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Retro Retro Games Returned #5 – System Shock 2

ROMhack

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“Look at you, hacker. A pathetic creature of meat and bone. Panting and sweating as you run through my corridors. How can you challenge a perfect immortal machine?”

Developer: Irrational Games / Looking Glass Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Director: Jonathan Chey
Designer and Writer: Ken Levine
Platforms: PC, OS X, Linux

Background

System Shock 2 (1999) is a first-person survival-horror RPG set in deep space. Originally intended as a standalone title, it was packaged as part of the System Shock series, which began life in 1994. The game was developed by a then-nascent Irrational Games, who would eventually go on to develop a little spiritual successor called Bioshock - you may have heard of it. System Shock 2 was a co-venture between them and Looking Glass Studios, whose members would eventually go on to leave the company in order to to join creative director Ken Levine.

The game was released on August 11 1999. It received acclaim from critics and gamers alike but failed to meet its commercial sales targets. Development first began in 1997, and arly ideas involved a sci-fi allegory of Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness. It took further inspiration from Looking Glass’s Ultima series, as well as traditional paper and pencil role-playing games. It has since become a ‘cult classic’ and is regularly featured on many Best Ever Games of All Time lists. The game was re-released on Steam for modern audiences in 2013.

Story

It’s 2114 and the world is a very different place. The dreams of Elon Musk have been met as space has been conquered with artificial intelligence having advanced to the point where it can impose its malevolent will. No surprises for guessing what happens next... following events in the original game where the Citadel Space Station was taken over by the AI supercomputer SHODAN, it rears its ugly electronic head 42 years later. This time to take control of the experimental faster-than-light starship, the Von Braun. Coincidentally owned by a small company called Tri-Optimum, who have more money than most nation states.

The game follows an amnesiac soldier who awakens to find the Von Braun deserted and in disarray. Disorientated, he makes his way around the ship's many level, defeating and/or sneaking past an assortment of hungry-for-human-flesh enemies (called The Many). All the while he’s tracked by omnipresent supercomputer SHODAN, who provides lots of ominous dialogue. There’s also a whole bunch of files and audio logs which tell the story of what the fuck happened. In the end, he makes his way throughout the entire fucking ship to take down SHODAN, who has this terrible fear of people hacking into the control system.






Gameplay

Usually I describe what happens but I already kinda did so here’s a video instead:




Music

The music was composed by three people: Josh Randall, Ramin Djawadi and Eric Brosius.

It’s very cyberpunk and IMO adds a lot to the nightmarish sensation of being alone in deep space.






Good Reads

System Shock 2: Postmortem by Jonathan Chey (Gamasutra)
Another feature of our development philosophy is that everyone participates in game design. Why? Because all three of the Irrational founders wanted to set the design direction of our products, programmers were able to resolve design issues without having to stick to a design spec, and we strongly emphasized game design skills when hiring all of our employees and contractors. In all our interviews, one of our most pressing questions to ourselves was "Does this person get games?" Failure to "get" them was a definite strike against any prospective employee. Ultimately, the team's passion for and understanding of games was a major contributor to the design of the final product.


The Making of System Shock 2 (Rock Paper Shotgun)
Finishing a motion-capture session two hours early , Levine was bullied by Jon Chey into just doing something to justify the time they’d paid for . “So I said [to the motion capture actor]… do monkey motions,” Levine says, “We had no monkeys in the game but we did it anyway”. These assets had to find a home, and Levine hit on the idea of lab-experimented apes, gaining sentience and being justifiably annoyed about their treatment at their hand of man.


The Timeless Horror of “System Shock 2” (Vice)
You could play System Shock 2 for hours and never exactly see it. Or at least, you wouldn’t see it right there on your monitor, but would instead watch it happening projected within a theater of the mind where the game’s simple models and art would give way to the things they symbolized. The game never looked realistic, but still feels immediate and convincing in a way I rarely see matched.


System Shock 2’s Best Level - Med/Sci (Eurogamer)
How does a designer juggle all of these different elements when building a level? Vogel boiled it down to a simple objective. "My goal was to get an 88 in PC Gamer. And that was my only goal."





Fun Facts
  • The original title for the game, according to its pitch document, was Junction Point
  • A remake is currently in development by Night Dive Studios. Here’s some pre-alpha footage. Release date estimate Q4 2030.
  • Initially, the brief was to prepare a sci-fi prototype based on the still-in-development Thief engine.
  • The whole game was created in a single room about 900 square feet big. Roughly the size of this house.
  • One scene features a robot doing the Macarena. I guess because, why not?


You! I Want Your Thoughts.

Hopefully you know the drill by now. Tell me what you think/thought of the game :)

--

P.s. Spoilers obviously but here’s the game’s final cutscene - as hilarious as it is awful (Levine says it was outsourced).



–ROM
 
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DunDunDunpachi

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One of my all-time favorites. Playing through with each origin (Psy, Tech, Soldier) felt substantially different on the higher difficulties (where resources were more limited). And as clunky as it felt at times, I loved the nitty-gritty tech tree where specific elements were needed to progress your research, forcing you to march back to some far-flung closet or lab just to find a rare ingredient.

The AI was really good and would actively search for the player.
 

ROMhack

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One of my all-time favorites. Playing through with each origin (Psy, Tech, Soldier) felt substantially different on the higher difficulties (where resources were more limited). And as clunky as it felt at times, I loved the nitty-gritty tech tree where specific elements were needed to progress your research, forcing you to march back to some far-flung closet or lab just to find a rare ingredient.

The AI was really good and would actively search for the player.

Yeah, I really like the clunkiness of it myself. It has a really old school RPG feel to it - perhaps directly inspired by those traditional pen and paper tabletops. A lot like Deus Ex too.

According to that piece by Jonathan Chey, the devs felt it was pretty dated on release. He talks a lot about having to work around the limitations of the technology.
 

DunDunDunpachi

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Yeah, I really like the clunkiness of it myself. It has a really old school RPG feel to it - perhaps directly inspired by those traditional pen and paper tabletops. A lot like Deus Ex too.

According to that piece by Jonathan Chey, the devs felt it was pretty dated on release. He talks a lot about having to work around the limitations of the technology.
Well, it does feel dated without mods. Even the original Deus Ex (unmodded) feels pretty dated and SS2 feels even clunkier in comparison, IMO. I don't mind. Not every platformer has perfect jumping physics. Not every FPS-RPG has perfect shooting mechanics. The best parts of SS2 erase the mediocre parts.
 
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bati

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Well, it does feel dated without mods. Even the original Deus Ex (unmodded) feels pretty dated and SS2 feels even clunkier in comparison, IMO. I don't mind. Not every platformer has perfect jumping physics. Not every FPS-RPG has perfect shooting mechanics. The best parts of SS2 erase the mediocre parts.

On the flip side, the game gets absolutely mental towards the end if you pump agility and use enhancements. I was moving so fast that I legit had issues controlling my character lol
 
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DunDunDunpachi

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On the flip side, the game gets absolutely mental towards the end if you pump agility and use enhancements. I was moving so fast that I legit had issues controlling my character lol
For sure. Similar to Morrowind, the underlying mechanics in SS2 can be stretched into "broken" territory with some knowhow and effort. Personally, I felt like if one can slog through the early areas as a Psi user, you can become such an overpowered melee beast that the game is a cakewalk.
 

Komatsu

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Really great job with this Retro Games Returned thread series, ROMhack ROMhack !

System Shock 2 is one of these games - like Lunar: Silver Star - that was hugely influential within its genre and that for some reason or another I missed when it first came out. I keep thinking of getting it on GOG but somehow never did.
 

EightBit Man

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For some reason I never could get into the first game (even back in the day). But the sequel, that has to be my favorite PC game of 1999. The horror, the mood, the weapons, the soundtrack...combined, it's a very well-designed title. Love all the games running on the Dark Engine, and I wish (co-developer) Looking Glass Studios was still a existing development house.
 

bati

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Love all the games running on the Dark Engine, and I wish (co-developer) Looking Glass Studios was still a existing development house.

You really don't. They recently formed a studio with a lot of older members and made Underworld Ascendant which was utter shit.
 
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The game that made me fall in love with gaming. I liked video games before Shock 2 but playing it showed me just how amazing games could be. That and the fact that I quickly followed it up with the original Deus Ex and Thief 1 and 2. One of the things that stands out for me about SS2 is that the ship feels like it was designed first as a real, functional ship and then the designed a game around it. For the most part - the 2nd half of the game kinda drops that idea but the first half on the Von Braun is really something. Just the way that each floor of the ship is laid out, it feels like the functionality of how the ship actually worked was a bigger priority than making a game level.

My favourite moments are from the engine level. There's a bit where you have to reprogram the ship that sees you constantly going back and forth across this massive environment. Anyway you finally find the storage closet containing the chip that will re-direct the ship and there's hundreds of chips in there. You've got the right serial number so you have to spend a couple of minutes searching for it. In any other game you'd find the chip just by itself or have it be the only one in there you can interact with. In SS2 you can put any of these chips in your inventory (although you can only carry one at a time and there's a big distance between the storage closet and the bridge so you're unlikely to.) It really gives the impression that there's a bigger universe outside the story, that this was an actual space-ship that just happened to run across this terrible alien life form (and Shodan.)

That and those fucking monkeys on that level. The bit where you're stuck in the cargo bay hearing their howls getting closer and closer but being unable to tell whether they're behind you or on the floor above is a nerve-racking experience.

For some reason I never could get into the first game (even back in the day). But the sequel, that has to be my favorite PC game of 1999. The horror, the mood, the weapons, the soundtrack...combined, it's a very well-designed title. Love all the games running on the Dark Engine, and I wish (co-developer) Looking Glass Studios was still a existing development house.

System Shock 1 is a fucking masterpiece but goddamn those controls are the worst. It's a real shame because underneath the terrible controls and interface the actual game itself is in many ways even better than Shock 2. Admittedly Shock 2 has the edge as far as horror and atmosphere goes thanks to the Dark engines inbuilt sound and lighting features (seriously the sound design in the Dark Engine games are still some of the best ever created) but the actual game design itself is in many ways even more forward thinking than its sequel. There are so many hidden features, unique assets, emergent scenarios. It's such a shame that it's buried underneath a control scheme that requires you to use the entire keyboard to move, look around, lean, change posture, lie down and the mouse is nearly useless.
 

JimmyRustler

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Remember this being one of the few cases where I bought a game solely due to forum recommendations and it not only managed to deliver but ended up being one of the best games I have ever played.

Such a fantastic piece of software.
 

EviLore

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One of my top 10 all-time favorites. I actually bought it around release and still have the box somewhere (wikipedia says it only sold 58k copies in its first year).

So many games have tried to copy the format it perfected with the found audio logs that weave into the game progression to form a narrative, but the only other game that comes to mind to really do the formula justice is Prey 2017.

The different classes give completely different experiences and offer great replay factor. That techno soundtrack kicks in at just the right moments to dump your adrenaline and soldier you on. No handholding, extreme resource scarcity, expectation of self-reliance at map navigation, and enemies you'll likely never forget.

Great thread, ROMhack ROMhack , and great to see that NeoGAF still has impeccable taste.
 

Tesseract

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all time favorite, was 13 when i played it and the shodan bits still follow me around

i moved to deus ex after this, it was beautiful
 
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ROMhack

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That and those fucking monkeys on that level. The bit where you're stuck in the cargo bay hearing their howls getting closer and closer but being unable to tell whether they're behind you or on the floor above is a nerve-racking experience.

The monkeys have an interesting back story...

The latter [monkeys], while one of the most fondly remembered of the game’s cast, were actually an fortuitous accident. Finishing a motion-capture session two hours early , Levine was bullied by Jon Chey into just doing something to justify the time they’d paid for . “So I said [to the motion capture actor]… do monkey motions,” Levine says, “We had no monkeys in the game but we did it anyway”. These assets had to find a home, and Levine hit on the idea of lab-experimented apes, gaining sentience and being justifiably annoyed about their treatment at their hand of man.

--From the RPS article.
 
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socksfelloff

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I really need to play this game. As someone who grew up a PC gamer I'm ashamed to admit I've never played it.
 
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I really need to play this game. As someone who grew up a PC gamer I'm ashamed to admit I've never played it.

It's sometimes frustrating and more than a little clunky but holy shit man it's one of the greatest games ever made. It's incredibly atmospheric and tense. Highly recommended.
 

DonF

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Perhaps dumb question, but do I need to play the first one to enjoy or understand the second one ? I know its a classic but I never played any of the games, and I would love to visit them in the future.
 

ROMhack

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Perhaps dumb question, but do I need to play the first one to enjoy or understand the second one ? I know its a classic but I never played any of the games, and I would love to visit them in the future.

I don't think so. The game didn't begin as a sequel to the first game - it only was made as one by EA's insistence - and I think the main ideas they were running with were meant to be unique.

There are similarities of course what with SHODAN but I personally like to think of it as an advanced version of the original game. Not exactly a remake but not far off.
 
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Perhaps dumb question, but do I need to play the first one to enjoy or understand the second one ? I know its a classic but I never played any of the games, and I would love to visit them in the future.

No. System Shock 1's a great game but I would recommend playing it after the sequel. In many ways it's the better game but it's got 1 major problem: the controls. System Shock came out in 1994, just slightly after Doom 1 and 2. If you remember Doom you couldn't look up or down in that game. In System Shock, despite having the same look (that semi-3D environment wherein it's 3D but it's all 2D textures and all the enemies are sprites) let you look up and down. Unfortunately the developer, Looking Glass Studios didn't really know how you would control a first-person character who could look up and down so they came up with this:
  • S: Walk forward
  • X: Backward
  • Z:Strafe left
  • C: Strafe right
In other words they came up with the classic wasd control scheme all the way back then, they just put it one row lower. However they also added:
  • A: Turn left
  • D: Turn right
  • Q: Lean left
  • E: Lean right
  • W: Lean reset
Okay a little bit more elaborate but still that's okay it seems pretty advanced for 1994. However the one, now blatantly obvious, design choice Looking Glass didn't come up with was a thing called 'mouse-look.' Instead you can aim your gun anywhere on the screen. Instead:
  • R: Look Up
  • V:Look Down
  • F: Look forward
Also:
  • T: Stand up straight
  • G: Crouch
  • B: Lie down
I'm swear I'm not making this shit up. Oh and Mouse1 is used to interact with the environment and Mouse2 is used to shoot. Oh and all the number keys are used to activated neural implants and not used for weapon switching. To do that you have to go into the menu that covers half the screen (you can turn of the interface and play it fullscreen but there's still shitloads of text that will be covering the screen at nearly all times) to try to find what gun you want to use.

Modern ports have fixed this to some degree and allow mouselook. However it's based on an old fan patch and as a result you have to switch between playing it classic to interact with the menus covering half the screen (which you need to do constantly) and switching to a regular fps mode. It's an improvement but you still have to drag and drop items from the game world into your inventory and that feels clunky as fuck using this new mouselook method.

This mod is based on how System Shock 2 does things. You can easily switch between playing it like an FPS and going into this complicated menu system. However Shock 2 was actually designed around this control scheme and it works fine. In Shock 1 it's basically been hacked onto the game and it's implementation is quite clunky.

Or I might be talking out of my ass as there's been a recent re-release of the game that's actually a full source port but I can't comment on that version as I haven't played it yet.

Either way I would play SS2 first because it's an easier game to get into from a control standpoint. And once you've played it you might be able to more easily get into the first game with the mouselook mod as it's based on Shock 2's interface.
 
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Al3x1s

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Great game, recommend playing with SS2Tool and small but great and faithful mods like SHTUP and 400. I wanted to link to the latest version of the essentials I had but it's kinda hard to keep track of at the moment outside SS2Tool so, google it up. You don't want the Rebirth mod though, no, best keep the original character/enemy models, as low-fi and ugly as they are, over that unnatural thing. SHTUP/400 on the other hand are more like the RE4 HD textures mod, pretty much 1:1 recreations in much higher resolution (not to that HD level but fitting and way better than the originals).
 
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