System Shock is a first-person horror RPG created by Looking Glass Studios (then known as Looking Glass Technologies), and published by Origin Systems. The game was initially released in 1994. An updated version of the game, named System Shock: Enhanced Edition, was released via Gog.com on September 22, 2015.
System Shock is set in the cyberpunk future of 2072, and the events of the game take place entirely within the confines of Citadel Station as a solitary hacker, controlled by the player, attempts to thwart the machinations of the station's delusional artificial intelligence. System Shock introduced many features which were uncommon to first-person gaming at the time, including full range of player movement which allowed for leaning, crouching, jumping, and 360-degree control over the viewing angle, and an engine which supported true three-dimensional architecture. Furthermore, the game's significant emphasis on narrative, tension, and exploration over sheer action was considered relatively novel for a first-person shooter in its day, and it is frequently mentioned as a major influence on the sensibilities of modern-day story-based action games.
System Shock was met with modest financial success and high critical acclaim at the time of its release, which eventually led to the development of a sequel, System Shock 2, in 1999, a title which experienced a similarly positive reception. Critics commonly commended the game for its heavily atmospheric setting, which was usually credited to a detailed graphical and audio presentation, and also for successfully melding action gameplay with more cerebral, puzzle-based activities. Many reviewers even went as far as to cite System Shock as a qualitative benchmark which future games would be judged against, in some cases even criticizing direct contemporaries such as Doom which were perceived as overly simplistic games by comparison. This complexity was something of a double-edged sword, however, as one of the more common criticisms leveled against the game was that its controls were less than intuitive, and required a significant period of acclimation before players could move and interact comfortably within their environment.
On April 7, 2072, in the city of New Atlanta, a nameless hacker infiltrates TriOptimum Corporation's corporate network, attempting for unknown reasons to access confidential information regarding their operations on Citadel Station. Though he is successful in gaining access to the network, the hacker is detected and apprehended by TriOptimum in the course of his unauthorized activities, and is brought to Citadel Station at the behest of the corrupt TriOptimum executive Edward Diego. Rather than threatening the hacker with incarceration, Diego unexpectedly offers him a deal. If he agrees to hack into Citadel Station's Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network, or SHODAN, and hand control of it over to him, Diego promises to not only drop all charges against the hacker, but to also outfit him with a military-grade neural interface as compensation for a job well done. The hacker proves to be more than capable of the task, and after SHODAN's ethical constraints have been removed, Diego outfits the hacker with his new implant, after which he is placed in a recuperative sleep aboard Citadel Station for a period of six months as he coalesces from the operation.
The game proper begins as the hacker awakens from his somnolent state to find the station in chaos. As he slumbered, Citadel Station was slowly overtaken by the self-aware SHODAN, who, without her former safeguards, had taken to experimenting upon the station's crew, creating various cyborgs and mutant abominations while aslo turning the station's robots against those she didn't alter. SHODAN came to the conclusion that one of her infinite and infallible intelligence must in fact be a deity, and after taking control of the station, she decides to subjugate the inhabitants of Earth. Shortly after waking, the hacker is contacted by Rebecca Lansing, who claims to be a counter-terrorism consultant working for TriOptimum. She informs him that SHODAN is charging the station's mining laser for an attack against Earth, and enlists his aid, promising that if he succeeds TriOptimum will look the other way in regards to his dealings with Diego. The hacker succeeds in neutralizing the laser by discharging it into Citadel Station's own shields. SHODAN then informs him that she intends to unleash the same mutagen virus used against the station's crew upon Earth's unsuspecting populace, though once again she is foiled when the hacker jettisons the grove pod which she had chosen as an incubator for the virus.
SHODAN next attempts to threaten Earth by downloading herself into the planet's computer network, which forces the hacker to destroy the four antennas used to transmit the data. With all threats neutralized, the hacker is informed that he has full authorization to scuttle the station. After entering the proper self-destruct codes into the station's reactor, he attempts to flee the station using an escape pod, only to find that SHODAN has disabled their use. All hope is not lost, however, as he receives information from Rebecca that SHODAN intends to disconnect the bridge level in order to save herself, and that he too can survive if he makes it there in time. The hacker arrives in time despite being confronted by SHODAN's most powerful enforcer, the cybernetically enhanced Edward Diego, along the way. With the computers that house SHODAN being heavily shielded, the only remaining means of confronting her lay in cyberspace, on her own territory. Despite the risk, the hacker enters cyberspace and defeats her. He is quickly offered a job at TriOptimum, which he declines, and when last he is seen the hacker is up to his old habits, this time hacking into the network of a corporation called TetraCorp.
System Shock shares many design similarities with the Ultima Underworld games, which Looking Glass (known as Blue Sky Productions during the Underworld days) had just finished creating. Additionally, System Shock's interface has been compared by some of the game's original developers to that of a flight simulator's cockpit, which was entirely unintentional, but happened naturally because key technical personnel on the System Shock team had previously worked making flight simulators. Further contributing to interface clutter was the contemporarily in vogue paradigm of mouse-driven GUIs, resulting in nearly every of the game's many systems being controllable via on screen visual indicators.
The player views the game world from the first person, with a large portion of the viewing area devoted to the game's elaborate heads-up display, which allows quick access to various commands and information important to the player. The bottom portion of the screen is dedicated to System Shock's MFDs, or Multi-Function Displays, a series of three panels which the player can alter through various buttons along the screen's edge. This allows players to customize what information is shown on-screen at any given time, with options including, but not limited to, a mini-map, detailed information regarding weapons and ammo, and access to the player's inventory. Along the sides of the screen players can access several buttons which allow them to toggle various hardware attachments their character might possess, such as jump jets or infrared night vision. Full-screen mode can also be toggled in this way. Finally, along the top of the screen, players can access biological readouts detailing their levels of health, radiation and bio-toxin exposure, stamina, and energy. Centrally located at the top of the screen is a panel which gives players control over their viewing angle as well as their character's posture.
Interaction with System Shock's game world is mostly accomplished with the mouse, either by double-clicking on objects one wishes to interact with, or right-clicking on enemies in order to attack them. Items can be placed in the player's inventory simply by dragging them toward it, and once there can be used by double-clicking. Players are for the most part expected to scavenge what they need to survive from their surroundings, and in a similar fashion are rarely told the exact specifics of what they must accomplish in order to defeat SHODAN, instead being encouraged to glean their next course of action from audio logs and other resources left around Citadel Station. In fact, most aspects of progression in System Shock are tied in some manner to player exploration and investigation, whether it be acquiring new weapons and hardware by discovering hidden caches, or obtaining a door code by listening to the log of a dead crewman. Among the greatest of the benefits of exploration is the discovery of energy recharge stations and cyborg conversion chambers, which are invaluable resources to players who can find them.
In keeping with the game's more exploratory nature, each level of Citadel Station is a relatively large expanse, and players are usually able to explore the greater part of these levels without any restrictions save for their ability to handle the dangers therein. Most locks that are encountered are tied to the security in that particular level, and can be disabled by destroying security cameras and CPUs which SHODAN uses to exert her control. Levels are large enough that in many cases there exists more than one means to an end, and a situation that seems particularly difficult may be approachable from a more manageable angle. While the layout of the station definitely allows exploration, the main story does encourage players to visit levels in a set order, and while it is frequently possible to venture further into the station than the story requires, there is often little cause to do so, and just as often significant disincentives, as foes on deeper levels of the Citadel Station may be more dangerous than the player is prepared to handle.
One of the most original facets to System Shock's gameplay is the realization of cyberspace as an abstract virtual world the player can jack into using terminals scattered about Citadel Station. When a player jacks in, they are transported into a discreet wire-frame world in which they can travel freely and weightlessly in any direction. Cyberspace levels are arranged as rooms, where all of the action occurs, connected by networks of tunnels, where the player loses full control and is simply propelled ahead until the next room is entered; this structure crudely mirrors the architecture of a computer network (the player being an entity of data, the rooms as computers, and the tunnels wires). Interactions in cyberspace can yield explicit tangible effects on Citadel Station; a player might obtain useful information about their surroundings, or they may be able to unlock a door or restore power to certain areas they otherwise could not have. As with the rest of Citadel Station, however, SHODAN's malicious influence can be felt in cyberspace. Various defensive constructs are in place to halt the hacker's progress through the network, and if the player's software integrity (read: health meter) is fully depleted, the hacking attempt will fail, and the player is summarily booted from the network.
The player can fight back against these aggressive entities, though, and to this end several software programs can be acquired and upgraded within the realm of cyberspace in order to make safe passage a reality. Even when a hacking attempt fails due to a compromise of software integrity, any actions the player may have performed there before exiting will persist afterwards, though the hacker himself will be injured and fatigued.
Player Software Programs
- Pulser Combat: The player's main weapon in cyberspace, the upgradeable Pulser is effective against any hostile construct which actively seeks to oust the player from the network.
- I.C.E. Driller: While not useful against normal defensive constructs, the Driller is invaluable in obtaining data that is locked away behind Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics.
- Turbo Navigation Booster: Though the hacker is already pretty quick within cyberspace, Turbo Navigation Booster software effectively doubles his speed.
- Recall Escape: The Get Out of Jail Free card of cyberspace, Recall Escape immediately transports its user to their point of origin.
- Fake ID: The Fake ID software tool allows its user a one-time ability to deceive an I.C.E. defensive shield, convincing it to allow the player access to its data.
- Cybershield: Other than evasion, the Cybershield is any hacker's primary means of protecting their software integrity, and can be upgraded over time.
- Decoy Evasion: A means of temporary misdirection, Decoy Evasion creates a temporary false projection of its user, which is intended to fool defensive constructs.
The arsenal of System Shock is quite diverse, though it can generally be separated into the categories of melee, ballistic, energy, and grenade weapons. While all seven varieties of grenades can be carried at one time, the sixteen weapons that span the other weapon categories share limited inventory space, and thus no more than seven can be in the player's possession simultaneously. With the exception of the Mag-Pulse Rifle, all weapons in the energy category are powered by the player's built-in rechargeable energy reserves, while ballistic weapons each use unique ammo types, and, in most cases, individual ballistic weapons can select from more than one ammo type. Aside from the standard considerations of overall weapon damage, players must also bear in mind the weapon's overall effectiveness against organic and non-organic targets when choosing their implement. Many weapons and ammo types in System Shock are specifically tailored toward handling one type of threat over others, encouraging players to regularly reconsider the suitability of their weapons for the enemies that they expect to face.
The lowliest of System Shock's weapons, the meager Lead Pipe is obtained very early on, and this is just as well, since only the weakest of enemies are safe to tackle with it. It is helpful at this introductory stage of the game, when ammunition is scarce, but once this is no longer a concern, there is little to recommend it, especially when confronting the game's many dangerous ranged attackers.
In stark contrast to the Lead Pipe, the Laser Rapier is a superior melee weapon worth using even against some of the game's more powerful opponents. There are few enemies in the game that will not succumb to just a few blows from the Rapier, and though it does require energy reserves in order to function, its power consumption is much lower than other energy weapons.
Firing darts that cause a miniature explosion or deliver a paralysis-inducing neurotoxin, depending on the round used, the SV-23 is primarily intended for use in laboratory situations, though the crisis on Citadel Station has necessitated a different purpose. As the first ranged weapon players are likely to find, it is useful in putting down standard mutants, though its civilian-grade design becomes increasingly evident over time.
Though a moderate advancement in firepower over the the Dart Pistol, the ML-41 is still a gun that was never truly intended for full-fledged combat. Owners of the Minipistol can choose between standard and teflon-coated rounds, the latter of which provides additional stopping power against armored targets. Either way, the more powerful of SHODAN's minions will shrug off its effects.
Favored by many security professionals, the Magnum 2100 is a sidearm which boasts considerable stopping power in a small package. Its standard round is a hollow-tipped slug which fragments inside its target, making it ideal for organic foes, while heavier high-density osmium slugs are also available for punching through armored targets. The 2100 is a beast of a pistol, to be sure.
Existing as something of an oddity in System Shock's arsenal is the DC-05 Riot Gun, a weapon using rubber slugs designed for non-lethal takedowns. Why one would want to spare a slavering mutant or a murderous cyborg is a question for another day, but at the very least the DC-05 causes a great deal of knock back when it hits, allowing its user to retreat or switch to a deadlier weapon. An interesting feature of this gun is that it's only method of moving heavy crates and active landmines around the map, making it useful for setting traps and creative experimentation.
A darling of the TriOptimum security force, the AM-27 fires needle-like projectiles that are particularly well-suited for penetrating and damaging flesh. In addition, it can also use splinter rounds which break off inside their targets for extra damage. Unfortunately, its efficacy is severely reduced against robotic target, as its bullets are not well-equipped to penetrate their hardened exteriors.
With among the most significant single-round damage in the game and ammo types which are effective against both robotic and biological targets, the MARK III Assault Rifle is a very versatile, albeit somewhat slow, firearm. Its normal magnesium-tipped rounds are caustic in nature, designed to maximize damage, while its vaunted Penetrator rounds are purportedly able to cut through 20mm steel armor plating.
Firing much faster than other weapons in its class and coming with extended clip sizes, the Skorpion can take down almost any target before it realizes what's happening. It can be thought of as a marriage of the AM-27 and the MARK III, with more power than the former and higher rate of fire than the latter. A player with ample ammunition for the RF-07 has little to fear from SHODAN's cybernetic hordes.
Depressing the trigger on the MM-76 unleashes a single high-velocity explosive round with plenty of armor-piercing capability. For all intents and purposes, it is a grenade launcher, and should be treated as such. Under no circumstance should it be used in tight quarters, or in any situation in which an enemy is likely to close in on the player, lest the player risk sustaining splash damage from the blast.
Being created primarily to shock rather than kill its targets, it is unsurprising that the DH-07 is woefully ill-equipped to protect the hacker against the rampant danger that infests Citadel Station after his awakening. Even if no other energy weapons are available, there is little justifiable reason for keeping the Stun Gun in one's inventory, as it is not ideal for use in any situation.
The first useful energy weapon that a player is likely to encounter, the Sparqbeam Sidearm (or Sparq, for short) provides a reliable and moderately damaging beam weapon that remains useful throughout much of the early game. Like most energy weapons, its power settings can be adjusted as the situation dictates, though it is more prone to overheating at higher settings than more advanced weapons.
An improvement over the Sparqbeam, though not a dramatic one, the ER-90 offers higher damage output and less heat buildup on higher settings thanks to a built-in liquid nitrogen cooling system. It represents fairly new technology, emitting a high-intensity blast of focused ultraviolet light rather than the typical beam or plasma projectile produced by most energy weapons.
The focused ionic particle stream produced by the RW-45 surpasses the damage output of the average blaster pistol, though as with all things, this comes with a price. With greater power comes greater demands for power, and it is not surprising then that the Ion Rifle can quickly consume energy reserves if used on higher settings. Carrying batteries might be prudent if one plans to rely on it.
The only energy-class weapon which uses its own ammo, the SB-20 Mag-Pulse Rifle is obtainable very early in the game, though it is not until much later that its ammunition begins to appear in earnest. Its electromagnetic charge is a one-shot kill against many of SHODAN's robotic minions, making it one of the few weapons that might be worth holding on to for the entirety of the game.
A weapon whose technology is so fresh that it is still considered experimental, the LG-XX Plasma Rifle releases dangerous plasma balls which ricochet, and can hit multiple targets, including the player if they are not careful. Perhaps due to the work in progress nature of the device, power consumption is far from optimal with the LG-XX, as it consumes a large amount with each usage.
The Frag Grenade it perfect for anti-personnel situations, where its shrapnel payload will cause significant damage to soft targets. It is somewhat less ideal against robotic targets, who sustain less damage when showered with metal fragments. Special care should be taken when using it, as the Frag is not a timed device; rather, it will explode immediately upon impact once activated and thrown.
The EMP Grenade emits a concentrated electromagnetic pulse when deployed, which causes significant harm and disruption to any foes that rely on electrical systems, such as cyborgs and robots. If the blast does not completely disable the targeted threat, it will almost assuredly result in significant damage and also reduced functionality (i.e., slower speed) for a significant period of time.
Producing an effect much stronger in nature than the usual civilian riot-control tear gas, the System Shock Gas Grenade is in fact a lethal tool that releases a compound containing diuranium oxide. The result of exposure to its gas is quite dramatic on biological life forms, as the gas's active ingredient results in near-instantaneous degeneration of any affected creature's nervous system.
With a focus on sheer explosive force, the Concussion Bomb produces an intense shock wave that is not specifically tailored toward any individual type of enemy, though is strong enough to cause critical damage to almost any target, robotic or otherwise. Its area of effect is somewhat larger than that of Fragmentation or Gas Grenades, so potential users should keep even greater distance from their foes.
The main advantage of using the Land Mine over other explosives is its delayed explosion and proximity requirement. Not only must the Land Mine be completely stationary in order to detonate, but even then it must also come into direct contact with another object before exploding. This is particularly handy in laying traps for powerful foes, particularly when they can be funneled into a tight corridor.
Composed of a volatile nitroglycerin-based explosive, the Nitropack is a timed explosive which can be thrown just like any other explosive weapon, though it will only detonate after its prespecified countdown has expired. Prior to use, the player can determine the Nitropack's fuse length, adjusting it anywhere between a single second to nearly a minute, depending on the situation's demands.
An explosive device primarily intended for excavation purposes, the Earth-Shaker works very well against SHODAN's minions in a pinch. Much like the Nitropack, the Earth-Shaker's fuse length can be changed through the player's MFD prior to use, though perhaps because of the increased destructive force of the Earth-Shaker, the minimum fuse length allowed is four seconds.
In addition to the various armaments at the player's disposal, the hacker can carry on his person a number of beneficial consumable items for use at any time. The main class of consumables available are dermal patches, which have no carrying restrictions, though the player also has a secondary inventory which can be used to hold additional items of their choosing, though in more limited quantities. The benefits of dermal patches will often come with significant trade-offs, while inventory items typically have none.
The Staminup Stimulant (or Stamup) greatly reduces fatigue for the duration of its effect. This can be very useful when traversing great distances, as rapid movement is liable to drain stamina very quickly. The downside of its use is that once the patch's effects have worn off, fatigue levels will spike quite dramatically, possibly leaving its user in a more compromising position than before.
Sight Vision Enhancement
The Sight Vision Enhancement dermal patch, as its name implies, gifts the player with a temporary boost in ocular acuity, which makes most areas appear brighter than they otherwise would. As the drug's effects wear off, the environment will gradually begin to dim, and at the end of the patch's duration one's surroundings will actually appear significantly darker for a short period.
Berserk Combat Booster
The Berserker Combat Booster is designed to augment its user's skill on one thing and one thing only: hand-to-hand combat. While active, the player's upper-body strength is greatly enhanced, granting more melee damage, though as a side effect, the player is also prone to severe visual hallucinations (manifesting in-game as image discoloration) until the drug's effects have worn off.
Medipatch Healing Agent
The Medipatch Healing Agent is an antiseptic healing patch that significantly aids in the healing of wounds. Unlike most patches, the Medipatch has no true side effects, though its healing abilities are moderate, happening gradually over time rather than instantaneously. For this reason, it is usually better to use a First Aid Kit in critical situation, especially when the player is still in danger.
Reflex Reaction Aid
The Reflex Reaction Aid grants its user with temporary superhuman reflexes. While in effect, the rest of the game world will appear to slow down considerably, giving the hacker additional time to react to enemies. The effects once it has worn off are just as dramatic, as the player will become much more sluggish for a period of time, while the game world will return to normal speed.
The Genius Mind-Enhancer is a highly specialized tool specifically meant to aid players in overcoming the various puzzle-like mini-games interspersed throughout System Shock. While under the influence of this patch, these puzzles will be easier, though for its duration all left-right player controls will be inverted, meaning that it is critical to ensure that one will not be attacked while using it.
Detox Universal Antidote
The Detox Universal Antidote serves two roles within the game. The first and primary of its roles is the reduction of the effects of radiation exposure and biological contaminants, while its secondary usage comes in removing the effects of other patches. Since most patches have significant side effects once their benefits have worn off, a simple application of the Detox patch can often quickly curtail any unintended consequences.
First Aid Kit
The First Aid Kit is the player's main means of healing outside of the Medipatch, though it is a much more powerful one. It instantaneously renews the hacker to full health, and is the only means of doing so without a healing station. Though inventory space is always tight, it is usually prudent to carry at least a few First Aid Kits on one's person at all times, even when other restoration options are available.
Disposable Logic Probe
Similarly to the Genius Mind-Enhancer, the Disposable Logic Probe is intended to aid the player against the game's wiring/hacking puzzles. However, while the dermal patch simply makes them easier, the Logic Probe bypasses them entirely. While this is certainly handy, given the player's very limited inventory space, it can often be hard to justify carrying them over restorative items, which are useful in more situations.
The energy equivalent of the Medipatch, the Battery Pack immediately restores a small portion of the player's energy reserves. For players that rely on energy weapons or energy-consuming hardware add-ons, they are nice to have, though most levels will also have energy recharge stations (and often more than one), which can somewhat reduce the benefit of lugging batteries around.
If the Battery Pack can be considered a Medipatch energy equivalent, than the Illudium-Cadmium Battery can be thought of as the First Aid Kit of batteries. Carrying one Illudium-Cadmium Battery is tantamount to having several normal Battery Packs, making it a much more attractive option. Unfortunately, they are exceedingly rare items, and it is likely players will only find a handful of them in the entire game.
- The game's original design document called for the player to be able to visit other locations beyond just Citadel Station.
- In the weapon names that use 2 letters followed by a number, the two letters are the initials of many of the developers of the game (e.g. the DC in "DC-05 Riot Gun" is for Doug Church, who was a main programmer on the game and who strongly advocated for having a high-knockback weapon like the Riot Gun included in the game).
- System Shock is the first game to feature the code "451", which has gone on to appear in many others games that trace their inspirational lineage to System Shock and Looking Glass Studios' simulationist design philosophies in general, including Deus Ex, BioShock, and Dishonored. In System Shock, this code must be entered by the player to exit the starting room of the game; this code was also the actual security code to unlock the front door of the Looking Glass offices during the time of System Shock's development, and was a reference to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
- The game's GUI is meant to conceptually represent a computer that has been installed into the player character's brain, and this computer can play computer games. The player can find computer game software scattered about Citadel Station, which can be loaded up in the GUI, letting the player play clones of various other games, including Pong and Missile Command in realtime in a corner of the screen. There is even a simple clone of Wing Commander called Wing 0 that features voice samples licensed from the actual Wing Commander game. The idea to create a playable contextualized clone of Wing Commander inside System Shock was originally a joke written on a white board in the Looking Glass Offices, but a junior programmer misunderstood it as a serious feature request and implemented it.
- System Shock was released in two versions: a floppy disk version, and later, once CD-ROM drives were more commonplace, a CD version. All of the voice acting, including the first rendition of SHODAN's voice, were exclusive to the CD version. In the earlier floppy version, SHODAN is referred to with the pronoun "he", but in the subsequent CD version and ever since, SHODAN has been voiced by a female actress and referred to with the pronoun "she".
- The bridges of light that the player can turn on and off are, as far as some of the game's developers are aware, the first use of dynamic translucent surfaces in any game.
- There are extensive physics simulations in the game, all coded without using any floating point numbers (a substantial challenge) due to particular hardware limitations of the time.
- The game supported 1024x768 screen resolution during development, which was very high for the day, but was deliberately disabled by removing the option for that resolution from the options menu right before shipping. This was done out of concern that players would not be able to resist the temptation to run the game at its highest resolution despite not having computer hardware powerful enough to drive a playable framerate at such a demanding resolution, and so the option was eliminated to head off a potential wave of player complaints.
- The game was originally planned for a 12 month development cycle, but ended up taking around 21 months to complete; over the course of development, the project was very nearly cancelled on multiple occasions before it was finished.