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The GoodHave you ever had a complex relationship with a game, which started with hatred and ended with love? No? Well, then maybe it's just me. I've had quite a few of those relationships. One of the most notable ones is my love affair with "System Shock 2". It took me such a long time to appreciate it, that it's quite amazing that people had enough patience to listen to my never-ending whining: "What's so great about it... I don't like it... why does everybody like it and I don't...", without giving up and saying: "Yeah, yeah, whatever you say, the game sucks", just to make me shut up.
Actually, I don't really need to write another Good section about this game; MobyGames is full of positive reviews for "System Shock 2". But my review should stress the game's greatness even more. Why so? Because actually such a game is not at all my cup of tea. Yet I ended up loving it. It takes a really great game to make me feel this way in spite of my own preferences.
The primary reason for my initial dislike of the game was its entire premise. I wasn't really into the whole "you are alone, now explore a huge spaceship without any characters and fight monsters" kind of thing. I'm actually still not into this. And that's a solid proof of this game's greatness: nothing in its premise interested me, and yet I found myself addicted to it so badly that I needed a serious break (I didn't touch the game for two weeks at one point).
I don't like games that are set entirely in closed environments. I don't like shooters with monsters. I generally dislike games in which you don't interact with NPCs. I'm completely indifferent to sci-fi/cyberpunk setting. And I love "System Shock 2". Why? Because it excels in the three main components of game design: story-telling, atmosphere, and gameplay.
Story-telling, and not just "story", is the key word here. Sure, the story of "System Shock 2" has its great moments. The terrifying plot twist (a really terrifying plot twist if you've played the previous System Shock) in the middle, the interesting struggle between villains, the basic, but convincing concept of "technology vs. nature" philosophy - the story line here is most certainly above average. But if you simply want to see such a story told through cut-scenes in a video game, you'll find better examples in Japanese RPGs. It is the way the story is told that makes it stand out. If it were just told through a series of cut scenes, like in nearly all other games, it would have lost a great deal of its unique character. Most games tell you a story that happens now, at the same time as you are playing the game. But "System Shock 2" tells a story that has already happened. You learn it by finding and reading audio diaries scattered all over the space ships. I know that the first System Shock did it first, but the sequel improves this technique (which will be further perfected in Bioshock) by adding more details and a wider range of themes.
The beauty of it, of course, is the optional nature of the story line (you can ignore those diaries entirely and still complete the game, without understanding much of its story), and the fact that this technique can be implemented only in a video game, by fully integrating the story into the gameplay and making it part of the exploration process.
Thus the story line, which can seem paper-thin if you don't bother to discover its parts, becomes rich and detailed if you construct it by careful reading of the logs. Even though the main story line is not that amazing and lacks both the incredible nerve-tickling suspense of the original and the depth of "Bioshock", it's the "little" stories of the characters that will make up for that. Those include some really great moments, made possible by the "retro" technique - you'd read letters written by someone to his beloved woman, uncover plans that were made and ultimately failed, witness with horror how people gradually submit to the "call of the Many", have people who do not exist any more share with you their fears, etc. For example, a very memorable and touching moment for me was reading a diary I found on the body of a female cyborg I killed: a young girl is scared, because she was chosen to become a test subject for a certain scientific experiment... That's what the game does with such an "inferior" gameplay concept as "looting the corpses of people you kill"!
Moving on to atmosphere: this game is really packed with it. I'm a sucker for atmospheric games and often enjoy games that are mediocre in other aspects just because they have great atmosphere (like for example Phantasmagoria). Granted, "System Shock 2" is not entirely horror-themed, it lacks set-pieces, and personally I found the atmosphere of the first System Shock more convincing; but even so, the game is guaranteed to glue you to the computer screen just because it draws you into its world and never lets go.
Most other games rely on graphics (or sometimes music) to create atmosphere; "System Shock" does it mostly with sound effects. The music itself is perhaps not that cool (again, I liked the music from the original more), but the way it is used in the game, turning itself on suddenly, then leaving you alone when you least expect it, is great. But the true stars of the show are sound effects. They are simply impeccable and create an aural experience that is hard to forget. Anyone who has ever heard those hybrids muttering something to themselves knows what I'm talking about...
Of course it wouldn't be the same without the fantastic level design. The space ship Von Braun, on which you will spend most of the game, is a magnificent piece of work. It is "alive" in the sense that it doesn't feel artificial at all. Sure, you'll see upgrade stations and other weird places "just for the game", but the overall feeling is that you are in a real location. The high amount of items for everyday use, their placement, the layout of the rooms, graphical detail - all this adds an incredible feeling of realism. The game's environments magically draw you into themselves. That is the chief reason for the game's extreme atmosphere.
But it's in the gameplay department where "System Shock 2" truly improves upon its predecessor. While the original System Shock had certain RPG touches in form of modifications and item-gathering, it was still primarily an adventure/FPS. The sequel has now turned into a full-fledged RPG, and in my opinion this was a magnificent change. The gameplay became even more addictive than before, because in addition to all the exploration and the interaction possibilities the first game offered you, you now have a refined RPG system to occupy yourself with. You create and shape your character during the course of the game. You can steer it towards one of the three sharply defined "classes", which correspond to the traditional fighter, mage, and thief in RPGs, you can go for an all-around character who is moderately skillful in everything, or choose to mix advantages of either class the way you like.
If you think that this system is just a small addition to the adventure/FPS formula, let me tell you that it is much more than that. The role-playing in "System Shock 2" is remarkably flexible, satisfying the need of the player for choice: see that locked box? Can't hack it? Damn, gotta invest more points into hacking skills... but I have low strength, I can't carry enough weapons... so maybe invest more points here? Trust me, if you come to this game from a RPG angle (as I did), you'll be spending hours in front of those upgrade machines just trying to decide where to put your precious skill points. And isn't that the beauty of role-playing?
The amount of stuff you can do in "System Shock 2" is overwhelming. You can research body parts of your enemies to gain advantage in battles. You can modify your weapons. You can hack into security computers to disable cameras. You can repair broken machines. All this require appropriate skills, and since, per RPG requirement, you can't have them all, you'll have to decide yourself which are the ones you need most.
But even without the RPG part, the game delivers tons of high-quality gameplay. It works wonderfully as a survival horror game - in my opinion better than most "real" survival horror games, because instead of clunky interface and maddening camera angles you have real issues to be frightened of: tough enemies, weapon degradation, hostile security system, etc. At the same time the game plays smoothly even when it turns into a regular first-person shooter. You have to be smart and to use the right type of ammunition, as well as the right tactics against the enemies.
Another great feature that "System Shock 2" inherited from its predecessor is the high level of interactivity. Almost everything you see can be picked up or thrown away. The game satisfies a powerful instinct of the player, which is to touch and to grab everything he sees. What makes it even better is the fact that nearly every item is useful in this or another way. Since your inventory is limited, you'll have to decide what to take with you and what to leave behind, which once again leads to decisions and planning.
There are huge locations to explore here; along with quality, "System Shock 2" delivers quantity. Even though it is set entirely in closed environments, you really feel there is a world here. There are so many areas to explore, including so many entirely optional ones, that the game manages to feel open-ended even though it is confined to such a seemingly narrow space.
Finally, the game has great graphics. Maybe not as outstandingly great as in the first System Shock (relative to the time period, of course), but great nevertheless. Unfortunately, the monster models leave a lot to be desired; but the rest is simply excellent. Nine years after its release, it still looks smooth - there is something very attractive in those graphics that is hard to describe.
The BadThe story that you uncover in logs is engaging because you experience it in a pure text form, like a book. The present story, however, the story that you experience as the protagonist, is structured in a rather unexciting way. The story is built like a series of missions, all of which are just standard RPG quests, over-bloated to a disproportional size. For example, you are told to go to a certain place; then you find out that the access is blocked, so you have to fix whatever is blocking it; for this you have to go to another place, which is in its turn blocked because... etc. It takes an extremely long time to come to the first real turning point of the plot; a simple mission to meet someone at a certain place turns into a monstrous assignment that will make the player explore several huge levels while impatiently waiting for the plot to advance. Unfortunately, you'll have to go through all this because, with all its gameplay flexibility, the story advancement in "System Shock 2" is absolutely linear.
Many players hated the weapon degradation and the monster re-spawning. Actually, I wouldn't mind either of them; but when put together, they are mighty annoying. It's bad enough not to be able to use your gun after just several shots; but it gets much worse when there are always new enemies popping out at you. Ammo is extremely scarce, and enemies who carry guns will drop them in unusable conditions. I played the game with the latest patch, which apparently corrects those issues, but monsters still re-spawned and weapons still deteriorated as I played. Either I did something wrong with the config file, or I should really shudder at the thought that it was even worse in the unpatched version.
Finally, there is the inevitable "sequel to a great game" syndrome: yes, nearly everything is great in "System Shock 2", but almost all the great things were already present in the previous game. I honestly can't see how "System Shock 2" could avoid it if it really wanted to fully re-capture the spirit of the original; but perhaps it is indeed a little too similar to its predecessor. The example of Bioshock has later shown that you could implement gameplay and story-telling elements in a game set in a totally different environment and dedicated to a totally different theme.