An FPS with a Plot!?! DOOM seems insignificant by comparison!
System Shock was revolutionary for its time. Few, if any FPSes had tried to tell a story within the game. The object of FPSes was simply to kill everything in sight. System Shock told a story with a beginning, middle and end, with plot twists along the way.
The audio logs give a good idea of what happened on Citadel Station and also some backstory on the station. Even though the voice acting isn't always believable, the designers do an excellent job showing how "ordinary people" would react to an apocalyptic event.
System Shock also introduced "cyberspace", where your character would find himself free-floating within wire-frame rooms and corridors. Essentially computer and programming concepts become visualized as metaphors within this electronic world. In cyberspace you search for and gather "software" and "data", fight enemy programs (visualized as malevolent faces) and avoid traps. It is a welcome change of pace from the usual strafing and dodging.
The use of a computer A.I. as the main villain was not novel at the time, but the game shows very effectively how difficult it would be to overcome such a foe. But the A.I. has a weakness, it must act through other beings (unless you are in cyberspace.) What is even better, the developers decided to give this villain a memorable personality. SHODAN is a megalomaniac, not only does it try to play god but also cheerfully refers to itself as god. Unlike a stock A.I. villain, it clearly shows emotion. I assume that the memorable voice for SHODAN was designed to show that A.I. has become partially insane or demented.
The graphics are a leap ahead of the competition. System Shock was very close to a true-3D engine. You can look up and down, crouch and crawl, and lean left or right. As with Ultima Underworld, Looking Glass once again expanded the horizons, literally, with System Shock's FPS engine. The game also looked to the future in a way by providing better quality textures when using the high resolution modes that didn't play well on the machines available at the game's release.
There are small things about System Shock that just show a welcome attention to detail. There are these little minigames to collect in cyberspace. Most levels have a distinguishing design. The Medical Level is in shades of blue, the Research level is often in red and so on. Powerups have side-effects to them. Certain elements show the banality of Tri-Optimum, the corporation that owns and operates the station.
System Shock was easily the most atmospheric game of its time. It used lighting very well, some areas are brightly lit, others with significant damage have unreliable lighting at best. The monster's sound effects are often creepy and unsettling. The final level can make your skin crawl in more ways than one. Monsters often seem to pop up unannounced around the next corner or just behind you. SHODAN itself is relentless and will often taunt you or spring a trap against the hapless hacker.
The game delights in respawning enemies, especially in areas in which you will often traverse. While it helps keep the player on his or her toes, it also leads to many cheap deaths. It is also sobering when you waste precious ammunition on enemies that will be back again in those areas.
The interface and controls are somewhat cumbersome and do not boast the streamlining of modern FPSes. The game was unfortunately designed with the 320x200 resolution in mind. This limits the amount of screen real estate devoted to gauges and subscreens. Also, the Multi-Function Displays interfere with interacting with the viewscreen. Fourtnately, the controls can be mastered.
While the game can be played in resolutions higher than 320x200, at the time this wasn't really feasible because because the 486 processors of the day could not produce playable framerates. The 640 graphics modes look much nicer but run on a far smaller class of systems.
The Bottom Line
One of the seminal FPSes, System Shock is a true classic that no DOS Gamer should ignore.