Tuesday, March 31, 2009

System Shock 2 (video game)

Platform: PC
Developers: Looking Glass Studios, Irrational Games
Genre: First Person Shooter, RPG, Horror
ESRB Rating: Mature
Release Date: August 11th, 1999

The System Shock games are to innovation as Japan is to most types of pornography; synonymous.

The first System Shock set the bar higher than anything of it's time without question. Coming out no more than four months removed from Doom, the revered FPS classic, it was everything that game was and so very much more; despite selling rather abysmally for whatever reason. But if the first System Shock was years ahead of it's time, the sequel is at least two decades ahead. Instead of laying back on old formulas, the developers once again pushed the envelope, creating a complete experience with features that still have not reached mainstream FPS games over a decade later.

Some features were unfortunately lost in the five years, an eternity when it comes to computers and the speed of their advancements, that it took for a sequel to hit shelves. The cyberspace segments, which were all too sparse in the last game, are all but absent here. Instead of being a seperate mode of play with it's own controls, the few points cyberspace appears within the game are the same as regular play, only with a grid pattern to distinguish it from the "real world". Also, the game has several differences in the way energy and cyberware is used.

Thankfully, the game doesn't suffer without any of the things removed from the last game, though I personally missed the cyberspace sections.

The game is a little friendlier to new players than the last game. Instead of being thrust into the action, you actually begin on earth as your nameless character in front of the United National Nominate recruitment building, ready to join the military. This serves as your general tutorial for the game; before you sign up, you can hit cyberspace pods which give you basic and advanced training with different aspects of the gameplay. This includes weapons training, tech training and psi training, or the games equivilent of psychic powers. After you learn the basics, the fun begins.

Cyberware is something that has recieved the largest overhaul between the two games. Gone are the implant upgrades of the last game. In it's place is an entirely stat based system; meaning that while the last game merely had an RPG flavor, it's sequel is a full on hybrid of RPG and shooter. These will determine your affinity for different weapon types, your skills as a hacker and the psi powers you can use, just to name a couple of examples. You gain cyber modules, which are spent to upgrade your rig and stats, for completing story based objectives and once in game upgrading is as simple as finding one of the upgrade systems and choosing what you want to upgrade with the modules you have.

Setting up your basic stats is rather ingenious. After your training, it's tiem to choose your branch of the military, which will determine what you are proficcient at in the start of the game. The Marines specialize in weapons, the Navy are the tech guys and the OSA are the paranormal guys who specialize in psionic powers. Once you choose your branch, you choose from three postings. Each posting upgrades certain stats, stated to you before you enter, and you go through three, each one representing a year of service, before the real game begins with the stats you've gained through your choices.

From there, the real story begins. The setup is similar to how things started in the last game. It's now forty two years after the incident on Citadel Station with SHODAN, a situation said to have been diffused by a nameless hacker. You are on the Von Braun, the first ship with faster than light speed capabilities, on it's maiden voyage to explore the reaches of space alongside it's military ship escort the UNN Rickenbacker. You had been posted on said mission. At some point, however, things had gone horribly wrong. You wake with no memory of events that have taken place. Most of the crew is since dead, the ships computer named Xerxes has seemingly gone haywire and the ship is overrun by grotesque invaders of unknwn origin. Your only friend comes from a female voice that communicates to you, guiding you out of danger. It's up to you to learn what's happened and survive.

As you can tell, the basic setup is similar to the original. You wake up with little to no memory only to find yourself in danger almost immediatly. Most of the story is again told through crew logs picked up throughout the ships, which helps add to the desperate atmosphere of the game.

The story is different in far more ways, however. When the first game began, you found out the basic gist of the situation on the station in the first five or six minutes of gameplay; the stations AI, SHODAN, had gone haywire and become genocidal, fancying herself a god above humans and slaughtering the crew. In the sequel, however, you have little to no clue exactly what has been going down and it stays that way for quite a while. Instead of SHODAN and her powerful cyborgs, you take on what appears to be mutated humans connected by a hive mind, bent on assimilating humans into their unity and spreading the "glory of the flesh". Things only begin to piece together about an eighth of the way through and even after you think you know what the cause of everything is, you'll still be shocked by some of the twists in the game. The first game had a beefy story for it's time; the sequel merely ramped up that concept.

The visuals, like the previous game, suffer from age. Computer technology evolved in leaps and bounds with each passing year of the nineties. With five yers between the two games, the difference in visuals is night and day. However, it's also undeniable that a decade has passed since System Shock 2 and things have taken giant leaps of their own since. The general environments do not suffer as much from this. They look great for the time and still hold up today rather admirably, despite some blocky objects here and there. Even the enemies look pretty decent for the most part, especially the fleshy antagonists of The Many.

It's the models for the human characters that suffer more than anything. They look downright terrible. Textures are bland and stretchy, plus the models they're wrapped around are horrifyingly, disgustingly blocky. They may be more horrifying than anything the game itself throws at you; and they're littered throughout the game. The bodies of the crew, like the last game, are everywhere, so there's no escaping the awful models for the humans. They can take you out of the game easily.

The sound is far more coherant in tone this time around. The first game had a theme for each level of the station, as distinct and vibrant as the level itself. The sequel, however, eschews that for a lower, creepier tone. There are several times where there will be no real music playing or it would be so low it's barely distinguishable. Instead, you're left to hear the enemies creeping around through the corridors, which can get you all on it's own. The hybrids are a great example of this; they mumble and mutter about unity and flesh, sometimes even speaking in your mind. It's liable to creep you out.

There are times when the music will kick in, however. There are spots in the game where, upon passing, a theme will kick in. This most noticably happens right as you walk into a fairly substantial battle or a hallway that is, upon the first time through, rather packed with enemies. The music ranges from rock style themes to ambient music meant to ratchet up the tension in dark, moody areas. While all this means that there isn't going to be any memorable themes that will stick in your head like most games or even the last System Shock, it also means that the sounds and music are more tailored to the horror experience the game strives for.

Gameplay is vastly improved in this game; quite the feat when you consider the last game was pretty damn good in this department as well. Instead of a clunky, action obscuring HUD display, the games presentation is generally minimalistic. The game is always in fullscreen and the inventory is not always up like last time, meaning that you can see everything easier this go around without having to continually switch between the HUD and full screen displays. Looking and turning is all controlled by the mouse this go around, like many modern FPS games. With a press of the button, however, you can bring up your inventory, which brings up the mouse as a pointer to interact with your inventory and things all around you, somewhat similar to the last games general setup.

Speaking of inventory, you equipment has also been expanded; instead of just weapons, you may now find and equip both armor and implants that will upgrade a particular function as long as they have power. Each item has it's own energy charge this go around instead of running off a general energy bar; when you hit a recharge station in this game, everything in your inventory is recharged. Instead of your general energy bar, you have a psionic energy bar your psi powers will run off of. Said bar is replenished by hypo's, similar to health. All of this plus a lot of other little changes add up to provide a different and in many instances superior experience.

A lot of new wrinkles are added to overall gameplay, many of them very, very innovative for today, much less then. You weapons would actually degrade in condition as you used them, meaning you would need to use tools to maintain them for usage. Also new is the ability to modify your weapons, thereby improving them. These will range anywhere from increasing clip size to decreased reload time. Modifying a weapon works similarly to hacking a console, only in this instance once you are successful the weapon in particular is improved.

Another new addition to gameplay is research. Some weapons and items will actually need to be researched first before they can be used. This is done by simply right clicking an unresearched item in your inventory. It's never quite so simple, however, as many items will require certain chemicals for the research, which are found only in chemical storerooms on each deck of the ship. Research is just another layer to the many this game provides.

All these are just the basic new innovations this game has to offer. I've only scratced the surface. I could write an article in and of itself of all the new wrinkles this game has that add to the experience and playtime.

As mentioned, proficciency in a lot of things is handled by stats, much like an RPG. The higher a stat in one of the weapon categories, the more damage you will do with that type of weapon. Some weapons will even require a certain number in a particular stat for you to even use it. The higher a stat in hacking, the easier it will be to hack computers and security crates. The higher a stat in modification, the more you may modify your weapons. And so on.

The game itself has a much higher emphasis on horror this go around than the previous game. Unlike the last game, where ammo was plentiful for the most part, System Shock 2 gives you far less ammo for you guns to play with on the whole, similar to survival horror titles like Resident Evil. This means that melee weapons are the order of the day much of the time; and in this game getting close to an enemy is not always easy. A wrench you pick up once the game really begins will probably be your best friend for a good while.

Adding to the suspense the game provides are the enemies tendency to respawn at any time they please. Unlike other games, when you clear a hallway it doesn't remain that way. If you are away in another section of the area for a while, there won't be any returning without worry; there is a good chance something will be waiting for you there. This makes traversing the halls downright creepy because in some respects you're never really safe; even if you clear out the entire area of the main enemies, some will respawn in the corridors from time to time. Thankfully, only one at a time will respawn in any given place, so you won't be overwhelmed or anything if you go back and you eventually learn to keep your guard up.

Still, turning a corner in a hallway you previously cleared to find a hybrid waiting with a shotgun can be a startling slap in the face if you become too complacent; you're never really safe in this game and you wouldn't want it any other way.

If there's one real flaw I could think of when it comes to this game, aside from some of the ugly character models that really show their age, it's probably the last hour of the game. The game tapers off a bit near the end of the game, slowly becoming more linear. Thankfully, it's a minor quibble that only crops up near the tail end of the game and it's offset by other factors that take your mind off of that.

One of said factors being the last area of the game; the one between the last major out and out fight of the game and the final boss. This area was a masterstroke. I won't spoil it, but I will say that if you played the first game at all, this rea will look awfully familiar and perhaps even get you all nostalgic.

There's really so much going on with this game that I don't think I could ever truly list all of it without doing a fifteen page essay on the game itself. My reviews get long enough as it is, so I wouldn't want to put that sort of thing up. The game has a lot of little things that add up to make a game that is just as much an experience as the first one. It's not to be missed.

My Opinion: Buy It

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