I've spent a few days getting to know System Shock 2.
The narrative seems to bridge back to the original System Shock, and I get that feeling that I should have tried to hunt down the old game, but I'd rather not be tied down by that. I think my mission in playing this is to understand why people tend to think of SS2 fondly, and compare it to Bioshock, often saying SS2 was the better of the two.
In that regard so far, I can say:
The game is much more brutal about builds. In true complex RPG fashion I had to restart my game because the build I'd selected was inadequate. I would have liked to have at least a baseline of competence in the fields where the Navy is said to practice, but instead I wound up picking stuff that didn't really help.
That said, the amount of options feel a lot less fluid, in a good way. You decide to go down a path and you get a different experience, though as to how different I'm not quite sure. I can't reach the loot on that ledge, but I get access to a box with loot. I don't get that much damage with a puny pistol, but can research the chilled monkey brains to get a bonus to damage.
The narrative itself is fairly straightforward so far, although I'm not far along really so there could be changes. I've actually stopped listening to tapes, which is probably not a good idea, but I miss the ability from Bioshock to hit "T" when you find a new tape recorder. Here the interface in general is a bit less than optimized, even though there's a lot more to manage here than in Bioshock. Enjoying SHODAN and XERXES voice acting so far.
The Thief engine, an engine I love, I think works better in the dark than it does in well-lit, antiseptic corridors. I find it hard to get past some of the polygonal bodies... I actually think it would be easier for me to have empathy for the sprites of the first System Shock than these guys, but it could be down to how I largely skipped over the early 3D gaming days from the sprites before them. Still, the engine does have its familiar quirks too, where I'm never quite sure where I am with regard to the platform I'm trying to leap to (thankfully the vaulting mechanic saves this from being a rage quit for me).
The game REALLY opens up when you hit engineering, such that it's rather intimidating, and the turrets are often so fast and so deadly that I find it a major stopping point when I hit a room with those. At least with my restart I can use shotguns now, hack more efficiently, and mod weapons a little bit (though being told that I can put 24 bullets in a clip on the pistol makes me laugh, since I rarely have that many. The next mod makes reloading the bullets I don't have faster!). Will probably try to buy a point in maintenance so I don't have to scrounge weaponry all the time.
Despite the wonkiness, I'm glad that the customization goes beyond clicking off stats. You can use the environment to your advantage, hide behind one guy while another guy accidentally shoots him, crush a robot with an elevator, that sort of thing. Emergent situations, I guess, although a lot of the potential for these moments is telegraphed to allow the player to take advantage of them.
In all I see WHY Bioshock is so closely related, even basic mechanical similarities, like alcohol giving a boost to your health but subtracting psi, or the ancestor to the Vita Chamber that many seemed resent in Bioshock, or the chirpy vending machines, all feel like a direct philosophical copy-paste. I'm cool with that, though I'm still wondering if, along the line, my current build will be obsolete and I'll have to start over again; Bioshock at least had momentum in that regard. I do wish that Bioshock had a bit more possibility when it came to customizing, though I'm not sure I would have liked it so much if it had been quite as final with the changes as System Shock 2 is... maybe an experimental grace period?
The games feel different enough that I don't think I can say one is superior to another; SS2 feels more flexible with choices but more rigid when you make them, and it's got the disadvantage of being an older game with a rougher interface, while Bioshock, if you strip away the derivative stuff, is stronger in the interface, but the choices you make, apart from the little sister stuff which I've said I liked, feel largely inconsequential since you're never bound to anything, and pretty much get everything, and more than you can use, by the time you're done. I wonder if Bioshock Infinite's 1999 mode will be a compromise as far as character builds are concerned.
Will report back from the station when I learn more!