Written by  :  Oleg Roschin (181570)
Written on  :  May 19, 2008
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars

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Gameplay, atmosphere, and storytelling in an amazing union

The Good

For many years, I refused to play this game. That was because I wasn't interested in games in which the player is trapped in one location and has to fight monsters without being able to talk to anyone.

I'm still not particularly interested in such games. It took me an extremely long time to get into System Shock. It's a tough game because it offers you so many possibilities and such rich gameplay from the get-go, while being confined to one location only, the space station. To be honest, I can't handle this game very well even now. It is devilishly addictive and deeply claustrophobic, and not all feelings it evokes are positive. After a session with System Shock I feel tired and overwhelmed. I can only play it in small portions and with long rests.

The greatness of System Shock lies in the fact that it blends all the main aspects of game design like no other game before and only very few after. Every part of the game - be it the meticulous interaction with objects, the ominously appealing visuals and the eerie music, or the gradual discovery of the past struggle against Shodan - is so flawlessly integrated into each other, that when you begin playing System Shock you feel as if you were swallowed by some powerful entity with rules of its own. Maybe it's a strange thought, but I find the game not entirely dissimilar to the memorable villain it portrays.

Atmosphere is a decisive factor in the game. Even with the limited technology, the designers managed to create a noticeably more sensual, immersive product than the already groundbreaking Ultima Underworld titles. System Shock draws you into its world with a force that some people might find nearly terrifying. You can read here on MobyGames another review of this work, in which the author confesses that the game has affected him mentally, causing him to have nightmares. I don't think he is exaggerating. I've played many games in my life, including some with extremely horrifying and disturbing material. But System Shock is one of the very few that forces me to mentally prepare before I begin playing it. You are pulled in with such intensity that the world of the game becomes your world.

The story here must be "felt", lived from within the game. When written down on paper or told to someone, it loses its meaning. It is basically a story with two characters, the protagonist and the antagonist, the female computer Shodan. The whole idea of the plot was to show how a regular human being (and not a particularly virtuous one - after all, the hero of the game is a hacker, a kind of burglar) single-handedly defeats a mighty artificial intelligence. You and Shodan develop a morbid kind of relationship over the course of the game. Shodan keeps intimidating and teasing you, adding even more horror and stress to your perilous exploration. She is so arrogant and so sure of herself that she doesn't get angry, she is always calm and even sounds indifferent, and that's what is so scary about her. Shodan becomes a part of your life, and there is something creepily intimate in her constant interaction with the player. The way she would suddenly send you e-mails and talk to you can get genuinely disturbing.

The game world is, in a sense, another big enemy of the protagonist. Finding your way through the ultra-complex space station, solving its riddles, finding the items you need, gathering information, struggling against the hordes of enemies Shodan sends at you - the story of the game is directly experienced by the player, and let me assure you that it is a dramatic and intense one.

But of course, the highlight of the story is the revolutionary "retroactive" storytelling. Basically, besides the story that unfolds now, in front of our eyes, there is another story in System Shock: the one that happened before we arrived. You unravel it by reading logs left by the crew members. This idea is pure genius, because this way storytelling truly becomes an integral part of the gameplay. Finding out what happened by actively searching for information is exciting. You learn about the tragic fate of the people who once inhabited the space station. You get to know them when it is already too late. The beauty of this is the purely gameplay-bound, optional nature of the plot. It is not being forced on you like in most other games, but emerges when you make full use of the gameplay mechanics offered to you. This is one of the rare instances when a plot device is truly unique to the medium: something quite different from cutscenes and more than snippets of text feedback, this mechanic gracefully escapes the influences of books and movies.

The gameplay of System Shock was not only revolutionary for its time - it is still unsurpassed by most games. The it manages to stay suspenseful and tight while at the same time allowing you to interact with everything and explore is yet another testimony to the game's genius. Following the tradition of Ultima Underworld, the interaction in the game is incredibly refined. You can pick up nearly everything you see, you can smash and throw things - almost nothing of what you see is a mere decoration, everything can be interacted with in this or another way.

The level design is another brilliant aspect of the game that contributes to its great gameplay. Despite being set in only one location, System Shock is a very non-linear game in the sense that the way through the game is not shown to the players. They have to find it by themselves, and this is perhaps the biggest challenge of the game. Each level in System Shock is absolutely huge and very complex. Since you can usually choose any path you want during your exploration, the levels turn into small "worlds" that have to be explored, learned, understood, and completed (there are usually one or more main objectives on each level, plus several secondary ones) to proceed. The exploration process is a delight in its own right.

System Shock is also quite awe-inspiring from a technological point of view. Of course, it couldn't be as fast as Doom, but it blows it out of the water when it comes to level design and interaction made possible by the engine. All the revolutionary features of Ultima Underworld games now come in full 3D. Everything you do in the game is shown as a graphical effect - tossing things on the ground you can see how they bounce, and it is simply incredible that such an effect was achieved with such an early, primitive physics system. When you smash things, it is visually displayed. The level design is not only creative - it is also technically astounding, with objects everywhere, and a huge amount of detail stuffed into every place you see.

I loved the difficulty level system. Basically, you are allowed to customize every aspect of the game. Want to solve tricky puzzles but feel inept in combat? You can choose the puzzles to be hard, and the combat easy. Satisfied with the overall challenge, but can't adapt well to the cyberspace? No problem, just leave everything on high difficulty, but put cyberspace all the way down, making it a nearly automatic journey. Like moderate challenge in everything? Be my guest. The game can fully suit your needs, whatever they might be. I really can't understand why other games haven't implemented this system.

The Bad

Like any other early 3D game, System Shock doesn't go easy on the eyes, and its graphics haven't aged very well. This is not a criticism, but rather an inevitable side effect. I know people who couldn't get into the game for this reason, even though they loved the sequel. I also played the sequel before the original, and my enjoyment was somewhat reduced because of that, especially in the beginning.

The part that really annoyed me was the cyberspace. It took me ages to figure out how to move in that place. I was constantly struggling, and in the end simply avoided it whenever I could. Fortunately, most of those trips are optional.

There is a certain monotony in the level design of System Shock. You are confined to an admittedly huge, but homogeneous location, with many architectural elements repeating themselves regardless of the floor you are currently exploring. The darkly tense atmosphere and the overbearing presence of machinery and electronic enemies at the expense of friendly organic creatures can be hard to stomach.

The Bottom Line

In retrospect, it looks like System Shock was one of the very few games in the history that managed to be a daring experiment and a perfectly crafted, balanced product at the same time. It is strikingly advanced on both technological and artistic levels, without sacrificing one for the other. Gameplay, atmosphere, and story-telling reach a remarkable unity in this game. Breaking through genre barriers, sending a powerful signal far into the future, System Shock is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.