|Now that the kiddies are comfy
in their living rooms happily playing their shiny new Dreamcasts it's time to get back to
the real deal, the kind of gaming that takes place after hours in the darkened back
office, or in that exceptionally shady corner of the bedroom where the lines between the
dirty laundry and game boxes get so blurry that you have to remember to watch your step or
your cookies will get crushed.
Ive often told friends that the secret formula for movie magic is equal parts space ships, robots, and monkeys . . . and maybe some zombies to taste. System Shock 2 isnt a movie, though for all intents and purposes it has satisfied all of the aforementioned criteria and provided me with more entertainment than any movie could hope to--except for Star Wars, but thats a given. System Shock a blend of Alien, Heinleins Puppet Masters, Gibsons Neuromancer, and a host of other science fiction motifs, all thrown together, blended, and excreted in a handy CD-R format.
If you didnt play the first System Shock it doesnt matter; the sequel is equally accessible for newbies and veterans. As the story goes, its forty years after the events of the first game, after the terrible events of Citadel, when a rogue AI named SHODAN ruthlessly murdered and cybernetically enslaved the inhabitants of a ill-fated space station. You are now a soldier in the employ of Unified National Nominate (UNN), on the fourth year of your tour of duty. Your character awakes after cybernetic implant surgery with no memories of the last few weeks. All you know is that you are aboard the Von Braun, the first faster than light starship, owned and operated by the mega-corporation TriOptimum, and watched over by the UNN Destroyer Rickenbacker. The ships are appropriately populated by various ill-tempered entities, mostly zombie-like hybrids, subjugated by what you soon come to know as "The Many," who in their natural form are essentially worms with collective consciousness. Noisy droids wander around the decks, though they are also under the control of the oddly-acting Xerxes supercomputer, as are the ships deadly security systems. Most notable for me are the monkeys, thats right, monkeys that have evidently undergone gruesome, traumatic experiments, and have acquired psionic powers--they have become self aware and are not entirely happy about it. I could go on about the denizens that inhabit the Von Braun-- the super-stealthy Cyberninjas, the gigantic Rumblers, and so on, but to relate any more would spoil all of the great surprises the game has in store for you, so let's move on to gameplay.
System Shock 2 is, at least in part, a role-playing-game, so character generation is necessary and takes place prior to your "waking" (as well as a very useful tutorial which I highly recommend). You choose your characters special traits by selecting one of three classes. Pick UNN Navy and you have a good start at technical skills and a generally well-rounded character. UNN Marines are for the run-and-gunners, good at weapon use, high on statistics. And then there's the enigmatic OSA, or research branch of the UNN military, this gets you started on your way to the psionic discipline. After deciding on your branch of service you get to pick-and-choose the posts of your first three years of tour of duty--pick wisely, my friend, this is what you're stuck with the rest of the game, unless you wish to start all over again. Id like to note that my favorite choice is the psionic discipline. Who doesnt want to have the powers of Projected Pyrokinesis or Photonic Redirection (invisibility)? if you do pick one of the others, tell me how it is sometime.
Now it's time to move on to the game itself--and oh geez, where do I start? Most of the time I found myself lurking, peeking around corners and generally trying to hang out menacingly-which is tricky, since the AI can hear you. You can do stuff like lean, and it will save your life on many occasions. Listening carefully is key, as well getting to know the woods, so to speak. This is important because you will revisit particular spots regularly. Picking up logs, listening to e-mails and reading chemical manifests are as important in this game as marksmanship. Clues are everywhere and putting them together is a fundamental aspect of the game. Where to go next is usually solved by listening. Sidearms are important if you dont want to spend all your time meleeing with a sturdy wrench, though dialing in on the skilled use of the wrench is cool, especially if you get the upgrade for the overhand attacks. Throughout the game you are constantly upgrading your character, getting new skills, and enhancing your chosen disciplines. The hacking skill is probably the most important, though.
There are fourteen weapons--including the standards: pistol, shotgun, etc . . . as well as the heavys: EMP rifle, Stasis Field Generator, etc . And then there are the exotic weapons: the Crystal Shard, Worm Launcher, and Viral Proliferator--these are the ones you want to get your grubby paws on. To use psionic powers, you'll need the Psi Amp, which allows you to access thirty-five different psi powers. These powers are distributed among five skill levels, starting with Kinetic Redirection and Projected Cryokinesis, and running through Molecular Duplication and Projected Pyrokinesis, on to Instantaneous Quantum Relocation and External Psionic Detonation. Sound like good stuff? You know it. Keep in mind that in order to use many of the cool powers in the game you must have certain skills and skill-levels.
The interface is not at all clunky. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but shortly youll be flipping back and forth from mouse-look to inventory like a pro. You have a lot of paraphernalia to manage throughout the game, and it is dealt with intuitively on the screen and keyboard. And since you can only carry so much with you, its a good idea to find a safe spot to stash stuff that you might think youll need later. Chemical storerooms are best, moslty since youll be frequenting them to further your research into monster anatomy and exotic weaponry.
As you should expect, System Shock 2 is-in all actuality-pretty dang creepy. On several occasions I felt my heart jump upon rounding a corner and finding myself face to face with a horribly mutated hybrid, or walking into a room and seeing a crew member hanging from the ceiling in apparent suicide, their eyes darkly ringed and body slowly swaying in the draft.
At least half, though maybe more, of the creepiness of SS2 is achieved through the sound design of the game. To put it bluntly-the sound is phenomenal. I would not dream of playing this game without A3D or Environmental Audio--to do so would severely hamper your overall experience. You can hear the hybrids in the next room breathing heavily and mumbling to you, or the droids down the hall asking politely after your whereabouts. But dont let the helpful facade fool yo-- they're out to get you, too. The ambient noise lends the game an eerie feel, and it changes throughout the levels. Near the end of the game you enter a section of the ship that has had its gravity polarized, and the first thing I noticed was that the background noise and music were playing backwards. In other words, sound and level design are extremely well-integrated.
Although SS2 takes place entirely on the two spaceships--except for brief excursions to another couple of locations at the end--the game never gets tired. The architecture from level to level has enough variation to keep you looking around the corner, and it is unified enough not to look out of place. And you can never completely clear a level of enemies--you can go back to a location an hour or two later and deal with a repopulated, though weary, AI.
Even though SS2 is a first person shooter, it goes far beyond what we have come to expect from the genre. The role-playing aspects are so thoroughly integrated into the gameplay that they become intuitive in a matter of minutes. Yes, you do spend a lot of time tweaking your character, thinking about the next upgrade, and going through inventory, but that doesnt mean that there's downtime in the game. I cant count how many times I was re-reading logs and a hybrid came up and busted me in the back of the head with a lead pipe.
Irrational Games and Looking Glass have outdone themselves with the modified Thief: The Dark Project engine. Dont get me wrong, the graphics arent ground-breaking, but they are better than par for a serious game at this point. It's the overall design of the levels, the architecture, the art, and the sound that makes for the deep suspension of disbelief. The AI is excellent, your enemies are smart, and they will stalk you, hide, and come back for you later. Everything about System Shock 2 screams excellence, and makes it what I believe to be the best game on the scene since Half-Life. If you dont have it already, go get it and get back to the real deal.