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Remembering Citadel: System Shock versus System Shock Reboot

Comparing and contrast past and future

Suddenly, we have an embarrassment of System Shock riches. First System Shock Enhanced, then a Warren Spector-augmented System Shock 3, and now System Shock Reboot, a total remastering of the first game. It's just poor old System Shock 2 that's left in the cold, as EA jealously guard the rights to the sci-horror series' most acclaimed instalment. That's another day's concern, though: right now, let's talk about the free alpha demo released to promote System Shock Reboot's Kickstarter. When they say 'reimagining', just how much similarity and how much change does that actually mean? It's compare and contrast time, chums.

I've taken a few close-as-I-can-get-'em screenshots of both System Shock Reboot and GOG's System Shock Enhanced (whose changes are only really on the user interface and compatibility side of things), demonstrating how meticulous Reboot's recreation of Shock 1's first level is. There are layout changes, especially in the later sections, and also the original game shoves a few more enemies at you - Reboot is aiming to be a bit pacier, as tense and slow-burn as we remember Shock being, rather than the surprisingly abrupt reality of it in 2016.

Here's the first side-room, where you obtain your starting equipment from. It also shows off the way the UI's being minimised while trying to retain the essence of the original. You can see that Reboot being fully-voiced means we don't get a big block of text on the bottom of the screen when NPCs natter over the radio, though I do sort of miss the 90s cyberpunkishness of the green text and bitmapped faces.

And here's the first Humanoid Mutant encounter, right next to the legendary 451 keypad (it should be noted that Reboot has '451' scrawled in blood in foot-high letters right next to the keypad. Whether it's trying to be all iconic or just worried that people won't figure it out otherwise, I don't know). Team RPS had a brief discussion as to what the white patches on the foreheads of the original-look mutants are, in light of what we see in Reboot. Adam's years-long conviction that they are big bushy eyebrows has been tragically demolished, but I don't agree with his assertion that it's patches of exposed skull - I think it's simply light reflecting off the pate.

Crew member corpses are rather more elaborate and ghoulish now. We get sunken, terrified faces and pained slumps against walls, rather than just a comedy bone-pile on the floor. Notice how careful reboot is to even recreate the floor-tiling, by the way.

A robot-guarded room, showing off the difference more realistic lighting can make in conjuring drama and menace but also that Reboot absolutely does not ditch Shock's trademark blue hues for contemporary browns and greys.

Shooting is, naturally, a whole lot more fluid and responsive than the first game's light, mechanical gunplay. The only weapon Reboot does provide is appropriately under-powered though: a slow zap that affords an enemy enough time to get frighteningly close. Going on this, Shock has definitely not gone BioShock in terms of action.

Granted I'm lighting the scene a little more with a zap-o-blast, but just to demonstrate what Reboot looks like when you're ambushed by a Repair Bot in a dark corner, compared to the almost impractical darkness of the original game.

And here are a few general shots of Reboot, just to show off how it's doing lighting and atmosphere.

It's a pretty thing, though inevitably not quite as high-end as a DOOM or Battlefield (it's made in Unity, and the lazy cynic in me wants to say that I can always spot a Unity game, but I don't really think that's fair at all). Whether to mask this or simply in the name of tribute, it does a few things to more closely resemble the DOS game look of the original. First and foremost there's the pervasive blueness, of course, but also check out these textures, most apparent on screens, terminals and electrical panels:

(Click for a bigger version). Concious faux-DOS right there. I half like it as a stylistic thing, and half think it doesn't quite gel with the lovely lighting and shadowing, and becomes more of a distraction than a signature aesthetic. This demo is clearly marked as pre-alpha though, so we can doubtless expect all manner of tinkering with this style in the finished game, due this December.

There's also a climactic moment in the demo, where it very much sets out its stall as being a beautiful, dramatic modern game, not a slavish remake. A vast view of space, planets and the outside of the citadel, as music which sounds a little like Garry Schyman's brilliant BioShock score swells. Reboot is faithful in so many ways, but retro it does not want to be.

One thought I had while playing the Reboot demo is that it feels a little like what I think many of us believed/hoped BioShock 1 would be, before discovering that it leaned a lot more towards the FPS side of things than its System Shock legacy. There are little pop-up messages when looking at or trying to use things (though most are too brief or say 'nothing' for the time being), there are all sorts of items to poke at (sometimes pointlessly, but maybe that's the point?), and the pace is slow, combat consciously awkward. That said, revisiting the first game to this extent, rather than our usual touchstone of the more RPG-infused Shock 2, reveals that, perhaps, BioShock was an awful lot closer to the first Shock than we gave it credit for. Shock is far more dialled down, yes, but there are a great many structural similarities.

I think Reboot is aiming to be Memory System Shock, recreating what the game felt like to us as young folk in the early 90s, and going on this it's got a strong shot at getting away with it. It is perhaps in a slightly uncomfortable middleground between retro and modern and sometimes feels a touch clumsy for it, but I'm reasonably confident that polish can sort that out. Obviously anything might change in the full game, depending on how much more comfortable Night Dive are to depart from the original's structure, but I'm certainly willing to give them my confidence based on this.

Also: there is very deliberately no SHODAN yet. A smart move, I think: an ace to be kept up the sleeve.

The System Shock Reboot Kickstarter is live now, and currently it has $580,231 pledged towards its $900,000 goal. The pre-alpha demo can be grabbed from Steam or GOG.

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