The Finest First-Person Shooter Ever Designed.
Everything. To put it into perspective, if this game were released tomorrow, in its current state, it would be better than 99% of the games released all year (well, 2001). Even with the archaic graphics. Even with the dated AI technology. The core gameplay is so damn *good*. In fact, the gameplay is more varied and detailed than today's modern classic, Half-Life.
Another way to put it into perspective: A much more well known game released about the same time as System Shock is Doom. Doom is more widely known, and is more widely praised, as shown by the accolades for Serious Sam, an evolutionary throwback of a game releases recently.
Think of Doom's graphics and gameplay: Both are very, *very* dated. The gameplay is simple, easy, and dumb as a post. Shoot, run, shoot, run, hit switch to end level. Ad nauseum. Exciting in its day, but modern games (some of them) have evolved past that point. The wonderful thing about System Shock was that its gameplay was *already* evolved, almost ten years ago.
It has a coherent, interesting story that is integral and important every moment of the game. The story is enriched by audio logs scattered about the station, e-mails, and scraps of information gleaned from the stations computer net. The logs, presented in mostly well-acted audio, do *wonders* in fleshing out the game world. They tell the stories of hopeless groups of survivors trying to fight the mutant and cyborg onslaught. You hear their hopes for stopping the computer SHODAN, and pick up their fight. All the while, you receive e-mails from your contact on earth, instructing you and guiding you through the station. You also receive mail from your nemesis, SHODAN, as she mocks you, threatens you, and occasionally, fears you. She is present throughout the entire game. While approaching a CPU node with mayhem on your mind, she chirps in "Enter that room, hacker, and it will be your *grave*. You hesitate, but continue. And indeed, when you destroy the nodes, she sends a small army of cyborgs to do you in. She repeatedly ambushes you, taunting you in her computer-psychotic voice. It's unnerving, and the effect has not been repeated in any game I've played, sequel included.
System Shock's interface is also leagues ahead of Doom's. While much more complicated and cumbersome, it allows you to do *so* much more. You can lean around corners, you can crouch and even crawl on you belly, you can jump across chasms, you can look up and down. Aiming is also more interesting. You use a cursor to aim your guns and fire them. It does take a while to get used to it after years of mouselook, but I do like the more realistic effect of the aiming cursor. In addition, the recoil effects of the weapons is *perfect*. You feel like you're firing off a powerful machine gun when you rip off a burst from the Skorpion. The view bows back, and as you swing the gun from side to side the recoil swings with it. It's an amazing effect, particularly from such an aged game. It makes using the fully automatic a more visceral experience.
Finally, the gameplay goes *FAR* beyond the "find key, find door" gameplay that has been so prevalent since the release of Doom. You have a specific, detailed purpose in this game. No ambiguous alien invasions, no purposeless mazes masquerading as "levels." The enemy, SHODAN, is always plotting some insidious fate for earth, and you, as the hacker, go about the various levels attempting to stop her. Never do you wonder "why am I here? What *exactly* am I doing?" Each level, from the medical deck to the executive deck, serves an obvious logical purpose. Even the mazes are presented within good context. To put the gameplay into perspective, only *very* recently have FPS games struggled to break the gameplay barriers that Doom presented, while System Shock *obliterated* them almost TEN years ago!
This game defines what it is to be a classic. It is nearly perfect in every way, and is the epitome of the PC gaming experience. It is my opinion that computer gaming would be much better today if System Shock had been received the same Doom was, as it's a considerably better game that would hold its own today.
Very little. The graphics are outdated, obviously, and the sound and AI technology is lacking. Also, the level design is very blocky, by today's standards. However, those are all limitations due to age: considering it by 1994 standards, the game's technological aspects are brilliant.
The Bottom Line
Well, I did so already. I'll just add that it is a *VERY* good game. It's not for sale, but certain websites on the internet have the complete CD version for download. I don't think Mobygames would appreciate it if I posted the link. Sorry!