Intense, pulse-pounding, and challenging. The essential survival horror game.
"Welcome to my world, insect." - SHODAN
System Shock 2 awakens the player in the midst of chaos and then leads them through a hellish nightmare as the only way out.
That is, of course, the beginning of why it ranks among the the greatest survival horror games of all time.
The main character wakes up aboard the badly damaged UNN Von Braun, a high-tech experimental starship. The voice of a lead scientist aboard the vessel communicating from an unknown location elsewhere in the ship is the only link to understanding the situation or, indeed, to sanity in general. And when, within the first minutes waking, the hero witnesses another survivor being brutally slaughtered by a zombie creature with the bare vestiges of humanity and a pulsing worm-like growth upon its neck, the full horror of the matter begins to dawn.
There are two goals in System Shock 2. The first is simply to survive. The second is to stop the hive-minded annelids known as The Many, who have already converted much of the Von Braun crew, from reaching Earth and assimilating and destroying the human race.
"They see you! Run...RUN!" - Annelid/Human Hybrid
The power of the survival horror experience comes from the struggle to survive. Mastery of the genre involves the proper balance of vulnerability and resource scarcity with the abilities and tools to succeed. At its best, a survival horror game should make the player hoard every bullet and judge carefully whether each combat encounter is worth the cost. The player should be vulnerable enough to always be on the thin edge between life and death. Yet with cleverness and tenacity, the player should have enough to cheat death even when everything seems stacked against them.
System Shock 2 succeeds beautifully at capturing the feeling of survival. No matter where you are, the feeling of never quite being safe never leaves you. And the further along you go, the more careful you become with your meager resources.
One of the defining moments of my experience with the game was when I found myself crouched in a closet in the medical deck, pistol in hand, listening to the tortured moans of hybrid zombies and the chattering of psionic monkeys in the corridors outside. As I rested there a moment, wondering if my foes might find me at any time, I contemplated my next careful move. There was no thought of running and gunning through, dominating the enemy. It was about surviving.
"They told me how to make this implant. They said it would make a better me of me." - Miller
Character creation and progression in SS2 is incredibly enjoyable. Indeed, it is even complex enough to inspire at least one more playthrough to try a different build.
At the beginning, players choose one of three character types, based upon different military services.
The Marine class is the bruiser. In a fantasy game, they would be the warrior. They are oriented around combat and will generally have access to more high end weapons than the other classes. Further, it is probably the easiest class in the early stages of the game.
The OSA class is a psionic powered operative. In a fantasy game, they would be a magic user. They are the least proficient with weapons, preferring to rely on psionic abilities. Similar to their fantasy counterparts, they have the most difficult time early in the game but become arguably the most powerful by the end.
Finally, the Navy class is the hacker. Of all the classes, they have the best affinity for technology. It is the most balanced class, since they also have decent weapon skills.
After choosing a path, the player goes through an enjoyable set of "career" choices which will effect starting stats. Then the game begins in earnest.
Throughout the rest of the game, the player molds their character build even further within these archetypes. This is done by upgrading specific abilities and attributes using chips that are found or awarded. I found this to be much less distracting from gameplay than the classic experience and level system.
"Glory to The Many. I am a voice in their choir." - Anatoly Korenchkin
System Shock 2's atmosphere and story are beautifully crafted. Every place in the game has its own tale to tell. Carefully arranged set pieces provide an unspoken narrative which is often chilling. More depth still is provided through the many audio logs found throughout the game, containing some of the most compelling voice acting in gaming.
Scene by scene, the story of The Many and the horror of their existence begins as a creeping menace, then builds to the point of howling crescendo. All the while, the intensity of the game itself increases.
While the graphics of SS2 are certainly serviceable and in some ways attractive, it was also a weak point even for the time. The worst, by far, are the character models which are simply poor in the case of humans. Monsters and androids come out fine because of their non-human nature. But the human characters are far too abstract and polygonal.
I would not say the game was too short, but I wish there was more anyway. And that isn't really a complaint.
The Bottom Line
System Shock 2 is the essential survival horror experience. It is one of a very few games which truly deserves the title of "Must Play".