Falls just a little bit short of genius, but amazing game nonetheless.
System Shock 2 is a quite simply a great game, the sequel has perfectly captured the spirit of the original while delivering at the same time a whole new batch of gaming goodness.
Surely the game's strongest point is it's abbility to draw you into a superbly crafted atmosphere. Just like in the original, this game puts you IN THE GAME like few others, and the terror you'll feel if you surrender to the fantasy is out of this world.
The game uses Thief's Dark Engine, so as you may guess the sound in the game is simply spectacular, with surround effects and incredible depth (which only adds to the creepy atmosphere). The storyline is superbly crafted, and instead of being simply laid out for you to "sit and watch" it's sprinkled all over the game in the form of those wonderful logs, e-mails and even ghosts, forcing YOU to put the pieces thogheter and essentially making it much more rewarding when you finally achieve that "A-HA!" moment. A lot of creativity and originality has been placed on this game, and it shows. It manages to stay true to the spirit and at the same time add original touches like the psy powers, nanites, etc. moreover, the game is now much more of an obvious rpg with clearly defined stats, levels and experience in the form of cyb-aug chips. Something that I didn't really need, but that certainly gives the game a lot of gameplay depth.
Also I should mention that the game follows an interesting philosophical undercurrent throughout it's entire gameplay, that of technology vs nature. Which would have been made much more powerful if you had been able to choose which side to take, but still as it stands, makes a powerful statement (and without spoiling the sci-fi/horror theme).
Of course, no "good" part of a SS2 review would be complete without a mention of Shodan, it is quite simply priceless to be able to face her again. I'm sure that anyone that has played the original feels the same way about this, she's quite simply one of the most memorable characters ever placed on a computer game, and the opening sequence alone almost brought tears to my eyes...along with that familiar shiver! ;)) Terry Brosius once again voices her, and her job is priceless (ditto the rest of the cast, but we are talking about Shodan here!) and the way she's handled in the game is true to her nature, she's still Shodan, she's still a bitch, and she still rocks. Period. Plus, there's a little surprise at the end of the game that was really sweet. Thanks guys.
Well for starters all the critter models are...to be tactful, of the crap. The interface can give you some headaches at times (but still is way above the one in the original) but that's it.
The only great gripe that I have with SS2 is that it could have been more, much, much more. As I read on a review somewhere, "System Shock 2 is a game so good it's surprising it isn't better". That truly defines my feeling with the game sometimes, it's as if you were given a taste of this wonderful dessert and had it taken away from you before you could finish it. For instance, I know Xerxes could never amount to anything versus our beloved Shodan, but they should still have given him a stronger presence, he's just there to whine every now and then, and that's it, and speaking of Shodan, we don't get nearly enough quality time with her! Seriously, where are the hordes of robots sent your way to annihilate you? where is the villain that trapped you in rooms and sent you to her "Death Machine"?? Most of the Hal-ness of Shodan has been replaced, and though she's still mean and evil, I really wish we could have had more of that.
The biggest dissapointment in the game however, comes in the way it's placed. If there is something great about Half-Life is that it introduced us to a game where you are in the "middle of the party" so to speak. On SS2 you arrive and...the party's over, and this was great on the original but it feels sort of shallow in a post Half-life world. There are no npcs to interact with, you are the "sole survivor" once again and though it's cool to bear silent witness to the aftermath of the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker, I can't help but think how cool it would have been if you were there when it all happened. Obviously this responds in part to the legacy of the original, but still....
Other than that, I should add that the game isn't as non-linear as it's advertized to be, a fact you'll find out the hard way if you try to play the game being a tech nerd and avoiding shootouts, the final fight with Shodan is way too easy, and though I understand the need for the time gap between the two games, I believe it would have been infinitely cooler to play the game as the good ol' hacker. He's got more charisma than your nameless "Mr. Magoo" soldier, and it would have made your relationship with Shodan much more tense and interesting. Ah well, can't have it all!
The Bottom Line
Essentially SS2 is a fantastic game, which seems to have taken a couple of bad design decisions. Still you have to understand that they were dealing with more than just a sequel and as most people know, making a good sequel and a good game/movie/etc. don't always mean the same. The guys at LG and Irrational had to come up with the right balance to both honor the legacy of one of the greatest games ever made (which is one hell of a though act to follow!) and also come up with something original and fun to play. If you consider that, then yeah, they made a good job. Without taking that into consideration then...well, they fell a little short in both accounts. But make no mistake either way: the end result is way above average and System Shock 2 is a definitive must.