The original System Shock is widely considered to be one of the most important games to have been released. Despite the original’s dated controls and UI, System Shock is the game that can largely be credited with the birth of the immersive sim as a genre. Just short of three decades after the original’s release, we now have the System Shock remake. Developed by Nightdive Studios, the System Shock remake hopes to be as faithful as it can be to the original, all while bringing the game up to modern standards.
We can’t really say much about System Shock without first talking about its gameplay. Largely inspired by the big first-person RPGs of its times—titles like the Ultima Underworld series and other dungeon crawlers like Eye of the Beholder—System Shock still feels a lot like a classic dungeon crawling game. The key difference, of course, is that it’s a first-person shooter with a sci-fi cyberpunk setting. With the remake, one of the first things that struck me is just how well done the new UI is. Rather than having to deal with the clunky UI from 1994, System Shock’s remake feels like a modern title.
Owing to the high level of interactivity in System Shock, the original had you using your mouse to not only look around and fight, but also to deal with several menus, depending on what you wanted to do. Want to pick something up from around you? You’ll have to switch away from aiming mode and manually drag that item into your inventory. Even simpler aspects that we take for granted these days—reloading a gun—was a cumbersome thing to do in the original.
"Even reloading a gun was a cumbersome thing to do in the original"
The remake gives us modern shooter controls along with an in-depth interface to deal with several things, from character progression to inventory management to even checking out all the audio diaries you might have picked up throughout the game. At no point in the System Shock remake did I ever feel like I was actively fighting the game’s interface to try and accomplish simple things.
A major thing the remake brings back that might have been better off either cut or redesigned entirely is System Shock’s cyberspace hacking mechanic. At several points in the game, you’ll find yourself needing to hack a machine, which essentially involves heading into cyberspace to play an arcade-styled 3D shooter where you have six degrees of freedom. While technically impressive for their time, these segments are incredibly out of place in the greater context of the game, and would have been better off being redesigned into something more interesting in the remake.
The other core part of gameplay revolves quite a bit on exploration and combat, and System Shock doesn’t really do anything new here. The enemies are essentially the same as the original—albeit with a fresh coat of paint—and the environments are as maze-like as they’ve ever been.
"A major thing the remake brings back that might have been better off either cut or redesigned entirely is System Shock’s cyberspace hacking mechanic."
It’s worth keeping in mind that, while System Shock as a franchise has a reputation of being well-done horror, the first System Shock never really felt like a horror game. Like I said earlier in the review, System Shock feels more like a dungeon crawler than a horror game, and the remake hangs on to this aspect of the original as well. Sure, the primary antagonist, the AI SHODAN, is still as creepy as ever in all her glory, but she’s always felt like a constant watchful eye rather than something that would cause you direct harm, like Mr. X from Resident Evil 2 or Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2.
The remake for System Shock is incredibly faithful to the original, even down to the post-death scene you get to see of your character becoming unwillingly enslaved to SHODAN’s will. I would also go far as to say that the remake might just be faithful to a fault. Some of the more archaic aspects of the original System Shock, like the game’s maze-like level design, are back. While the mazes make more sense in the remake, exploration and backtracking has a tendency to get quite tedious, especially in the early parts of the game.
Thankfully, navigation doesn’t get too difficult because of the wonderful art direction. Rather than going for the dark and spooky atmosphere of System Shock 2, Nightdive Studios wisely stuck to the bright and colorful palette of the original. Each area of the game’s setting, the Tri-Optimum Corporation’s Citadel space station, feels incredibly distinct with their own color palettes and layouts. Even the maintenance areas have a fun level of detail to them, making identifying what zone you might be in instantly recognizable if you’ve been paying attention.
"Nightdive Studios wisely stuck to the bright and colorful palette of the original."
Visually, Nightdive Studios’ take on System Shock relies on a lo-fi art style that still maintains a high level of detail. While several textures might look low-res and pixelated, the look comes off as a deliberate choice, giving the game a unique look that goes quite well with its cyberpunk setting. Think of it as being closer to something like the tech you’d see in the classic Aliens movies rather than the sleek designs you’d see in more modern technologies or takes on the cyberpunk genre.
When it comes to telling its story, System Shock relies on a minimalistic style of storytelling. The opening cutscene does its job of giving us a protagonist with motivation. The game kicks off with our protagonist, known only as the Hacker, hacking into Tri-Optimum’s servers to steal data and technology. After getting caught, the Hacker is given a choice—get killed, or hack into the Citadel space station’s AI and disable its ethics restrictions at the command of the company’s CEO. As you might imagine, things quickly start going downhill, and after waking up from your surgeries to install new neural implants, you have to figure out what’s happening and shut down SHODAN.
After the opening cutscene, most of the storytelling in System Shock is environmental. Explore enough and you’ll find just about everything you need to piece things together, from audio logs depicting the staff of the space station fighting off security systems that are now under the command of a psychopathic AI, to even just human skulls kept in a crate next to a body of a person that seemingly killed themself in their despair. Throughout your time in the space station, SHODAN is a constant presence, keeping an eye on your every move and sending more enemies your way.
"SHODAN is a constant presence, keeping an eye on your every move and sending more enemies your way."
The writing is top-notch, and while it falls into corniness quite a few times, it never really feels out of place considering the game’s genre. System Shock’s villain, SHODAN, is considered an all-time great villain in gaming for good reason. Just about everything that comes out of her digital lips is always dripping in venom and hatred, and while SHODAN would go on to become an even better villain in the sequel, her presence in the original—and its remake—is still something to be feared.
Like I said in the opening of this review, System Shock is one of the most important games in history, kicking off the immersive sim as the genre we know today, and also introducing an iconic villain in the form of SHODAN. The remake does an incredible job of bringing System Shock to a modern gaming audience, and while its slavish devotion to being as faithful as possible to the original might have some drawbacks—I still don’t like the maze-like layout of the game’s levels—it still does a great job of being the best way to experience System Shock.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Interesting visual style; SHODAN is still an all-time great villain; The intense exploration and combat still work incredibly well in modern times.
Cyberspace hacking segments are still dumb; Maze-like level design won’t be for everyone.