character construction. System Shock 2‘s melee has the Half-Life feel in that you can just slam the attack button until whatever is in front of you crumbles. Shooting is better, but since ammunition is very scarce, you may not be doing it as much as you do in other games. You need to rely on other skills, like hacking, weapon maintenance, and possibly psionic powers in order to not end up like those poor hybrids.

In addition to its well-balanced and thought-provoking character system, System Shock 2 conveys atmosphere extremely well. Sound design especially stands out, from the pained groans of the hybrids to the skittering noise of the arachnids to the chittering of the creepy worms. In terms of overall creepiness, the cake is probably taken by the cyborg midwifes, while the ramblers really shocked me into nearly crapping my pants with their speed and desire to swallow my face in those really disgusting tooth-ringed maws of theirs. Yeesh. You see one of those lumpy sons of bitches, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Courtesy Irrational Games
… Yeah. This game is creepy.

The dated nature of the graphics can undercut the tension somewhat, but there are plenty of mods out there to help with that aspect. The nature of the engine can also get in the way of your enjoyment. I’ve heard of people getting frustrated when they spent all of the cyber modules on their Endurance and Heavy Weapons stats only to realize they needed something else entirely to finish the game. As much as the game does not railroad you into certain builds, and allows you to construct your character any way you like, there are “optimal” builds that will make the game less challenging. It’s not exactly a drawback for me, but I know it may turn others away, and therefore bears mentioning.

Stuff I Liked: The atmosphere of the game is super creepy and the level design is very well done. The setting has plenty of depth and background. The ability to switch around your ammo as the situation demands is a neat idea.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Most of my complaints can be chalked up to the age of the game. As solid as it is, it’s not as smooth as some modern titles. But they’re all minor quibbles.
Stuff I Loved: The Polito thing and everything after, full stop. The necessity of managing both inventory and stats and nanites (cash) give it an entire layer of challenge that has nothing do with combat.I also loved the open-endedness of the game’s RPG system, and the replayability promised by the idea of different builds. I hear Psi-heavy builds are fun and I’m curious to try one out.

Bottom Line: Like the original Deus Ex, System Shock 2 has appeal beyond nostalgia. The systems of the game are rock-solid despite the passage of time, and it still is both enjoyable and challenging to play. The story feels decent in its construction and the layout of the levels means things are well-paced. Regardless of whether you’re new to the idea of sci-fi RPG shooters or you have fond memories of games like this, System Shock 2 now being available on Steam means you have no excuse not to play it. So go do that.

Levine’s Infinite Fancy

Courtesy Irrational Games

For years, Ken Levine has been keeping gamers on their toes. System Shock 2 built on player expectations of both shooting games and the original System Shock. BioShock reminded modern audiences that action and terror could be balanced well and coupled with good storytelling and multi-dimensional, memorable characters. And now, BioShock Infinite has delivered one of the best gaming sucker-punches since Spec Ops: The Line, though he did so at the very end of his game with what has been called a bit of an exposition dump. Given the nature of the dialog, and the method of it’s presentation, one might even go so far as to say Levine a pretentious dick for doing what he did… and you know what? That’s okay.

Spec Ops was also a bit pretentious. Braid, Journey, Bastion… all of these games use their gameplay to move the story forward and play on themes that are above and beyond the scope of many of their contemporaries. They work on higher levels, and sometimes multiple levels. The pretense upon which such games work (hence the word ‘pretentious’) is that their story is just as important as the accuracy with which the player can shoot dudes, or the level of challenge in their puzzles. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I’d argue that in terms of game development and presentation, Ken Levine is an example of someone doing everything right.

BioShock Infinite may not be a perfect game, and it may be flawed, but what it does is done so well it’s likely to be towards the top of many Game of the Year lists. Like its true predecessors, it builds on player expectations before yanking the rug out from under them. BioShock parsed past the linear progression of many other shooters (even some that came after it) and showed just how artificial that sort of pacing could be by making the player’s character a literal pawn in somebody else’s game. Very few of the choices the player makes in that game are their own; outside of weapon and plasmid selection, the phrase ‘would you kindly’ rips any agency out of the player’s hands and pushes them towards the game’s conclusion. While there’s nothing wrong with linearity in games, especially ones so heavily concerned with story, I always got the impression that Levine was demonstrating how important choice and consequence truly are by exposing this sort of railroading. In a way, this has always been his crux: make the wrong choices in System Shock 2 and it becomes impossible to complete, “A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys” in BioShock, and in BioShock Infinite we see the choices made by both Booker DeWitt, and especially Elizabeth, changing the world around them.

A choice made by Booker alters things forever, and he may be the player’s surrogate in the world of Columbia, but I don’t think the game is his story. The first thirty minutes or so of BioShock Infinite involves you exploring Columbia once you arrive and its exposure for what it is beneath the bright, idealized facade. The story proper, for me, didn’t really kick in until our first conversation with Elizabeth. Not only is she a fascinating and well-rounded character, her presence draws out more development for Booker, she has a direct effect on the world both during the shooting and as part of the narrative moving forward, and the story literally would not be possible without her. As much as ‘focus testing’ showed that target audiences wanted Booker on the cover of the game, it was clear to me that Elizabeth is the true protagonist of BioShock Infinite, the one who makes the more difficult choices and truly grows as a person, coming into the full realization of her powers and potential. While Booker does face truths about himself and comes to terms with his past, his arc is simply not as interesting as Elizabeth’s, and the fact that Levine was able to get this story into the hands of those who did not expect it just tickles me.

I think there are a lot of game designers out there who really want to make a difference. They see the state of gaming and interactive storytelling, and they want to change things for the better. It’s a little fanciful to think it can be done, but Ken Levine has shown one of the ways you do that. I called Bioshock Infinite a sucker punch because the nature of its story, the degree to which we care about Elizabeth, and the final revelatory walk through the many worlds and lighthouses are all things most gamers did not expect. Like his other games, this is one that bears re-playing, and enjoying all over again, and not just for the challenges of the gameplay or the unlocking of achievements. Ken Levine’s ideas on how to tell stories in games and how that can change things may be fanciful – but it also works.

Ghoulish Games II: System Shock 2

Courtesy Irrational Games

I mentioned in my previous post on games that’ve unnerved me that the level in question had no monsters. It’s a great example that the setting and design of a well-crafted atmosphere doesn’t necessarily require direct antagonists to be effective. That isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with monsters, and in this second game I’d like to talk about one in particular that disturbed me when I first fought it, and stuck with me since then. The creature in question is the hybrid, from System Shock 2.

Now, the game has a fantastic overall atmosphere, well-written villains and effective set pieces that hold up despite the advances in graphics. But the hybrids stick out in my mind because they’re very well built creatures. They shamble and move like zombies but manage to say coherent things. Instead of the typical, savage war-cries of mooks in a first-person shooter, hybrids moan things like “Run…” and “Help me!”

The basic premise of Body Horror is one that messes with our self-image on a basic level. The idea that an outside force can overtake our bodies and transform us into something hideous while we remain conscious of it is a chilling one. The hybrids are this idea writ large, antagonists that attack the player against their will, still conscious of who they were and what they have become, powerless to change their state or escape the horror, praying for death.

This sort of foe crops up in later games. The Splicers in the BioShock games, people overtaken by headcrabs in Half-Life, the hellish creatures in Dead Space, even the zombies in Doom qualify. But for the most part, they aren’t quite as effective. The headcrab zombies do manage the occasional plea, but their overall incoherence defangs the horror somewhat. Most of the others are relatively interchangeable and the sort of shambling if somewhat generic grotesque creature best dealt with using automatic weapons fire.

It’s one thing to gun down a nameless foe when they’re screaming for your blood. It’s quite another when a tearful former human is begging you for death even as it struggles not to hit you. I mean, sure, the improvised weapons they carry still hurt, but the impression I got was that if they were given a choice, the hybrids wouldn’t be trying to kill you. But they’re not given a choice. They were victims before the player showed up. This tragic fact underlines the horror of the creatures and, for my part, has stuck with me even though it’s been years since I’ve played the game.

Is there a particular opponent in a game that’s unnerved you? An encounter that’s left you shaken, made you think in a chilling way or just freaked you the hell out?

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