Friday, 10 June 2011

System Shock 2 (PC) - Guest Post

A first person shooter worthy enough for GOOD RETRO GAME WEEK?

The final boss of computer gaming.

Once upon a time...

In the cyberpunk future...

Duty calls.

In a world torn in two between mega-corporation and mega-government, a stranger drifts into a military recruitment center to help make sense of his life. He signs up for a four year tour of duty in the UNN military. Character creation, what fun!

Mystery man can choose between three classes: Marines (weapons guys), the Navy (tech guys) and the OSA (psychic guys).

I'm going for the Navy because being able to muck around with technology sounds like a good skill to have when you're on a space ship. Unlike many RPGs, these classes only provide starting stat bonuses or a common item. You can buy the stats you turned down later on when you're ready.

Three years of intense military action summarised for the player in three short paragraphs of text. The fourth year is spent on the UNN Rickenbacker, a mega military ship escorting the experimental faster-than-light capable Tri-Optimum Corporation ship Von Braun across the galaxy.

Amnesia! Surprise!

"Watch out... I'm getting strange readings from that radar dish outside the window. It's become unstable due to... Move! Take cover!" - Bang!

I think that radar dish committed suicide when it heard that cliché of yours, Doctor.

Dr. Janice Polito is my hard as nails, no-nonsense guide to the bloodied wreck that is the Von Braun. She sends me voice messages urging me to hurry up and get out of here before the whole area is exposed to space. Alright, I'm going, I'm going.

'Strange readings', geez. Get real.

He's dead. No bloodstains, no signs of a struggle. I think he died accidentally!

I place the dead man's wrench into my rack of grid squares and forge ahead.

Hey! It's an alive person! Helloooo....!

She's gunned down by a shotgun wielding mutant man. :(

There's corpses everywhere. Mo' money for me.

This place sounds like it looks. The computers hum, click and flicker uselessly.

Reverence to the altar of character upgrades. This pillar of upgrade machines allows users of illegal cyber-rigs (i.e. me, and only ever me) to upgrade their skills by spending cybernetic modules. Dr. Polito doles them out over the magic-waves whenever I make myself useful, so I mark this place down on the map for later.


It's a spooky ghost, Scoob! He's pleading to be let out of the Cryo Recovery room as he's lost his keycard. (I AM THE KEYCARD TUTORIAL.) He sounds half asleep.

Let's go back and look around for the keycard then.

Onwards! Again!

This corridor looks clear. Down this corridor and to the right is the elevator which will allow me to meet up with Dr. Polito.

To the left...

Holy moly!

Back up! Back into the upgrade room!


The monster's lumbering pipe-fu is no match for my Navy-trained wrench-fu.

This guy can run fast but takes his time attacking. He also tends to stand still while he does so you can whack him when he's swung and missed. A hit of the wrench stuns him so keep attacking!

No experience points or much money for killing him. The reward is that I get to remain alive.

I sneak off down the corridor, only to be assaulted by...


That's not your typical 'survival horror' music. Here I am, sneaking around the place armed only with a wrench, trying to avoid these mutant guys, when this music starts up and blasts phat beats into my face.

My first copy of System Shock 2 was from a compilation (MobyGames link) and I could never get the music working on it. The only sounds were the hums and clicks of the Von Braun's systems and the grunting of the mutant bad guys. This is very different.

This is Xerxes. He's the big computer in charge of the Von Braun. He's got a big blue face and talks in a very calm manner.

"Security forces has been alerted to your presence, intruder. The glory of The Many demands your capture or destruction."

You can't shoot him.

Wait a minute, what am I DOING? I can't just go around getting myself into trouble for no reason! What's the mission today, Doc?

Dr. Polito wants to meet up with me, and of course that means I have to make my way to her. But the lift to Dr. Polito is out of power. The power can only be switched on from Engineering. Engineering can only be accessed by a maintenance shaft. The maintenance shaft is behind a keypad door. The only person with the code is in the Crew section. The Crew section requires a keycard. The only keycard is held by a guy in the Medical section. The door to the medical section is out of power. The only way to power it is to find the damaged power cell and recharge it. The only recharger I've found so far is now exposed to space. Now I have to find another recharger.

Did you get all that?

AND YOU! ARE NOT! Sneaking up on me!

Luckily for me, they can't keep their mouth shut. Still, just because I can hear them yell "THEY SEE YOU. RUN! RUN!", doesn't mean I can do anything about it. The game interface is like a bloody Rubik's cube. After recovering from the shock of hearing the guy yelling in my ear, I've got to remember what button turns off the inventory screen and get a weapon ready.

I swear that the game deliberately makes more enemies appear whenever I hit the inventory button or try to quick save. When you're in the menu the game doesn't pause and you can't turn because the mouse is used to move the mouse pointer. Canny players could set up the keyboard so they could still move, turn and fire using the keys, but I haven't.


Do you know where the recharger is?

Never mind.

One striking difference between System Shock 2 and flashy contemporary games is that you don't get a musical cue every single time anything happens. Nor does the game take control of your camera and swivel your face to look at The Impressive Thing that the designers spent ages designing. It's as if the developers decided not to look over your shoulder the whole time and keep saying 'THIS IS THE SCARY THING. NOW THIS IS THE SHOTGUN ROOM. NOW THIS IS THE BIG ALIEN FROM THE TRAILERS.'. How cool is that? Not everything has to be chucked in your face. Except the phat beatz, but you can turn them off if you prefer spooky noises.

I skate around a desk to see if there's anything neato in it and completely miss the big obvious camera sitting on top of it. Uh oh.

The cameras make loud noises but I can't hear 'em through the beatz I'm being subjected to. I'm-a go turn them off and prepare for the onslaught.

Infinite enemies? I'll kill 'em all! I'm only facing two at a time, which is all I can handle.

I daren't use my precious health hypos so I'm living off the soda the hybrids often carry. 1 HP doesn't sound like a lot but I've only got 35 HP max.

Because System Shock 2 uses the same engine as Thief, it won't surprise you that using the wrench is just like using the sword. That is, it's a right pain in the arse. You have to have the timing exactly right or you'll miss entirely. You can't block with the wrench so you'll have to weave about the place to avoid being dead. It takes two strikes to kill them. Combat is hard.

When the alarm timer runs out, I show the camera what I think of it.

Sure I had a gun all along. I had two guns, in fact. Don't have that many bullets for them, mind. I'm not using the pistol because at this point my wrench is faster, more powerful, more infinite and more indestructible.

Using the wrench on the cameras is a gutsy move. You've got to ready a swing, run at the camera, release the swing and then jump into camera hoping your attack connects at the exact right time.

This isn't the recharger: it's a replicator. The ghost is upset that somebody's hacked the machine. It wasn't me, boss! I don't have sufficient skill to do that!

If I'm thinking of buying anything, I really ought to learn how to hack. Those prices are extortionate! 100 nanites for 12 pistol bullets? You've gotta be joking. I turned on the automatic extra life machine a few minutes ago, 10 nanites a use. I don't think I'll be buying anything here any time soon.

Recharger located.

Now all I have to do is get over there safely.

Ees turrets!

Get away from the exploding barrels! Hide behind the wall!

Staying out in the open is instant death, so I find a position behind the wall where I can shoot the turret without the turret being able to shoot back.

If you don't use the guns as emergency tools, you'll end up unarmed before you know it. You've probably heard scary stories about System Shock 2's gun degradation. They're all accurate. I've got just over thirty bullets at this point. If I try to fire them all, I'll run out of gun before I run out of bullets.

Now that I've got the power cell recharged, every third mutant has a shotgun. This changes things a bit.

I can't go around shooting them as they don't drop anything useful. I can either avoid them, which is difficult considering the crazy, twisty, one-way-to-everything layout of the Von Braun, or run at them swinging the wrench around. Wrench it is!

When I kill him I can take his shotgun, but it's always broken. I don't have the skill to repair it, so I take it, unload it and chuck it. The shell is way more useful than the gun.

The Von Braun was a deathtrap before the catastrophe. Who builds a door leading nowhere?

I've gotta get down there because they've no doubt got some goodies for me to pilfer. Now, how am I going to do that?

Incoming cold balls! Retreat!

That screeching... it sounds like a monkey!

It is a monkey! An evil psionic psychic monkey of doom! I try to smash its brains in with the wrench, but I have to crouch to hit the bastard. Stop dancing and get back here!

Med bed. Full health for five nanites. Bargain of the century. (A 15 HP health hypo is 30 nanites from an unhacked replicator.)

Don't misunderstand, this isn't a safe room by any means. The enemies don't tend to come after you unless they've seen you, but they are out there and they are respawning. There are no safe rooms.

Looks like the ship is sinking! No, wait, that doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

I've got to search every one of these side rooms for keycards, money, ammo and stuff. Way more fun than it sounds. What isn't fun is that a lot of them have high security crates that my Hack skill can't handle.

It's an alive guy! Hey, I'll get help!

He tells me that 'they want me'. Eerie stuff.

Do you guys MIND? We're trying to have exposition here!

Shotgun hybrid rarely misses and I'm nearly dead. They're standing next to the only ladder out of the room, so the wrench is out of the question. Time to get out the pistols. I'm getting a lot of mileage out of these 'lean' buttons, but it's difficult to tell when you're safely in cover or not. Certain enemies like to shoot through walls too, especially robots.

When I return to the main corridor there's a great big shooty robot waiting for me. Run away!

He's guarding the exit door so I've got to fight him. If I were smarter, I could try to lead him on a merry dance around the ship but that's kinda dangerous. Good job I saved all those Armor Piercing bullets and spare pistols! I'd hit it with the wrench but he'd splat me before I got close. Plus robots explode when they die so close combat is bad idea.

And that's the end of that deck of the ship! Type in the code I got from the guy and I'm heading down to the Engineering deck to turn the power back on.

The code doesn't change between playthroughs, so if I wanted to I could write it down and skip the entire Med-Sci deck of the ship. This is a really stupid idea, because it means I'm down dozens of rooms worth of weapons, ammo and stat points.

Engineering deck. Lethal radiation. Hope you brought your anti-rad hypos!

You probably noticed by now that I'm not taking this game that seriously. I've played this so many times that I know where everything is, but that doesn't matter because there's lots to do. You're given directions by Dr. Serious, a limitless supply of creeps to avoid, kill, distract or subdue and two ships full of stuff to get the job done with. Take it as seriously as you like.

I like the Navy start and play as an incredibly violent burglar. Every single box must be ransacked and every single body must be inspected. Every item that's even remotely useful is chucked into the Cryo Recovery room for later. Anything that interrupts me gets a wrench to the chops.

I can't say I've ever considered making a PSI guy. Hey, let's try a PSI guy!

There's not a lot of difference between PSI guy and Navy guy on Normal difficulty. PSI guy starts with a freeze ball power but that doesn't mean he can go blasting it all over the place. PSI points don't recharge so they're another finite resource. All of the best tricks are incredibly expensive in terms of stat points so you'll have to sit tight, buy nothing and wrench everything before you can become a mega wizard. PSI guy has to buy the ability to use guns, so if you want to use the ammo you're finding, you'll have to wait for powers even longer.

For non O.S.A. characters there's a big stat point cost to allow you to use PSI powers at all and then you need to buy each PSI power on top of that. To unlock the freeze ball power (the first PSI attack) for the Navy guy, I'd have to spend every stat point I'd earned so far.

The ability to use Cryokinesis is very useful against cameras and PSI guy can get healing pretty quickly. New players might want to play on Normal and be a PSI guy so they can use their PSI points at all; it's a lot easier to turn PSI guy into a hacker than it is to turn Navy guy into a PSI user.

PSI guy isn't really a combat guy though. None of the guys are combat guys, really. They're all very weak, sneaky, hidey guys, as it should be.

If there's one thing you should know about System Shock 2 it's that the game makes everything as awkward as it can possibly be. Shooting is awkward, dodging is awkward, the interface is awkward. PSI powers are especially awkward. You can bind individual powers or tiers of powers to keys. The F-Keys. You can't just whip out a power whenever you feel like it either; you've gotta equip the Psi-Amp first. It soon becomes clear that you're playing as a guy who literally has a computer jammed in his face. Too bad for you, it's keyboard and mouse controlled.

The rules of the game seem to work against you in odd ways. Stuff gets stuck in walls, your wrench sometimes refuses to work and enemies respawn in places where they really ought not to be able to. Sometimes they just appear out of thin air right in front of you. It's very discouraging. Every time the game cheats me out of a victory, my instincts tell me to quickload, and I know I shouldn't be doing that. I shouldn't HAVE to do that.

You know, come to think of it, I had more fun collecting and hoarding the stuff than I did actually defeating enemies or completing the objectives. I played for a couple more hours and was unimaginably bored by the time I got to Polito because I had pretty everything I was ever going to have. I'm officially authorizing you to stop playing at that point, if you want to. The bad things in System Shock 2 outnumber the good by far.


  1. Time and time again you quit games much too early. You quit before the plot even got started! Also you are obviously playing an unpatched version, and I'm not even talking about the unofficial later patches that improve the graphics and add things to the game. I'm just talking about the couple of patches that came out in the year the game was released. If you had gotten those the stuff you mentioned like enemies appearing in front of you, the wrench occasionally not working, and actually pretty much all of your major gripes would have been solved. The game was made with a badly designed engine for a game that wasn't even properly finished when it was forced out the door and it's well known among any late nineties computer gamer that any game from eidos needs to be patched at least twice before it will be fun.

    Oh, and the inventory button? Tab.

    Not hard to give it a quick tap and spin around for a quick smack to keep the zombies off you. I personally think the game should have paused when the menus were open though.

  2. Quitting games much too early time and time again is pretty much the name of the game at SAiG. I admit I really should have gotten to Polito's office, but there's always a 'next thing' in these games that I should have gotten to and I have a picture limit.

    On Easy, a semi-aware player can safely diagonal-run through almost all the hybrids and auto-defences and get to Polito in minutes. Unless they're playing OSA, I suppose.

    Med-Sci is the best part of the game. Every deck just gets worse and worse from then on.

    I can't recall the exact version number I played, but I believe I was playing it on the newest official patches. The damned thing doesn't run at all otherwise: various Loading doors throw you outside the level; sometimes it crashes completely. It's different and slightly better with the Anomalies, Discrepancies and outright Bugs mod ("the most thorough attempt on gameplay-adjustment for System Shock 2") installed, but it's still a busted, tiring game.

  3. Yea I remember playing with the original unpatched on win98, the loading screen would occasionally bug out entirely and leave me holding the bag on the windows desktop, ha.

    So you must have one of those slightly non-standard computer configurations I always heard about that managed to break the game even with the patches then? Because it at least seemed to mostly work once I got the first two, but I always used oldish hardware that while weak, was pretty stable.

    And you're right med-sci is awesome, the rest of the von braun is pretty awesome too I think, I guess you played almost as far as I would have suggested because the ending, while better than about 90% of normal games out there, is still not that great, and the entire rickenbacker series of levels is gross, slippery, disorienting, and frustration. Hailed at the time for its "innovative" and "unique" level design (that mostly involved shooting nerve sections and humping huge sphincters as you run around completely ignorant of the appropriate direction), I just wanted to get through it to get back to metal ship parts that at least made some sense. Unfortunately flesh world just gets worse and worse till you kill the many and end the game, but I had to finish it because I loved the first one.

    Thats an idea actually, you should try the first system shock, I'd love to see what you have to say about it in a review. I have a couple old copies if you need one, though it should be pretty easy to download.

  4. I didn't get this game at all too on my first play. However, on my second try few years later I really enjoyed it :O the same I can say about Invisible War


Semi-Random Game Box