System Shock: Enhanced Edition

System Shock is still capable of raising your heart rate twenty years later

Game Review by Andrew Gordon | 24 Nov 2015
Game title: System Shock: Enhanced Edition
Publisher: Night Dive Studios
Release date: 22 September
Price: £6.99

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of Looking Glass Studios on the modern first-person game. As well as launching the careers of some of the industry’s household names – Warren Spector, Ken Levine and Doug Church, to name but a few – the studio pioneered the “immersive sim” genre, a more story oriented and exploration focused brand of first person shooter that’s gone on to inspire titles as diverse as BioShock, Dishonored, Gone Home and, most recently, Fallout 4.

Despite attaining negligible commercial success or mainstream recognition during its mere decade in business, today Looking Glass holds a considerable cachet among contemporary developers and has become something like the video game equivalent of a 'band’s band' (think Big Star or Nick Drake) – a trendy influence to drop when eager to prove your bonafides. To namecheck Looking Glass, however, is to do more than draw upon certain stylistic aesthetic sensibilities; it’s to subscribe to an entire design philosophy that’s actually quite rare in modern major studio efforts, one that has confidence in the player to work things out for themselves and let the world do the talking.

Enter System Shock, the studio’s second project and perhaps most unadulterated distillation of their hands-off approach. Even among the studio’s relatively obscure output, System Shock is particularly underlooked. While its sequel became a cult favourite thanks to its even creepier interpretation of the series’ conniving AI villain SHODAN, the original has remained an unknown quantity, partly because running it on modern systems requires some technical know-how and partly because many aspects of the game are positively archaic. Fortunately, Night Dive Studios’ recent remaster, System Shock: Enhanced Edition, addresses both of these issues commendably but it’s the latter that deserves special attention, precisely on account of what it doesn’t do.

From a historian’s point of view Enhanced Edition is a tremendous achievement, changing just enough about the System Shock experience to make it palatable to modern audiences without compromising Looking Glass’ original vision. The most significant upgrade, besides the boost to a whopping 1024x768 resolution, is the addition of mouselook, likely the biggest barrier to entry for anyone who didn’t start playing first-person shooters until after Half Life. Not that it suddenly feels brand new though. You’ll still need to toggle the mouselook on and off in order to rifle through the enormous menus beneath and to either side of the field of view, and seeing as everything from reloading to crouching is performed through menus, you’ll be doing this a lot. Even so, it trumps the original controls, which had you either moving with the keyboard and stopping to reorient your view or steering entirely with mouse in what’s best described as a freakish mash-up between a point-and-click adventure and navigating Google Streetview – not ideal if you’ve got a convoy of kamikaze wheelie robots headed you way.

Otherwise the game remains identical, which turns out be pretty daunting a prospect by today’s standards. System Shock was intended to be obtuse, disorienting and frustrating and Night Dive respect that decision. Not only does System Shock refuse to hold your hand, it more or less throws you in the deep end with a blindfold on and your arms tied behind your back. There are no waypoints or list of objectives, nor is there a tutorial (ha!), so you’re going to have to decipher its labyrinthine interface – complete with separate graphs for measuring your heart rate, radiation exposure and “chi waves” – and manifold systems on your own, not to mention work out where you’re going or what you’re supposed to be doing. All you get to go on is a premise and a steel pipe: you’ve awoken on an eerily quiet space ship with a distress call on your radio receiver. In the room next to you there’s a malfunctioning robot circling a bloody corpse and all you have to defend yourself with is this flimsy pole. Good luck!

Any information it does provide comes solely through spoken email messages left by the ship’s crew and the surrounding environment (sound familiar?), and it’s in this respect that one begins to grasp what an incredible achievement System Shock must have been in 1994. Think about it: while console gamers were sopping up the last dregs of the 2D platformer in the form of Donkey Kong Country and Sonic and Knuckles (or, if they were really in the know, playing Super Metroid), their PC-owning contemporaries were being treated to a game as functionally sophisticated as BioShock, employing the same principles of environmental storytelling with arguably more intricate level designs.

While System Shock’s blocky hallways are utterly rudimentary compared to the photorealistic architecture of most modern games, that greater visual fidelity has often come at the expense of topographical complexity meaning that System Shock could well give a few contemporary efforts a run for their money in terms of offering memorable, distinct spaces to explore – especially with regards to verticality. What’s more, it’s still convincingly atmospheric. From your first intrepid steps out of the medical bay to wading through the shadowy corridors of SHODAN’s undulating lair and the final, deathly silent encounter in cyberspace, System Shock is still capable of raising your heart rate twenty years later – even if the music is plainly laughable now.

Yet to see System Shock through to end is quite the undertaking, and for all its palpable historical importance, there are many more rewarding ways to spend your time with in 2015 to whole heartedly recommend putting in the requisite hours. A testament to its enduring legacy, there’s likely nothing in System Shock you haven’t seen before if you’ve played any number of exploration-based first person games in the last two decades, and while discovering these sources of inspiration first hand is initially pretty eye-opening, the thrill soon wears off when the game resorts to cheap tricks like respawning enemies and mandatory backtracking to artificially extend its longevity. Certainly though, it’s a game that deserves to be remembered and one that’s importance will only grow as time goes on, so we’re lucky to have as respectful a tribute as this to keep the history alive. Much more involving than reading a Wikipedia entry anyway.