Monday, March 9, 2009

System Shock (video game)

Platform: PC, DOS
Developers: Looking Glass Studios
Genre: First Person Shooter, RPG, Horror
ESRB Rating: Mature
Release Date: March 26th, 1994

* Note: This review is of the CD-ROM disc version of the game and not the floppy. The difference is far from minimal; the CD version carried a bit better music and sound effects along with full speech in e-mails and crewmember logs. It makes a big difference; if one is to play the game, it's best to be sure to get the CD version.

The truth is sometimes hard to swallow, especially if you're a fanboy. But sometimes, no matter how hard you try to deny, there are undeniable truth's in gaming that can be often ignored. Things like Halo being overrated, how far franchises like Sonic had fallen and so on. One of these truths is that as great a game as the original Doom was, the game that brought First Person Shooters to the forefront of gamers minds from that day forward, the game was the Ewok to System Shocks Darth Vader. System Shock made the game look that pathetic in comparison, from it's gameplay to actually properly conveying the horror theme both games shared.

Doom may have gotten all the glory upon it's release a year prior to this game, but System Shock is where the true innovations in First Person Shooters were being displayed.

This is why it's a shame that System Shocks fate was to be overlooked. Do not get the wrong idea from the previous words; Doom is an unquestionable classic of gaming. But having played System Shock, it's apparent to me that This game is just as much of a classic and deserved to stand shoulder to shoulder with Doom in gamers minds. Perhaps gamers just wanted a simpler shooter, as Doom and Wolfenstien 3D provided. Perhaps the marketing did not present the product properly. Whatever the reason, System Shock sold poorly, but it since has rightfully taken it's place as a major influence in gaming, even if it will never be as well known as it's contemporaries.

When put into the context of 1994, the fact that this game had a fleshed out story was simply amazing. While Wolfenstien 3D and others were simple shooters with any plot relegated to the manual and shot you right into the game, System Shock was not content with this. You're treated to an opening cutscene in the age before they became popular, one that must have been dazzling at the time. All the necessary information is laid out for you from there; in a cyberpunk-esque future, you're a simple hacker who cracks into classified files on an orbital space station owned by TriOptium, a corporation in the future. He's detected and swiftly captured, brought into orbit to the station itself. There he is confronted by a TriOptium executive named Edward Diego, who offers something of an offer the hacker can't refuse; perform a confidential hacking of the stations AI, SHODAN, and if the job is done well the hacker will receive a military grade neural interface. The Hacker does his job and true to Diego's word, is fitted with said implant and put in a healing coma for six months.

Upon awakening, the game begins. Within a minute you pick up your basic instruments, including a data reader that allows you to receive e-mails and listen to logs of the station crew. You recieve an e-mail from a counter terrorist specialist; they know you were the one who hacked the computers as Diego, despite his position, was not as on the up and up as was expected. When you removed the ethical constraints six months prior, SHODAN subsequently went rogue; killing all of the stations crew and quashing their resistance over those six months. You have two objectives; one is to survive, the other is to stop SHODAN's mad plots at all costs.

Normally that opening salvo would be enough story for First Person Shooters of the time. But System Shock went one furthur. All over the nine levels of the sprawling space station, you would come across personal logs of the crew members, allowing you to peer into their thoughts as the six months you were in a coma passed. Some are from when there was only suspicion SHODAN was malfunctioning, others before even that and yet more during the surviving crews desperate struggle to survive after SHODAN began slaughtering the crew and they realized something was horribly wrong. SHODAN her/him/itself is an ample antagonist. Her plans for humanity are as absolutely diabolical as her ego is insatiable. She seeks to be a god and looks down on humans, aptly referring to them in most instances as mere insects. She's creepy and a worthy adversary; the drive to destroy her grows as her taunts and threats grow more numerous as the game passes.

All this was absolutely baffling in those days, no matter what system you were playing; few games gave such an in depth story on top of the solid gaming. System Shock went one better and presented an overall story of the station that holds up to this day, despite the many years that have passed since.

One thing that did not hold up, as expected, is the graphics. This is a 1994 DOS based game without a shadow of a doubt. Everything has pixels the size of Nebraska; if you aren't good at handling dated graphics this may be an irritant. However, nothing seen in System Shock is any worse than the original Doom games, so if you can handle that then this game should be no problem. It actually look a bit better than Doom did and handles some nice effects said game didn't, such as bloody writing on the walls and extremely varied locals. Each level of the ship, from Hospital level to the Bridge, has it's own look which means you'll never be going through someplace that looks the same, making it a better visual experience than it's contemporaries.

The controls take a bit of getting used to, especially if you have never played an older First Person Shooter before. Some of the keys are a bit oddly placed and if you've handled a modern First Person Shooter then the look function not being relegated to the mouse will definitely throw you. That aside, once you get the hang of things it becomes somewhat natural; eventually you won't even have to think about the buttons. Customizable buttons would have been wonderful, but such is the limitation of the times.

Gameplay is quite varied eve among some of todays First Person Shooters. This is not just a run and gun game by any stretch of the imagination. Opening some doors will require solving puzzles. Some main objectives will require you to have a certain number of an item or two. A truly funny side objective, as in passing a retinal scanner, requires a bit of creative thinking. Clues to getting past some doors and access codes can be found in the logs, prompting you to keep track of what you pick up. Your usual health bar is there, accompanied by a new energy bar that will be just as important to keep an eye on. It's all an immersive experience on the whole that is never dull.

One of the best parts of the gameplay is by far the neural interface. Among the usual health and ammo items you will find are plugin's for your neural interface. These range from head lanterns to jet boots to maping systems to a lookaround plugin that allows you to actually see behind you when turned on. Any plugins can be turned on at any time and are upgradable, with new and better effects coming from each upgrade, giving the game a slight RPG twist. When turned on, these plugin's run off your energy meter, forcing you to economize your use of them. Luckily, energy recharge stations can be found on every level of the station and if there isn't one around one can simply use a battery pack you have picked up for a boost.

Your standard gameplay is not the only type, however. Upon finding a terminal, one can actually jack into cyberspace. Cyberspace is basic and yet a great representation of how you might think it would have worked, borrowing more from the early cyberpunk works version of it. Your free float through a wireframe network, collecting programs, data, flipping switches to open doors in the real world and fighting guard programs. It's a fun experience, to be sure, that adds another layer to an already fantastic game.

The sound is generally quite good, but is very much a product of the technology of the time. It's quite MIDI-esque on the whole, owing to the primitive sound technology all those many years ago. Still, it's a fine treat once you get past the fact that it won't measure up to recent games; this game is old remember. Each level has it's own infectious theme that loops throughout that level, as unique as each levels look. They're fantastic in their structure, evidenced by the fact that you never get tired of hearing them despite the looping. The music and sound effects can also help convey the games horror theme; the minimal soundtrack for the Maintenance level adds to the overall creepy atmosphere said level goes for.

On top of all this, the games innovations and influence is vast. If there's a common control or gameplay element in a modern game, chances are unbelievably good that it got it's start here. Looking up and down made it's debut in First Person Shooters here, adding a layer your Wolfenstiens and Dooms did not have. There are no samey visuals to be found here either, as mentioned there are distinct and vast looks throughout each level of the game. The engine also allowed for slopes and and inclined surfaces, literally unheard of at the time. New control options also made their debut here; leaning made it's first appearance here as did being able to crouch and crawl. Item side effects was another of the games perks; taking a sight enhancing patch, for instance, would improve your sight for a little while, but once it faded your sight would be poorer than originally and future patches might not even work as well, if at all. To reverse that you would need a separate detox drug to bring you back to normal. Another example is the Berserk patch, which makes you stronger for a limited time, yet will also cause you to hallucinate.

None of this is even mentioning the physics, which had your head bobbing upon running and bullet impacts to knock your head back in the opposite direction. Another influence was in regards to damage calculations. Some weapons worked best against some enemies but may not work at all against others. For instance, using a gas grenade would prove very effective against a mutant, but the robots would practically laugh at you. An EMP would seriously damage cyborgs and bots, but trying it on a mutant would be the equivalent of throwing chewed up bubble gum at them. Different ammo types also made it's debut here, allowing you to unload your current clip and then choose the type of ammo you wanted to reload with; for instance, giving you the choice between hollow points or slugs for the magnum.

The game in itself was something of an innovation, as can be seen; everything it offered has since become the norm in First Person Shooters, giving it the sort of influence and impact even Doom has never had. Even in this day and age, when you complete this game you will know you have just finished an experience. There are few other games like it.

My Opinion: Buy It

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