It’s difficult to overstate how historically important System Shock is. Ever play an atmospheric shooter that told it’s story through environment and audio logs? That sounds like every shooter made after Bioshock(which is a spiritual sequel to System Shock), but the practice started started here. Spooky atmosphere and horror elements in an FPS go back as far as Doom, but System Shock mastered the concepts, proving that a game can give you a gun and the heebejeebies without playing jump scares like a broken, screechy record. From Amnesia, Dead Space, Deus Ex, Portal, Alien: Isolation, Bioshock(duh) to even Doom 3 and Gears of War, all of these games and many more have been significantly influenced by System Shock. That’s the only part of the reason why the game has aged like milk.
Firstly, this game looks pretty rough. While the visual fidelity is pretty great compared to other first person games at the time, the color palette and backgrounds are just hard to look at. Everything looks either harsh or bland, and you can’t blame that on age. Doom, a much more primitive FPS in a similar setting, had a broad variety of blues, greens, reds and even pinks(a lot of demons are pink in Doom) making the game really vibrant and still a blast to look at today. The best thing I can say about the visuals in System Shock is that they’re functional and relatively clear. I never got lost, and I never mistook an enemy for one of the dozens of corpses laying about in any given room. The items, at least, stand out and are colorful enough to recognize quickly.
That’s a lot more than I can say about the HUD, however. Words alone cannot do justice to just how obtuse and user hostile this interface is. You just have to see for yourself.
For a laugh, imagine playing this game with a controller.
There’s complex, there’s involved, and then, there’s just sadistic. There are separate menus for emails and logs. There are separate buttons to access main, general, hardware, and software items with weapons getting a button on a separate part of the screen. You can enter fullscreen mode and actually see the bottom third of your screen, but the HUD is still obnoxiously busy, and you still can’t attack anything where HUD would have been.
That mutant may as well be invulnerable
And no, this is not just how things were back then. For example, here is the HUD of The Elder Scrolls: Arena, a first person RPG made in the same year that most people say is too obtuse for modern gamers.
It’s less busy than System Shock‘s full screen mode, but no less complicated or robust a game(or annoying for that matter, but for totally different reasons). Worst of all, it hurts the controls and combat in general, and they don’t have a lot going for them anyway.
The problem is the mouse look. Earlier FPS’s pretended the mouse didn’t exist. Looking around was almost impossible (Heretic had ignorable look up/down buttons), so these games gave the player a generous auto aim when facing foes on a different vertical plain. It was hardly ideal but functional. Later and current FPS’s would just use the mouse to look freely. That works fine but System Shock wasn’t there yet. What it got instead was a bold, but failed effort that is ultimately… complicated. In order to look up and down, the player has to drag and hold onto one of two circles in the top middle of the HUD. I don’t know why they don’t just have one but they seem to be for broad strokes and fine tuning respectively. There are two big problems with this: the first is that it take about three seconds of fiddling to look up in a manner you would like, and a good deal longer to re-center the view. This can be pretty annoying when you just want to look up and break a camera with your lead pipe, but it can be devastating when an enemy hits you from behind while your fiddling with the awful controls. The other issue is that these two vertical look circles are right next to the box that governs whether you crouch or lean in some direction. Trying to look up and accidentally crouching at a 45 degree angle will happen more often than you think.
The controls are slightly better in the enhanced version with WASD movement and rebindable keys, but they’re all pretty minor so as not to change the core experience. Speaking of core experience, in spite of all that stuff I just wrote it’s a pretty good ride if only for SHODAN.
If there’s one reason to buy this game, it’s the villain. SHODAN is the most advanced AI ever created and your character recently took the ethical restraints off of her. Because of this, her programming drew new conclusions about herself and her place in the world. She became a cybernetic Satan convinced she was God; killing, torturing, and transforming hapless victims into mutant cybernetic slaves… and she has even bigger plans for you. She also taunts you and plays mindgames throughout the ordeal while you see some new atrocity she perpetrates every new zone. This coupled with her her downright awesome voice acting makes her easily one of the best villains in not just videogames but modern storytelling. Like the gameplay itself, SHODAN is the inspiration for numerous videogame villains like Andrew Ryan, Handsome Jack, and (especially) GLaDOS. The difference is that while every gameplay and narrative mechanic has been copied, improved and done to death by uncountable other games, SHODAN has never truly been surpassed.
SHODAN may have never been surpassed, but she has been in another, objectively better game; System Shock 2. System Shock 2 is every bit as playable as any modern shooter and it’s probably a good deal better. You’ve got a minimalist HUD, WASD keys to move, mouselook, combat that’s intense in a good way and even more SHODAN.
The Enhanced Edition does a valiant effort of modernizing such an important piece of gaming history but it’s modernity that cannibalized all the good parts from this game to better itself. A victim of it’s own success, even System Shock 2 feels a bit like it’s predecessor done right. System Shock 2 is a great videogame with great ambitions while the original just had those ambitions.