I must confess that I only played through System Shock 2, released way back in 1999, for the first time just last week. While this could be considered sacrilege by other hard core PC gamers like myself, back then I was dirt poor university student who could only afford the occasional title, and a First Person Shooter (FPS) / Role Playing Game (RPG) hybrid didn't really appeal to me. Not to mention I was still deeply addicted to Starcraft which was released the year before. Of course I'm kicking myself now because this is one of the best games ever made, period.
During the late 90s PC gaming had begun to evolve, especially in the FPS genre. Games like Jedi Knight and Half-Life had changed everyone's conception of the genre which until then had been defined mostly by simple action titles like Doom and Quake. All of a sudden storytelling was shaping game-play with flowing narrative structures influencing level design and player progression. Shooters were beginning to feel like they took place in a real, constructed world instead of a thinly related series of interconnected levels. System Shock 2 was the next logical step, a then unique blend of styles. In this case they were shooter, role playing and survival horror.
While technically a sequel (to a game I once again haven't played yet) System Shock 2 is completely enjoyable without any prior knowledge of the previous game. A helpful recap fills the player in on the near destruction of earth by the insane computer AI SHODAN sometime in the near future. Years after that incident mankind has designed a faster-than-light star-ship and has started to explore the universe. Of course things go terribly wrong on its maiden voyage and now you are all alone with no memory on the slowly deteriorating ship which is now nearly devoid of human life and crawling with hostile alien horrors.
The most amazing thing about the game is the atmosphere which is thick and oppressive despite the now dated visuals. Sound plays the most important factor, especially the fully voiced audio logs you pick up off the dead personnel which slowly unravel the terrible events that occurred. It's a great way to tell the story without breaking the flow of the game-play caused by traditional cut-scenes. The world goes on as you listen to these logs and you can even be attacked mid sentence by wandering foes. The same goes when you open your inventory or look at your map. Add to that the limited resources such as ammo and health, security cameras that summon hostiles, and the creepy sounds of the monsters as they relentless stalk you down the corridors, and you've got a survival horror experience second to none.
The well acted audio logs and other verbal communications really suck you into the world. When SHODAN finally returns (which isn't really a spoiler since she's on the bloody box art) the whole situation changes as you're forced to work with her and follow her instructions to defeat the alien infestation. She is not just some end boss you must fight. She's a constant presence that frequently gloats and taunts you as she guides you through the twisting maze of the ship. You grow to hate and be very afraid of SHODAN, the constant threat of inevitable betrayal hanging just over your head. I can't recall another game with such as brilliantly executed antagonist.
Then there is the RPG system which allows you to grow stronger throughout the game and tackle obstacles in various ways. You can try and blast your way through the alien horde in typical FPS fashion using fire arms and melee weapons, but the limited resources can make that challenging. You're better off mixing it up with your hacking, research and modify skills to increase the potency of your weapons, exploit enemy weaknesses and even find completely alternative solutions. There are also Psi powers (sci-fi equivalent of magic spells) you can use to turn the odds in your favor, such as absorbing damage, stunning opponents or even turning invisible allowing you to slip right past the increasing difficult and disturbing enemies.
You also have a RPG style inventory to manage with a limited amount of space to carry all the weapons, ammo, health kits and other useful items you'll need during the course of the game. You'll frequently have to choose between which items to carry and which to discard which can be a deadly gamble. Some items allow you instantly hack doors and terminals, or repair faulty weapons which can be useful if you haven't chosen those particular skills. Many of these are lying about the ship which encourage thorough exploration, and additional items can be purchased from vending machines with currency you can find. You can also equip armor and attach implants which boost your skills or provided you new ones once researched, like consuming alien worms for health!
The star-ship itself is a major achievement in both setting and level design. While you always have a clearly mark goal to achieve and a map to help you find it, you can explore and backtrack through the ship's multiple decks and locales as much as you like. While the progression of your objectives is completely linear, the exact path you take to complete them is up to you. The game also remembers the location of every single item and enemy so you can always return to a half empty supply room or pick up an item you discarded an hour ago because you couldn't quite stuff it into your inventory. With so many elements to play with along with the randomly wandering enemies, each replay is a different experience.
Played today the game holds up incredibly well. To my knowledge there is simply no other game quite like it. 2000's Deus Ex would also blend FPS and RPG game-play to bring about what is often referred to as the greatest game of all time, but it has a very different feel to System Shock 2 even if it shared the cyber-punk aesthetic and many of the same features. Deus Ex had a much greater emphasis on the RPG aspects, stealth and nonlinear game-play. Even 2007's spiritual successor Bioshock feels completely different. Besides being a blatant copy of its predecessor right down to the big midpoint story twist, its dual development for the PC and the more dominant and profitable consoles of today caused many of System Shock 2's signature features to be dumbed down or exorcised completely, and the difficulty was scaled back so far that it simply doesn't have the same challenge or menacing tone.
Its a good thing then that System Shock 2 runs beautifully under modern systems. However it does require a little a bit of tinkering to get it working smoothly. Fan sites such as the Strangebedfellows Modification Archive have quite a few tools and guides for download that fix incompatibilities and bug fixes while adding features such as true wide-screen and multiprocessor support. They also provide a few enhancements for the game's aging presentation such as improved textures, weapons and enemy models. Just as importantly the game is also supported by Creative's ALchemy utility which restores full surround sound and EAX features which are no longer supported natively under Windows Vista and 7.
Unfortunately the game has yet to receive a complete visual revamp like the more popular classics like Quake, Duke Nukem 3D or Deus Ex. Already behind the times when first released, System Shock 2's visuals are merely serviceable and rather quite plain even with all the mods available. It is a testament then to it's outstanding game and sound design that it leaves such a lasting impression regardless. Other minor niggles include the functional but somewhat clumsy interface which takes a little while to get used to, as well as the continual degrading of your weapons which will annoy some players more than others. Thankfully that particular quirk could be disabled with the latest patch. More aggravating however is the terrible floating jumping physics (even for the time) which will drive you a little crazy yourself, especially after a drastic scenery change near the end which recalls Half-Life's equally infuriating Xen finale.
Even with the above problems System Shock 2 is an amazing gaming experience then and now. It is a wonderful blend of complementing game styles with plenty of depth and substance. If you already haven't experienced this classic, don't wait another ten years to do so.