System Shock

Posted by Martin Dietz.
First posted on 25 September 1998. Last updated on 12 August 2009.
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System Shock
System Shock is the poster child of mixed genre games.
System Shock
Fighting is a vital gameplay element in System Shock.
System Shock
The word on the wall tells the horror tale of the Citadel.
System Shock
System Shock is a ground breaking game with addictive gameplay.
System Shock
The game interface is complex but intuitative.

System Shock may in fact be an adventure game, but different from other adventure games of today you do not just roam around triggering the next story element. Indeed, your actions are not tied only to the plotline. So, maybe it is not an adventure game at all.

System Shock may in fact be a role-playing game, but different from other role-playing games of today you do not just about complete many generic quests to advance your character stats. Indeed, this game has a full story with unique character developments. So, maybe it is not a role-playing game at all.

System Shock may in fact be an action shooter, but different from other action shooters of today you do not just run around killing everyone in sight. Indeed, you need to think about more than just health and ammo. So, maybe it is not an action shooter at all.

System Shock, simply stated, is all three of the above wrapped into one!

In System Shock, you are a hacker who has illegally entered the databases of the Citadel, a space station in the Earth's orbit that is owned by the powerful corporation TriOptimum. When you are caught in the act, rather than suffering the brand of justice only to be dictated by the mighty TriOptimum, the Chief of Security Edward Diego proposes to you another deal—a chance for freedom and a reward of a neural cyberspace implant, if you can successfully hack into SHODAN, the Citadel's artificial intelligence. You agree and receive your cyberjack implants to carry out this devious task. Unfortunately, after awaking from your 6-month healing stasis, you learn that SHODAN has taken control of the entire space station and has killed or mutated the whole crew on board. Now the corridors are guarded by only mutants and robots. To make matters worse, SHODAN is preparing to fire a mining beam to Earth which can destroy the whole of mankind. Since you feel responsible for this mess, you decide to try to stop SHODAN. You must disable the laser and prevent SHODAN's plan to infect the planet with a mutation virus while loading its mind into all the computers on Earth. At the end, you find yourself destroying the Citadel and facing SHODAN in a final showdown in Cyberspace.

System Shock is made by Looking Glass Technologies, the same developer responsible for Ultima Underworld. The game uses an upgraded engine from Ultima Underworld which is then enhanced to improve gameplay. These enhancements include the ability to crouch, to lean from side to side, and to fly in a hovercraft. The original version runs in standard VGA mode under DOS. This title is among the few games I have played which are more restrictive regarding memory setting when installing than actually playing. The game can also be run under Windows 95 or 98, but only in full screen DOS window mode.

The music in System Shock is context sensitive. It changes based on which room or situation you are in the game. The main theme plays a very rhythmic tune but changes to a soft elevator musical tune whenever you change levels inside the Citadel. The original Floppy Disk version has no spoken text, but the Enhanced version has full audio speech on CD-ROM. The Enhanced version features full speech for all logs, an enhanced animated introduction and endgame, the ability to play directly from the CD without hard disk installation, enhanced animated texture mapping in over ten levels, Super VGA graphics, and prototypical headset support. The original version uses 128x128 as well as 64x64 texture maps, whereas the Enhanced version uses only 128x128 texture maps. The game engine allows for special lighting effects such as pools of light, regions of shadow, and flickering lights and flashes, as well as sophisticated physics such as variable gravity and recoil effects. Game resolution can be adjusted on the fly from 320x200 to 640x480.

The user interface in System Shock uses both keyboard and mouse. Gameplay is through a first person viewpoint. Interaction is triggered by double-clicking, movement is by dragging the mouse to the desired direction, and fighting is done by right clicking. There are hotkeys for moving and changing the view angle. Once you are used to the mouse control, the keyboard control is rarely needed. An auto-map is available which can be enlarged to full screen.

When you start a new game, you can choose the difficulty for the game's 4 main components—Combat, Puzzle, Cyber, and Mission. You can adjust the game to suit your needs. The difficulty level in each component can be set from 0 to 3. In Combat, 0 denotes feeble enemies which never attack first while 3 denotes enemies that are stronger and more numerous. In Mission, 0 denotes that all plot elements are removed while 3 denotes that time limit is imposed on the game. In Puzzle, 0 denotes that all puzzles are solved instantly while 3 denotes that most puzzles are more difficult. In Cyber, 0 denotes that time limit, control, combat are very easy while 3 denotes that time limit, combat, and control are harder. By setting Mission and Puzzle to high while setting Cyberspace and Combat to low, the game behaves like an adventure. To the opposite end, by setting Combat and Cyber to high while setting Puzzles and Mission to low, the game behaves like an action shooter. During the game you often have to visit the Cyber in order to open locked doors, obtain information such as access codes, or upgrade your combat and defense software. There are a lot of logic puzzles spread throughout the game, thus brute force fighting may not be the best strategy to win.

Although this game is advertised as a role-playing game, the mission component is relatively easy to solve. The main difficulty of this game is traveling to places where you have to perform your task and then making it to the next healing station before dying. The logic puzzles sometimes require a lot of thought, but your can find some assistance from various e-mail or electronic logs received throughout the game.

The enticing story and unique gameplay are definitely the highlights for this game. You really sense the feeling of being there, and the story carries a lot of surprises. Visits to the Cyberspace also add a lot of atmosphere to the gameplay. A major weakness of this game is the excessive and constant running—you are always in a hurry to either get to a healing station before you die or obtain an item that is only available for a limited time. Fans of role-playing games may be disappointed with the limited character development which is essentially limited to weapons upgrade, whereas fans of adventure games may be disappointed with the simplicity of most puzzles.

Overall, System Shock is an unique game that combines adventure, role-playing, and action elements into a single coherent interactive experience. It is one of the best games I have ever played. Its graphics may not shine compared to today's games, but its unique style definitely outshines today's titles.

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