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System Shock 2

Saturday, January 01, 2000 by TheDoc

Overall: 4
Graphics: 4
Interface: 4
Preconceptions are the bane of bad reviews, but nonetheless, I had them. Before I had even played Shock 2, different parts of me were arguing about its greatness or lack thereof. On the one hand, I believed it could do no wrong, possibly shielding myself from the potential disappointment I would feel were the game to be anything less than the original. And on the other hand, I was ready to crucify it no matter what it did, firmly believing it could never live up to its legacy.

If you've not played the original, my apologies. While it is not necessary to play or complete Shock 1, it will make the experience of Shock 2 infinitely more enjoyable. And since the original is no longer being manufactured and is nearly impossible to find in bargain bins, the Adrenaline Vault is putting together features on both, to be published soon. Our Retro Review will take you through a graphical presentation of the original, and will be instrumental in gaining a perspective for those playing the sequel -- so stay tuned!

Shock 2's story picks up 42 years after the disaster on Citadel Station. Since that time, much has changed on Earth. The once all powerful TriOptimum Corporation was hurt badly by the catastrophe, but survived and prospered well enough that with UNN sponsorship managed to build the first ever inter-galactic starship -- the Von Braun. Acting more like police than a sponsor, the UNN's objective is to ensure the safety of the ship and its personnel. Veterans of the series will recognize the name Diego, as Edward's son is Captain of the UNN Rickenbacker, the security ship attached to the Von Braun during its maiden voyage. But things aren't quite as prosperous as TriOp would want you to believe. TriOp doesn't welcome the UNN sponsorship. In fact, they detest it. Within the first few moments of playing, you learn that the Von Braun wasn't quite as fit for space travel as TriOp wanted everyone to believe, and neither was her crew. You play the role of the new recruit aboard the Von Braun. Having spent three years in one of three branches of service (Navy, Marines or OSA), you wake from a cryogenic sleep to find the ship and its crew in chaos.

The folks at Looking Glass are well known for writing a series of successive scripts and then developing multiple titles from them, much as they are doing with Thief. I'm not sure if the scripts for Shock 1 and Shock 2 were written simultaneously, but regardless, they sure appear to have been. The story flows from the original to the sequel like a raging river, packed with moments of unbridled action, utter fear and, above all, an ominous sense of the unknown. It is from here that one of the greatest epic story lines in games continues.

The story line and how it evolves is the central element that separates Shock 2 from anything else on the market. Granted, most RPGs possess powerful and engrossing fiction, as was the case with 1998's RPG of the year, Baldur's Gate. But all too often, an RPG's strength of story is marred by an unforgivable flaw, such as outdated technology, as seen in this year's version of Might and Magic.

Very rare is the CRPG that is able to combine the complexities of plot as seen in Baldur's Gate with the visual presentation of an action offering like Half-Life, but Shock 2 does exactly that. And often lost in the analysis of what Shock 2 is is what it is not -- and that's yet another fantasy-based RPG. Rather, its psycho-technical thriller style gameplay and futuristic setting combine into a symposium of horror that will chill your bones and boil your blood, conveniently all at the same time. Like the Many, it's irresistible.

Wrapped tightly within the horrifying storyline is a haunting gameplay that is very reminiscent of the original product. Using an advanced version of the Thief engine, Shock 2 incorporates many of the stealth features, including the lean, that have become Looking Glass trademarks. Maneuvering through the enormous space vessel is akin to most first-person titles, albeit at a slower, more refined pace. There are six decks to the Von Braun that constitute the bulk of Shock 2, a couple of levels aboard the Rickenbacker and a few surprises thrown in here and there for good measure. In total, there are ten mammoth levels that will constitute about 30 hours of gameplay for the astute player. The difficulty settings are to be taken very seriously, as they affect multiple factors, such as enemy spawn rates, availability of ammunition and other stores, upgrade costs and enemy toughness.

In fact, the overall difficulty is its biggest drawback. I was able to play through with two different characters. I finished playing with my first character, a highly focussed hacker with decent weapons skills on hard difficulty in 27 hours. I finished with a Marine character, an all around weapons guy, on impossible difficulty in 33 hours. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and looking back on my experiences, I do not recommend playing on either of these two difficulty settings, as many of the frustrations I had can be associated with the insane difficulty caused by myself. I'm playing through once again with an OSA character focussing on Psionics, and the fun factor is exponentially higher.

Still, there are some things I just didn't like about System Shock 2. The title offers players the choice of three different character types, which I've mentioned above. While each character is technically different, the game is ultimately the same no matter how you modify your stats. Noted -- the means by which you solve certain puzzles and progress through levels is different depending on your skills, but the events that transpire (meaning the story) is always consistent, making the replay value marginal. Shock 2 also forces you into making a well-rounded character. It's next to impossible to focus on one character type, such as psionics, and be successful. There are also a few things that should be tweaked with the forthcoming patch, such as better ammunition supplies. I also found the availability of ammo too sparse most of the time, especially towards the end. The rate at which weapons deteriorate is also out of control, requiring all characters, no matter what type, to spend way too many cybernetic modules on maintenance skills.

Some other things about the interface, such as the lack of DirectInput support and the ladder implementation, caused me an inordinate amount of frustration. The Thief engine does not support DirectInput, so players accustomed to using roller-wheel mice will have to find an alternate source for weapon toggling. Navigating ladders in Shock 2, like in Thief, is unlike most other first-person offerings. Whereas most titles allow you to freely move on and off ladders no matter your position, in Shock 2, you're stuck to them like a octopus, and cannot move off of them without jumping or descending all the way to the bottom.

The last gripe I have about Shock 2 is the absent multiplayer mode. News from Irrational says that the patch that will enable the multiplayer portion is just around the corner, but, unfortunately, at this time it still remains a mystery. For almost a year, it's been touted as the first fully functional first-person multiplayer role-playing game. Let's just hope this isn't another Terra Nova.

In the overall scheme of things, though, none of these flaws impacted my enjoyment. If anything, they kept me from falling into its alternate reality. Shock 2 has a special ability to immerse the player into a world full of believable terror, a terror so frightening you're unable to escape it or even cry out for help. It's a masterpiece of storytelling that is so compelling, you'll want to play it non-stop until you finish it. Irrational Games, Looking Glass Studios and EA are to be congratulated for doing what I thought impossible -- giving us a worthy sequel to the greatest game I have ever played. Is it better than the original you ask? No-- but it's certainly not any worse.


Horror has never looked so pretty. Using an enhanced version of the Thief engine, System Shock 2 incorporates 16-bit color and an assortment of other new features that, when put together, are sufficient to warrant a high rating. (Even though the visual high points lean more on level design and believability of environments than they do in actual technical prowess.) In Shock 1, nearly every object was identifiable and in some manner able to be manipulated, and Shock 2 is no different. Monitors, video screens, most windows, crates and electronic systems can be destroyed. Like most Looking Glass titles, they've incorporated a number of action-based outcomes in which portions of levels are altered based on actions either taken by the player or some other force in the game. This is a great tool that, when used properly, can make things seem much bigger than they actually are.

While Shock 2 was a little darker in spots than I would have preferred, their use of colors and lighting does a superb job in adding to the creepiness feeling so prevalent throughout. Enemies, especially those of the Many, are so hauntingly good looking that you'll want to sleep with the lights on for the first few nights. The artists have done an exceptional job in designing the look of the interfaces as well. They are clean, crisp and have a very technical look to them. Altogether, Shock 2 is a great looking title -- just lose the water texture.


There is virtually nothing wrong with the interface except it is so complex, some players are bound to be frustrated with it. The learning curve associated with mastering it is quite steep and sure to irritate fans of the pure first-person shooter. Successfully managing the interface requires players to use up to 50 inventory slots, navigate and learn how to use a multi-functional display with read-outs for over 60 character statistics, panels that direct research information, and a virtual computer that displays all communication. It's a daunting task for sure, so take it in chunks. Luckily the designers have included a lot of shortcuts and the keyboard and mouse may be configured to your liking, but unfortunately there is no mouse-wheel support. One of my favorite interface features in all of gaming is included, though: the Looking Glass lean. This is a great tool for moving through tight spots when you don't want to be noticed. Fans of action titles should feel right at home with basic navigation -- they'll just have to get used to the hardcore role-playing inventory and stats management at the same time. I never thought a game's sound could affect the action and story as dramatically as it does here. Much of the creepiness and fright associated with this title can be attributed to the sound effects. The Thief engine masterfully associates sounds with textures, and therefore allows the designers to do things no other title incorporates. If there was a sixth, seventh, or eight star rating Shock 2 would deserve it -- just remember to play with headphones, and turn down the lights. The musical score in Shock 2 is unequivocal. It's an original blend of fast-paced synthesized orchestral music mixed with an occasional Phantom of the Opera style score. The music is both location and event specific, ensuring that the right music is played at the most appropriate moment -- a classical symphony of horrors. The artificial intelligence of the monsters is as good as any game you'll play today. Similar to that seen in Thief, enemies will use multiple senses to gauge your position, including light and an acute sense of hearing. Opponents are also aware of events transpiring in the area, and they can communicate with one another better than in any title I've played. Once an enemy has located you, he is able to take a number of actions, such as following you through multiple doors or notifying nearby reinforcements. In terms of difficulty, System Shock 2 is unreasonably tough.

Multiplayer (if any):



The only game System Shock 2 can be compared to is its predecessor. Otherwise, there is nothing like this anywhere. The gameplay simultaneously and successfully combines hardcore first-person action with intensely sophisticated role-playing. The storyline is non-stop and does nothing to slow down the pace. Like in the original, the story is conveyed through digital e-mails and voice communiqués received by the player through his cybernetic implants or when he finds a digital e-mail disc. There are a number of cinematic sequences using the in-game engine that are milestone achievements, letting the player know how well he or she is progressing. Player-to-NPC interactions are nearly non-existent, a trademark of the Shock series, but there are a few very choice NPC encounters. (I won't spoil the surprise.)

Negatively impacting the gameplay are two factors. First, the flow is sometimes held up by the difficulty. Limited ammunition and quickly deteriorating weapons make fighting off the respawning enemies a tough chore. I also have a minor gripe with the disparaging range of enemy danger factors. I found the most dangerous enemy to be the Invisible Arachnid, but when stacked up against the menacing Rumbler and evil Cyborg Assassins, it's apparent that the enemy toughness scale needs a little refinement. And as I mentioned earlier, the absence of any multiplayer option is a disappointment. If playing games is more of a religion than a hobby to you, meet your new bible. And on that same point, if you weren't a religious person before you started playing, you will be once you're done. System Shock 2 will scare the hell right out of you -- and you'll like it for that reason. It's like no other title on the market. Its design is fresh, compelling and oh so addicting. And did I mention it's scary?

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