On Difficulty: A Few Hours With System Shock 2

By John Walker on May 15th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.

It's not a very happy game, really.

We all have our embarrassing secrets. For instance, Jim has never hopped, too scared to take such a risk with gravity. Adam never realised you were supposed to apologise to ducks. And I’ve never played System Shock 2. It’s not my fault – I was busy. But with my first gap in my schedule since August 1999, I’ve been having a go at the freshly re-released version on Steam. It’s… it’s not easy, is it?

For me, System Shock 2 has become more of a beacon for what games no longer are, than what it perhaps is in its own right. It’s a fascinating piece, a fusty grandfather of the few FPSs still using their imaginations, a knowing father of games that defined my twenties like Deus Ex. But at the same time it echoes dying features of the 90s, some missed, some well abandoned. For instance, it’s been a while since I thought, “I really should have read the manual”.

So I’m not writing about the story here – I’ve not played enough of it yet to do that. This is about the mechanics, and how they’ve split my mind down the middle, both recognising what I’ve been missing, and how I have to admit to appreciating some levels of simplification.

The game begins with you – a nondescript soldier – training for accompanying the first FTL ship, the Von Braun, on its maiden voyage. And you’re given huge choices to make without any context. After a few perfunctory tutorials that entirely fail to teach you anything important about the game you’re about to face, you’re asked to choose between the Navy, the Marines, or the OSA. What is the OSA? Details aren’t clear. I picked the OSA, because I’d heard they were the most interesting, and they started you off with psi powers – supernatural abilities from your braintubes. What I should have picked was the Navy, because it turns out they’re the ones who focus on hacking, which is always my preferred route through a game.

This done, you’re then asked to pick two further particular fields of training, without any context to make that choice, and sort of hope they fall in your favour. The training doesn’t actually teach you anything, but rather sends your character away for a year of unseen brutal education that changes a stat once you’re finally in control. Oh, and you’ve been fitted with all sorts of cybernetic enhancements, which I don’t remember agreeing to. Something about a distress call. Something about alien eggs. Something about cryo sleep. SPACESHIP.

A detached voice, supposedly but obviously not Dr. Janice Polito, is giving you some sort of narrative guidance, while the ship’s on-board computer Xercies is telling you off for paying attention to her. And neither is being particularly helpful in terms of how you’re meant to not be dead all the time on a labyrinthine ship filled with shotgun-wielding zombie alien mutant hybrid things, and telekenitic monkeys.

“Polito” sort of talks you through your array of on-screen furniture. You’ve got a Tetris inventory, a minimalist character sheet, an awkward area for selecting psionic abilities, another section containing details about health and Psi levels, along with a Research button, the map, and two slots for items about which I have yet no idea. Then there are the recordings of dialogue from Polito, crew members whose recordings you’ve found, and hints about what you’re supposed to be doing, next to a button that says “MFD”, and another tab that collates the key access you’ve so far gained. Splurge.

Most bizarrely, the instructions for most of these elements, and more importantly how they relate to the world around you, are found in Information points mounted to the walls in the baddie-infested corridors. Even reading how to flipping play the game is dangerous. Because all those elements are further complicated by the need to charge some of them up via occasional charge points, others require the use of injections, food, boosters, software, and many other never-explained bits and pieces.

Despite appearances, I’m not an idiot. I fathomed pretty much all of it as I needed to. But I became aware that the process of fathoming as I go along is not one I miss. I think a game released today that was so muddled, so jumblingly complicated, would be criticised for it. But I’m certain there are Shock 2 fans currently boiling blood out of their eyeballs in rage at the paragraphs above. And I sympathise – I don’t doubt that games are far too over-simplified in terms of their first impressions these days. While I don’t wander into the scary world of RTS gaming, where I suspect such complexity likely still resides, certainly in the world of the FPS you’re lucky if you need to know more than three buttons and one menu.

But while I would love to see more intricate, complex systems returning to games, I am going to be heretical enough to say I wouldn’t want it to be delivered as opaquely as appears in Shock 2. Because for me, this process of being bemused by the game’s mechanics got in the way of enjoyment, and that’s where I think a line is crossed. Because System Shock 2 is really enjoyable.

And bloody terrifying. Oh my goodness, I’d forgotten what it was like to have a game be so unrelentingly tough and cruel. Even replaying the exquisitely frightening Thief a couple of years back, that game at least gave you down times, moments of respite. SS2 never lets up. You can’t clear an area of enemies – they can reappear from somewhere. But more terrifyingly, not in a predictable way. It doesn’t respawn them after so much time, or have everything reset when you revisit a previous location. It’s just, sometimes, seemingly at random, somewhere that felt safe suddenly isn’t any more.

And you’re weak. So, so weak. Everything about you is weak. If you’re not a Marine, you can’t even fire a gun when you start. As an OSA I was wandering the grey metal corridors armed with a spanner and a psi orb thing that let me fire off a slow, weakly bolt of cold that would eventually take out enemies if I ran away at the same time. If you can fire a gun, that gun is weak, degrading as though it were allergic to bullets. Tiny stupid monkeys can kill you in a couple of hits. Giant stomping robots probably don’t even notice you were there before they’re done spilling your blood. You’ve got tasks you need to complete in these tunnels-o-horror, you’re compelled to keep heading back and forth having retrieved a necessary code from the grossly mutilated corpse of a former crew member. But… but it’s scary!

It’s the unrelenting nature of that scary that makes SS2 most stand out to me. Deus Ex, which I’d argue is far more of a spiritual continuation of the game than anything within BioShock, had so much downtime. Time spent in safe offices, chatting with safe people, creeping around safe toilets of the opposite sex (how do you sex a toilet? female ones don’t have wee around the base). You got to occasionally climb off the tight rope and cling to a secure wall and get your breath back. Not here. Here it’s avoiddeathavoiddeathavoiddeathavoiddeathavoiddeath without pause. And it’s exhausting.

Good exhausting? A large part (not that part) of me wants to pretend that yeah, it’s great! Games like they used to be! None of this modern mollycoddling that’s raising a generation of gamers only capable of following another man’s bottom while they do the shooting/door opening for them. What will they all do when the Hagrons attack Earth from Dimension U? Not like us, eh? Raised on System Shock 2 and Terror From The Deep, ready for anything, capable of opening doors for ourselves. Admitting to anything else would highlight me as a pathetic wastrel, not suitable for games journalist, just some simpering idiot who should stick to Farmville.

Well, I’ve never played Farmville either. So take that. But wow, I’m not sure I possess the mettle for System Shock 2. It’s not the scares – I’m loving those – it takes a lot for anything to make me jump, and SS2 has had me bouncing in my chair. But for the unrelenting, incessant sense of vulnerability, of being on the very edge of failure, holding on with the tips of my fingertips.

But what I’ve taken from this is a far more acute awareness of just how far things have gone the other way. Games tend to either make us irrelevant to the events (Modern Warfare, Medal Of Honor, etc), or ludicrously beyond heroic, ultra-powerful in a world of flimsy papier-mâché competition. We’re given an extraordinary weapon that gets upgrade after upgrade, along with reality-warping powers that let us play with enemies like paper dolls. It’s a power fantasy, and while it’s often a lot of fun, System Shock 2 immediately reveals what a loss it really is.

(It’s worth mentioning the middleground between those types of more modern games – the nonthingness of RPG abilities, where you’re dripfed new statistics on old skills that allow you to maintain equilibrium against ever-scaling enemies. You’re always half a step ahead, and never an interesting distance behind or in front.)

Shock 2 reveals just how potent and atmospheric it is to be pathetically weak. It creates a bleakness that’s unachievable by just painting your backgrounds grey-brown and having the gruff post-apocalyptic super-soldiers shout curse words as they trot ever forward. It’s a bleakness that’s not superficially aesthetic, but intrinsic, and overwhelming. I really am overwhelmed by it. My heart is heavy when I think about carrying on playing this obviously excellent game, knowing what an ordeal I’ll be putting myself through.

Where I’m left is divided on how I feel about that. Perhaps it’s my frame of mind at the moment, perhaps I’m getting old, perhaps I’m growing weak. But that just doesn’t strike me as the most appealing notion.

Yes, so jeer at me, condemn me, cancel your subscription and petition in the streets that I have the temerity to write about videogames. I deserve it. But I do want to stress that I’m not settling for the status quo.

System Shock 2, as incredibly difficult, incredibly intense, and incredibly unnerving as it is, has strongly reminded me of what I’m missing from games. Explained to me why I bounced off BioShock: Infinite like it was made of space-rubber. I don’t want everything reduced down to a left or right mouse button, binary choices along predictable skill trees. I loved Dishonored, but Dishonored was a piece of piss. I was a GOD in that game, a GOD amongst puny underlings, crushed beneath my might. And that was probably the major thing wrong with it. Games just aren’t difficult enough, are they? Sure, you can turn the “difficulty” up, but that just makes it harder to get stuff done – not actually harder. A difficulty level doesn’t change the philosophy of a game. So no, I confess, SS2 is over a line for me that I once never had. But it’s revealed a pathway I long to be walking down in more games. Just, maybe, not this one?

Except that I just went back and played a bunch more.

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270 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    I’ll freely admit that when I played SS1 and SS2, back when I was much younger, I was terrified and eventually ended up just memory-hacking my own godmode into the game.

    It wasn’t that I was dying, or even doing badly — I was a pretty decent player, I played as if I wasn’t invincible, and I probably didn’t take much damage overall — but just that I needed something to take the edge off. Having a safety net made things relaxed enough that I could do them without actually needing the net. Catch-22 or something.

    Mind you, the first time I experimented with SS1’s plasma rifle on max power, I one-shotted myself even through my memory-hacked invulnerability. Heh.

  2. Laurentius says:

    Accesibility is great, it’s just that with providing accesibility devs took out mechanics as well from games making them uber simplified and they don’t even trying to make game more accesibkle while keeping mechanics that makes older games so good intact.

  3. gshauger says:

    System Shock 2 was a game that for over a decade I was routinely embarrassed to admit that I had never played it. When the game was finally released on GoG/Steam I quickly bought it and was prepared for an incredible gaming experience that would rival the likes of HL, etc.

    Unfortunately that experience never occurred. I’m sure back in the day it was an innovative if not revolutionary game but in 2013 it seems really dated and god awful to look at. I’ll give the gaming world the benefit of the doubt and concede that I should have played this when it first came out and the loss is mine.

  4. Premium User Badge

    strangeloup says:

    I picked up SS2 as soon as the GOG rerelease went up, and I’m vaguely embarassed that I’m finding it a hell of a lot more difficult now than I did when I played it on first release — the disc and so on having long since been lost, of course, and I never did finish it.

    It’s still great, obviously. The balance is really really wonky though, and I think I need to restart with a better idea of what career path is the best call (Navy, I suspect) and what skills are good to pick with the training options.

    I must admit that the Dark Souls comparisons are confusing me a bit. Other than them both being pretty hard and you die a lot, I’m not seeing more than very superficial links between the two, though I am now vaguely toying with reinstalling DS despite being pretty sure last time (getting to the Bed of Chaos on the 360 version) that I was done with it for good.

  5. Jenuall says:

    Agree that older games such as SS2 may leave something to be desired in terms of giving the player more useful context and training in how to tackle their systems etc. However I’m not sure I agree with this bit:

    And you’re given huge choices to make without any context. After a few perfunctory tutorials that entirely fail to teach you anything important about the game you’re about to face, you’re asked to choose between the Navy, the Marines, or the OSA. What is the OSA? Details aren’t clear

    I recall each choice, both for the “branch” of the military to take and then the subsequent years of training, having a voice over telling you quite clearly the outcome it would have for your player.

  6. Nick says:

    Yes, god forbid a game requires you read the fucking manual.

    • kament says:

      You know, I don’t recall ever reading Deus Ex manual. And they are not so far apart as SS and Bioshock, for instance. Manual is a crutch, and yeah, it’s better when a game doesn’t need one.

      Also, I find the very notion of game manual slightly ridiculous. It’s like game pretends to be some research project and not just entertainment. Like, this is business, kid! It’s expected of you to go digging through some game-related stuff, which developers failed to explain through the game itself.

  7. Premium User Badge

    The Sombrero Kid says:

    I’m currently replaying it & it really is a work of art, the possibility space is so big that even after all these years & many play throughs i still haven’t fired all the guns!
    So many impeccably designed elements, the Ship actually feels like a ship & not a level, there’s no vending machines in the toilets and crew sectors that dispense bullets and the medical stuff is on the medical deck!
    The research mechanic is sheer genius, so much so i’m currently in the process of ripping it off in the game i’m making, 15 years later.

    One thing I will say is, not wanting to spoil it for you, but you aren’t always so weak, later on you become extreamly powerful.

    & OSA is the hardest class, it’s best to go navy, a bit of weapons then full on psi.

  8. Ergates_Antius says:

    “A detached voice, supposedly but obviously not Dr. Janice Polito”

    OMG – SPOILERS!!

  9. novevite says:

    I stopped playing it because I started with a navy guy with high strength, which could be called Easy Mode, and ended up wasting “scary monsters” with a wrench.

  10. sbs says:

    Regarding difficulty: Recently installed the old Blood, selected the middle one of the five difficulties… and damn, I got owned. Felt really shitty to be honest.

  11. fish99 says:

    System Shock 2 doesn’t have classes btw. It’s not obvious going through the opening of the game, but those door choices just determine what the stat increase during your 3 years of ‘training’ are, and which initial skills are unlocked.

    Personally I never found it that hard, I’ve beat it as weapons, tech and psi builds on impossible (not using revive chambers) but you do need to use quick save regularly. I’d recommend hard for a first playthrough. What I would advise though is take a look at the readme and tweak the random spawning and the weapon degradation. Random spawning in games is always a bad, annoying, immersion breaking thing IMO and it gets ridiculous at times in SS2, especially on the main corridor in engineering. With the ini tweak, there’s still random spawning, but at a level which gives you a chance to breath now and then. It’s a flat out better game with those tweaks.

    It’s also never going to be fair judging a game 14 years late. It *was* an era when you *did* read the manual. The interface was revolutionary for the time, and the sheer amount of stuff you can interact with in the world was beyond anything I’d seen previously in an FPS.

    It also has co-op!

  12. Iskariot says:

    It is always a risk to (re)play old games. Gaming conventions change and memories tend to deceive.
    I have nothing but the most cherished memories of System Shock, but I feel the game is too old to replay. Games have moved on more than we realize.

    • Mman says:

      “Games have moved on more than we realize.”

      Not really? If anything it’s the opposite and they’ve moved on much less than the most blatant stuff like graphical advances suggest. Actual gameplay advances are pretty rare, with most of those advances being focused on accessibly rather than depth.

    • fish99 says:

      I’d argue games have regressed in many areas.

  13. Banana_Republic says:

    System Shock 2 really wasn’t that obtuse when most of us first played it. Many games at that time required more from gamers than simply having the manual dexterity to pound keys on a keyboard. Not to mention things like public wikis were still years from seeing widespread usage, so you couldn’t just type a keyword into Google and have a thousand different solutions to your problem handed to you on a silicon platter.

    Back then, WE (myself included) were simply more patient and more willing to figure stuff out. We assumed that if we didn’t understand it, WE were missing something, not that the game was obtuse or poorly designed. WE didn’t blame someone else for our difficulties, we just grit our teeth and figured it out. I remember pulling my hair out trying to finish a game called Darkseed, because there were simply no free answers to the puzzles. You want to continue in the game? — FIGURE IT OUT. Now, after years of eating the pablum that poses as “AAA” gaming, we’ve lost our ability to think. We’ll even complain about having to visit a wiki for an answer if the game doesn’t spell things out with big enough letters for us.

    I wish I could say I’m pointing fingers at others, but I’ve become a lazy gamer too. System Shock 2 was not a hard game to figure out back when it was released. Today though, I think even I would be heading to a wiki within ten minutes of starting my first playthrough. That shames me. I used to be a better gamer than that.

    • Premium User Badge

      DrScuttles says:

      Oh, Darkseed. You beautiful, frustrating game you.
      Trying to think back, I seem to recall that I had far fewer games and more time to spend on them. That’s probably a large factor in myself becoming what I’d consider to be something of a lazy gamer, too. I bought an AD&D RPG pack not long ago including Baldur’s Gate and despite a few attempts, I just can’t see myself getting into it.
      Hell, just take the Daggerfall manual. 90 pages. And I know for a fact that I read that beast cover to cover numerous times. Would I today? Would I fuck.

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      Yeah, I’m getting awfully tired at all the new generation gamers who obstinately declare that anything that requires a manual is obviously bad game design, and that everything should be taught in-game.

      By that standard, there are a lot of classic games that simply could not have ever been made. Baldur’s Gate 2, where the manual was basically the abridged AD&D Player’s Handbook. SimCity 2000. Falcon 4.0 (three ring binder!). Pretty much any game with one of those extensive spiral-bound manuals.

      There’s also the “tutorial creep” problem we’re seeing more and more of these days. Used to be, games tossed you in the deep end and figured you had either read the manual, or played the game before, or you were a pro with this particular genre and didn’t need any help. Then they started adding optional tutorials off the main menu. Then, skippable “level zero” tutorials. Then mandatory tutorials.

      And now we’re at the point where half the entire game is the tutorial. That works great for linear puzzle games like Portal, but not so much for e.g. AssCreed3, which I seem to recall got pretty soundly criticised for this. (Especially when the game refuses to open the world up to you until after the tutorial.)

      Integrating the story into the gameplay has made things worse in this regard — now, even if the tutorial is ostensibly optional, you can’t skip it without worrying that you’ll miss out on major plot details or fun character interactions.

      So yeah, I really miss the days when games assumed we knew what we were doing, and if we didn’t, we were damn well going to learn the hard way. You’d think there would be more appetite for that these days, what with answers always being a click away. But no, that’s seen as an inexcusable flaw by reviewers and players alike. :(

      • LionsPhil says:

        *standing ovation*

      • Guvornator says:

        I second that standing ovation. I ‘d also like an honorable mention for games which come with a tutorial level, which is followed by a 1st level which assumes you haven’t played the tutorial and attempts to re-teach you the stuff you just learned…

  14. Muzman says:

    Would now be a bad time to mention that System Shock 1 makes System Shock 2 seem rather hand holdy and pleasant.

    I do kind of understand why people don’t want games to be obscure about things, but there really are experiences you can’t get any other way. I fear our intrepid ludographers have gotten old sometimes. I have too, but I really can’t conceive of there being a perfectly smooth way to design a game, mechanically, and still have it do all that gaming can do (which isn’t exactly what’s being said, of course, but I suspect it is desired sometimes). And that includes in “AAA” narrative driven FPSs.
    I’m very glad to see the console era and ‘flow’ theory start to fade. Not because its necessarily bad but for a while there people were talking as though there’s a right way to make games (after barely forty years of doing this stuff) and a correct way to bring in a player (and could basically be summed as everything 90s and PC based was wrong about everything). Which is a terrible, terrible thing for anyone to think.

    Trying to figure out what point I’m circling around; I just want games like this to be part of the picture and not considered outliers or illegitimate or relics etc. Nothing can do what it does without, in large part, doing what it does (which isn’t to say it’s perfect, but I think we all know that if it were remade it’s unlikely to be merely fixed. They’d have to nerf it with every ‘player aid’ going, rewrite all the lines so you don’t miss that key piece of information, which then pops into your log etc for you so you don’t even have to think at all, and then pause the game while you read displays and check your inventory).
    We need an adventurous and persistent audience, not one expecting every game to be an iDevice of some kind (just some games)
    The last generation was a bit of a wash, but I have some hope for all these Minecraft kids and ones geeking out over obscure, low quality horror games/mods.

    • Premium User Badge

      Continuity says:

      There are experiences to be had, if you look for them. Try playing Don’t Starve without the Wiki or any guide for example.

      • Muzman says:

        Yeah, it’s making a comeback. Which is good. I do think sometimes that a lot of it gets the indie apology though, and many of the press elders wouldn’t stand for that sort of thing in a “AAA” mainstream narrative game. (where I think a decent size audience might, if properly encouraged. I think they’re already starting to.)

  15. Synesthesia says:

    This is one of the main reasons i’ve gravitated to other genres. Today i’m mostly playing roguelikes, ARMA, and DOTA 2. Oh, and ill waste my life on CoH2. Oh and Dark Souls! I can’t wait.

  16. Premium User Badge

    Continuity says:

    The game has a tonne of problems, UI, Balance, mechanics.. but you’ve got to look past that and though a 1999 time lens… this game was an unparalleled experience, its a masterpiece of original design that masterfully creates atmosphere like no game I’ve played right up to Amnesia Dark Decent.
    Its the grandfather of the First person RPG/FPS genre that has had so many of my favourite titles, Deus Ex, Bloodlines etc. at the time System Shock two was a revelation, despite the rough mechanics in places.

    However, I wouldn’t say its necessarily difficult, I think by “difficult” you simply mean it doesn’t hold your hand like modern games, sure there are tough sections (that cargo bay will probably haunt me till the end of my days) but the tasks set you are all eminently achievable.

    Though I do think that Shock 2 does have that charming element that many modern games lack: i.e. it will let you build an unplayable (or near) character, and it will let put yourself in a position thats hard to get back from, so really, you’re looking at a certain amount of trial and error whilst you learn what works, what synergises with what, and what can be sacrificed and what absolutely can’t. It’s unforgiving, but for me that is definitely part and parcel of the gameplay and is integral to the atmosphere.

  17. Yosharian says:

    SS2 is a damn masterpiece.

    “A detached voice, supposedly but obviously not Dr. Janice Polito”

    What the fuck is this

    • Premium User Badge

      Continuity says:

      Yeah that caught my eye, first time round I didn’t suspect anything right up to the reveal.

      • Pockets says:

        It gets foreshadowed fairly subtly (there’s a difference in tone) and given they’ve re-used that trick since, its probably more likely for someone to pick up on that than when it was new.
        It certainly surprised me at the time, but then again I was 12 it first came out.

    • Kefren says:

      [SPOILERS…] Me too. Having never met Polito, why would you think it wasn’t her? I came across that in Kieron Gillen’s article too. She sounded too snappy and impatient to be Polito? But at that point you just assume Polito is snappy and impatient. Oh, I wish I could play the game for the first time again, it was a massive ‘Wow!’ moment. But by now it is hard to not know the twist, probably the case with John.

      • sinister agent says:

        I wasn’t even slightly surprised either. It’s pretty strongly telegraphed, and if you can’t tell by the time you’re listening to her voice logs, well, I don’t really know how you get out of your house without opening the door in your face every morning.

        • Premium User Badge

          Continuity says:

          The first time I played I had no idea who or what Shodan was, thus it would have been improbable if not impossible for me to guess.

          • sinister agent says:

            Oh, I had no idea either, but it was obvious that “Pollito” wasn’t who she was claiming to be. Whether that meant she was possessed or what it had to do with the transmission she was discussing with Delacroix, I didn’t know, but the reveal of what happened to her wasn’t a surprise. Still well done, mind.

      • Muzman says:

        The logs between Polito and Delacroix about studying the discovery on the planet make it more plain. Just the fact that the Polito you find there talks almost entirely differently is a pretty good clue.

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      Given that the few responses so far already range from “totally fooled” to a rude assertion about players’ intelligence, I guess this is probably one of those things where it totally depends on first impressions.

      If you believe it’s real, you’ll continue to hear what you expect to hear, and not notice or dismiss any little hints otherwise.

      If you have any sense whatsoever that you’re not dealing with the real thing, you’ll be listening for and easily pick up all the inconsistencies and think it’s blindingly obvious.

      Evidently John fell into the latter camp, so much so that he didn’t see a need to suppress this ridiculously spoilery piece of info. Being fooled turns the inevitable reveal into the most jaw-droppingly memorable part of the entire game (speaking from experience), and I’ve nothing but sympathy for those who figure it out too soon and miss this experience. (Except for those who then go on to be rude about how obvious it was. Or who spoil it for other people.)

  18. Jenks says:

    It’s a shame what has happened to video games in general.

    I feel like Roberta Williams in 1999.

  19. Shooop says:

    This is a great article. It doesn’t just gloss over nostalgia over how the old games were more daring and demanding of players but even dips into the things we really don’t miss like a lack of coherent explanations for the game’s basic systems.

    But it’s not a game for everyone for a big reason you brought up John – it’s a very hostile game and does all the right things to make you dread whatever’s around the next corner or door. It is emotionally exhausting for many players. And I personally believe some of the game’s difficulty comes from the wrong things – the weapons degradation system for one is something I’ve never liked in any game. It always feels to me like a developer’s shortcut, an easy way out to make difficulty appear where there wasn’t any.

    Despite problems like that it comes close to achieving the one thing modern games are always failing to do – making you vulnerable, but not unfairly crippled. The modern shoot all the people on the other side of the wall games flirt with this idea by making your avatar only able to sustain a handful of hits before going down. But this isn’t enough to balance out the incredible power you have compared to your opponents – they’re never as good shots as you are (unless it’s a Rainbow 6 game where they can all shoot the wings off gnats with a pistol) or use their surroundings as well as you can.

    Every enemy in System Shock 2 is dangerous because even though some of them aren’t as powerful as you are at the very start, they have numbers and the knowledge of the terrain (or ship) on their side. You may be able to defend yourself, but you’re not ready for a prolonged conflict – you missed the class where you could lunge forward with a knife and instantly hit someone’s vitals. You can’t pick fights with the enemies of SS2 whenever you please and expect to get away unscathed. You have to pick your battles or you’ll burn through all your supplies. What doesn’t kill you could end up leaving you weak enough for the next thing to finish you off.

    That’s what makes this game and what’s missing from many modern ones. You could become a demigod in SS2, but it’s something you have to plan and really work for instead of being handed all the skills and equipment to take on an entire planet nearly from the moment you hit “Start”. You start at the bottom and work up instead of starting in the middle and taking a jetpack to the top. There’s still a place for those games, I’m having an absolute blast with Far Cry Blood Dragon. But there’s also a place for games like SS2 which has been mysteriously left vacant for years.

    This was a great read and I’m enjoying the game for the first time as well (courtesy of GOG) – my excuse being I was too young at the time to be trusted with something as expensive as a PC.

  20. Kefren says:

    Excellent post. I tried not to be grumbly at the negatives! I have completed it loads of times with all major types (OSA, Navy, Marines) and made up ones (researcher, engineer). And every fan mod (Return to the UNN, Polaris etc) twice.

    I love the weakness at the start giving way to huge power by the end. Yet it only takes one panic battle to die, and if you haven’t activated the regen it is goodbye.

    I see you haven’t used the Rebirth Complemented mod, I always use that for the main enemy models.

    This game is amazing. The only thing I would change would be a more streamlined interface maybe (though I’d used to it). I don’t understand the issue with the training missions/setup. I played it like an RPG. What would the character I am imagining choose? I never choose options because they will make the game easier, I find that boring going for ‘optimal builds’. I go for what my character would choose, and that makes it more immersive.

  21. Grayvern says:

    Something I only learned when looking at guides when playing as a psy character 2 months ago is that there are enough frenchs and repair tools on anything south of impossible to last the entire game, meaning you only need to upgrade maintinance, and that repair is a waste of cyber modules.

    This made me feel retroactively stupid for all the other times I’ve played for merrily putting points in repair.

    I have only ever gotten part way through the unn rickenbacker, in my 4 playthroughs, before I stopped playing; I’m not sure why I do this; it’s not difficulty; it’s not like PS:T where I couldn’t bring myself to finish it because I didn’t want it to end.

  22. Hulk Handsome says:

    When I first played System Shock 2, I was amazed by how terrible it was. It’s a game I really wanted to love, but it got everything SO WRONG. This review sums up my feelings pretty well:

    http://www.caltrops.com/review0010.php

    • Upper Class Twit says:

      Damn. You better watch yourself duder. Those are some pretty controversial statements you’re making.

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      I actually agree with a lot of this.

      The weapon maintenance thing: BS, plain and simple. First thing I turned way down (or off) when playing SS2.

      Respawning enemies: I’m torn about this, but leaning towards agree. Like the reviewer, I see what they were trying to do. But I don’t like it when a game encourages a particular behaviour and then punishes you for it. In this case, the behaviour is exploration and figuring things out yourself, and the punishment is having to slog through enemies even when backtracking through areas you’ve previously cleared. The unsatisfactory solution is to read a walkthrough to know exactly where to go at all times so you backtrack as little as possible; the more satisfactory solution is just to turn off respawns. (Second thing I turn off.)

      Melee: Well, this was written a while back, so I can excuse their silly blanket assertion that satisfying melee will never be possible in an FPS. But yes, it hadn’t been done particularly well before then, and it wasn’t done particularly well in SS2 either. The only reason I ever went melee in SS2 was when I wanted to be a crystal-shard ninja and Leeroy Jenkins every enemy I saw just for the cool factor. (And also so I could regularly issue a battle cry IRL that helped break the tension and terror the game made me feel the rest of the time.)

      The objectives: I never really thought about this at the time, but yes, in hindsight, they relied way too much on the “fix this to proceed” approach to game progression. It really foreshadows some of the worst titles of the past decade in that respect.

      On “the RPG elements are what killed the game, period”: Strongly disagree. The RPG elements weren’t any different than Deus Ex, say, and that was an unmitigated success. It’s not like there were numbers appearing above enemies heads to show how much damage you did — nor has that been a problem for Borderlands, either. I think this section was just 100% the reviewer’s own bias.

      Ultimately, I feel that System Shock 1 was massively innovative and deeply immersive for its time, but hard to appreciate nowadays because it occurred before most of the major advances in first-person shooters (mainly mouselook and proper 3D).

      As such, the much more modern System Shock 2 is the natural fallback. And while it’s just as immersive (maybe moreso), it’s only an iterative improvement in some areas and a much more flawed game in many others. It can be at least partially fixed with the right configuration changes, but to recommend it in its default state is to fall prey to rampant nostalgia more than an actual eye for quality, IMO.

  23. blackmyron says:

    Yeah, I’m going to have to make a dissenting opinion here.

    I’ve heard people ranting about System Shock 2 for years, how it was superior to every other game that came out since then, which I’ve wondered might be linked to the inaccessibility of the SS2 due to its limbo status for so many years. I decided to give it a shot – older graphics don’t put me off – since it’s now freely available. And I didn’t enjoy it.
    I can see the technological advancements inherent in the game. I can see where later games followed in its footsteps, especially its ‘spiritual descendant’, Bioshock (Deus Ex is certainly a parallel development). But I felt the same drive for completion with little interest in the game universe that I felt when I played the original Doom, and then Quake. I didn’t feel the emotions generated by, for example, the first view of Rapture in Bioshock, or sparring with GLADoS in Portal 2.
    If anything, System Shock 2 made me go and find the graphics update mod for the original Deus Ex and play that again, instead.

  24. Strangerator says:

    I have a theory on game difficulty scales.. I see it like this. It’s not just a scale of easy to hard, there are a lot of things going on. I used to be from the Old School of Hardcore gamers, besmirching any title that wasn’t ultramax difficulty. But I think I’ve figured out that I like games that are hard, but not TOO hard, and more importantly why.

    At the extreme hardcore end of the scale you have roguelikes. If you’ve never played one, roguelikes tend to be a case of making optimized decisions, but they don’t tend to allow for much creativity. It is an excercise in optimization and perfectionism, finding the right path in a wilderness chock full of WRONG paths. This type of game has its place, absolutely, but the play style is something that doesn’t appeal to everyone. I’ve played my share of FTL and a few others, but they aren’t in what I consider the “sweet spot.” Eventually I feel robbed of the fun of experimentation by the ever present need for more optimization, and it begins to feel like work, despite being very engaging.

    At the other extreme you have modern AAA style games. These games tend to offer ONLY right paths, and have absolutely NO wrong paths. They might pay homage to fail-states of old, but they carry absolutely no consequence whatsoever. We can’t have the poor little kiddos feeling bad about themselves by telling them doing something wrong could cause them to fail, now can we? So where roguelikes force you into a narrowly focused optimization, modern games have eliminated wrong paths and wrong choices. Again, this probably appeals to some people, but to me it seems as though my choices lack any real weight. Playing this kind of game makes me feel mildly insulted, and I usually feel like my time was wasted. If I am guaranteed success despite making incoherent choices, then my choices feel rather pointless. And if my input wasn’t really needed, then my feeling is this probably didn’t even need to be a game. Totally unsatisfying for me to play, but your capacity for self deception may vary (i.e. you might be able to convince yourself to feel like you’ve accomplished something, despite the fact that there was no way for you to fail).

    The sweet spot (for me at least) offers enough challenge that there are probably 80% wrong and 20% right choices. Personally, I like games where there are a fair number of right ways to do things, but still enough wrong choices that I know my thought and planning about how to tackle the game has meaning and consequence. What’s more, the amount of “right paths” to follow allow me to experiment and be creative within that space, instead of forcing me down to a very narrowly focused and prescribed way of thinking.

  25. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    Apparently, if dying always sends you back to the nearest Vita-Chamber and lets you run back to where you were and get right back into the fight, it’s considered too easy.

    But if you actually have to flip the switch and turn the Resurrection Chambers on before you get your infinite lives, it’s considered too hard.

    God I’d hate to be a game designer.

    • sinister agent says:

      Death also cost nanites in SS2, and nanites were necessary to hack and buy items like ammunition. The more you died, the harder the game would be. Plus, I’m pretty sure you respawn with very low health.

      In Bioshock is cost nothing though, so there was no threat.

      • Premium User Badge

        PikaBot says:

        Well, if you just blew all your ammo on a big non-optional fight and failed it, you now have to do it over again with no ammo. This is the exact reason I never finished Bioshock 2 (I was neglectful in my saving)

  26. Neurotic says:

    I also find it very much a psychological downer. It is, as you said, unrelenting, which sort of forces you to relent yourself. Heh.

  27. fish99 says:

    One last comment on this story – you picked the wrong class for a first playthrough (surely there was someone you could have asked for advice?), and I hope you’re at least playing it on hard if you’re struggling.

    You should try Doom and Doom 2 on ultra violence. I’d also say Stalker is a harder game than SS2.

  28. Audiocide says:

    It’s been a while, but SS2 definitely was not that difficult. And I’m not one to play games on “insane mode” and such just for the heck of it.

    I think you’re having an emotional response that makes very little sense. I’d guess that you simply don’t like the game (not the end of the world), and having a hard time rationalizing it because it’s supposed to be a cult classic or whatever.

  29. Hahaha says:

    And the opinion drops even more….not played ss2……disgrace

  30. Bweahns says:

    I always played SS2 as a hacker who went around boncing monkeys and robits on the head with a spanner. I was extremely niggardly with my ammunition and would get skilled enough to use an assault rifle and that was it for weapons other than exotic which I always had fun using.

    That’s the tri optimum way.

  31. ankh says:

    John I demand to know exactly what it is that you were doing in 1999 that you thought was more important than playing SS2.

  32. Premium User Badge

    jrodman says:

    Just played it a bunch for the first time.

    I think this game pushes me far too hard to use the quicksave all the time, which ultimately defeats engagement.

    I think this sort of structure suited DOOM really well. Lots of action sequences, you can struggle to master them, either from the start of the level or sequence by sequence. Replaying them for the action makes a kind of sense.

    In Ssystem Shock 2, however, replaying sequences just kind of bleeds the life out of the game. No more thrill of discovery or shock of encountering the unexpected. Just “yeah, smash this again, loot that again, o i forgot to get the so and so, I thought I did that before the save..” which takes more attention than actually playing.

    I’m tempted to install some kind of godmode or something just so I won’t have to repeat parts of the game but that would kind of break the game in a different way. Helpless and weak and failing is a decent game structure but it should probably have a fail-and-continue model, (ie you lose something you care about but the game continues) or a fail entirely model like roguelikes.