Fear. Yes, a bit of an over-used and almost meaningless word these days. However, just stop. Think what the word actually means -- and that's the simplest, easiest way to describe a game like System Shock 2. Utterly immersive in its use of character attachment and amnesiac story-telling, it is a game that will honestly give you the sweats. Hybrids, degrading weapons, cyborg mid-wives, and an omniscient computer personality out to get you. There are elements coyly taken from countless, influential sci-fi/horror films out there already: after all, as the looming sense of dread pervades every scene and every small mission, the recollections of similar scenes in past movies or horror novels will keep you with many a nervous twitch. Have to restart a generator? Have to find a certain beaker? Fine. But be prepared to have that low, nervous feeling in your stomach the entire time, avoiding (not just dodging) enemies, guessing what's going to happen next, and randomly having the urine scared out of you as you are attacked from out of nowhere.
So yes, SS2 is scary. Released in the Summer of 1999, it comes a few years after the debut game's landmark cult impact and many more years after that game's narrative. In the first game, SHODAN was supposedly destroyed -- been here before -- by a clever hacker. Here (and trying to avoid any spoilers), another AI, XERXES, is making things running amok, but for reasons (in)directly connected to the very same artificial hussy. The only thing one should know is that if you thought beating a super-intelligent central personality was tough the first time around, try two of them on for size.
But let's not get side-tracked here. As engaging as the premise and narrative is (after this game and 1998's Half-Life, subsequent First-Person-Shooters have been in a real bind to live up to such story-telling), it's the genre's gameplay that really takes the gold. Take most of the elements that make a FPS work (fluid control, unparalleled virtual point-of-view, etc.) and throw in enough Role Playing Game ingredients (character choice, controlled growth, etc.) to keep things boiling. There's not too much FPS focus, not too much RPG confusion, and the game rests in that comfy middle-ground between Actual Interest and Statistical Overload. At its most basic form, the game's player characters are as follows: marine, psi-officer, and hacker (essentially, the Fighter, the Mage, and The Best of Both Worlds). This "character control" side of things tend to work extremely well as it helps push the player to enriching and building up one's character just so one can, well, try and get rid of the big, scary stuff. It's true, in this way, the diverse gaming genres are all additive -- not destructive -- to the whole nightmarish experience.
So exactly how is this game so "scary?" Well, what one will notice straight off is just how atmospheric this game really is on any design level. The graphics are crystal-clear, solid, and moody -- with ship level designs that don't always make sense but play well for a game -- and the character models usually repel you with disgust as you frantically try to off them with whatever damaged weapon at your disposal. The sound design surely helps too, as it is absolutely, teeth-clenchingly disturbing. Looking Glass Studios has shown they already know how to craft an effective, creative world of sound with games like Thief: The Dark Project, but the sound designers really went all out for the audio scope of SS2. Distant rumblings infect you with a dripping phobia, while the more specific effects get you prepared to yelp like a baby (proud to admit or not, it's often much, much scarier hearing and then realizing that there's a cyborg mid-wife or a batch of spiders around the corner than actually just going in there and killing them). The game sucks you in, fast. And with a sound design as superb as this, you might not want it to all the time.
Going a bit deeper, though, the inclusion of RPG ingredients are again well-suited to a game of this immersive nature and strengthen its foreboding nature. Although the game heavily leans towards a hacker character and his skills (plenty of extra health, money, and a dead-easy confrontation with SHODAN), the others still leave enough diversity to demand instant replayability. A marine-based character will give you access to nearly any weapon in the game, with little repair to do, and plenty of personal strength to confront most enemies. A psi-officer, again like most magic-based characters of RPGs, starts off incredibly weak (the game gains a new subtitle: "You Will Love Wrenches. Or Else."), but then -- if one is patient enough -- can slowly become extremely powerful with wisely-chosen "spells" (health-regeneration, money-creation, etc.) and new modes off attack (charging is Bad). So, while they're not entirely even or revolutionary, the different player character types add another useful layer to the experience.
SS2 isn't entirely flawless, of course. The game's only real mis-steps come near its end where the lack of challenging level growth turns in on itself. The "take A to B to turn on C which helps you get to D but don't forget to put back A when you can so B won't break down...and did we mention C is lost again?" goal propellants start to drain. Even worse, the uninventive use of having to destroy yet another Big Bad Fleshy Boss Brain Thing becomes a flat climax. After so much skulking about and meticulous character crafting, it leaves a "rushed" feeling in one's mouth, as if the creators were gasping for breath here trying to keep up with their own premise. Even with the terrific, quintessential horror "twist" at the very end too.
The incessant respawn element might put off a lot of seasoned players as well. One side of the argument has it that you never get a sense of "completion" when clearing out a level because there's always something lurking somewhere. The other side is that this is precisely why you never disengage from the game's terrifying universe...you are always on your toes, you are always careful of where you're going, and you never, ever feel truly safe. A patch is supposed to let the user set the respawn rate (or turn it off completely), so that might please anybody coming into the game.
The RPG character designs also should've been tweaked a bit more. Again, while the original directions of skills and attributes are crucial to the early portions of the game, they still almost become moot as the game progresses. It's hard to start with low health -- or virtually no weapon skills -- but once one is racking up the experience, they can boost up just about every element in one's character. Even if it doesn't apply to that character type. After all, if one makes the important decision of being a marine (Fighter), for example, it would make equal sense for this marine to be nearly cut off entirely from gaining Psi attributes (Mage "spells") at any later point in the game. Conventional RPG's usually adhere to this character-limitation rule, and it's a shame SS2 doesn't measure up in this regard.
The weapon degradation is another issue. While it's ludicrous to imagine a future where technology is so shoddy as to have weapons start degrading after one or two shots, it still will leave other players with another layer to keep on top of and control (after all, there are "maintenance" and "repair" skills that don't take forever to attain). Whether this adds or detracts from the game is essentially a matter of taste. Again, the patch is supposed to let the user control this aspect as well, so one can theoretically do as they want.
Most harmful, though, is the narrative. As intriguing as the plot is, it would've been nice to have somewhat of a choice in the linear story-line. While The Many tempts you with improving your life and discovered weapons with the "way of the flesh," and SHODAN (and the game's inherent interface) showing you the powers of cybernetic metal, the game's fundamental goals would've been elevated from simple Kill Big Baddies if in some way there was a "choice" of which ideal to head towards. Both nemeses would still have to be dealt with, but one would be chosen to focus on and chosen to be eliminated first for certain "flesh" or "cybernetic" benefits. The game sets up a certain organic/metallic rift of technology, but never really takes this theme into the player's narrative.
In any case, the game holds up despite its cracks. The FPS/RPG meld is a good one, as gamers are re-learning (even with a bit too liberal approach to it all). The sound design is outstanding (even when your weapon jams for the 43rd time in a row). The story-line (despite its eventual "rushed" and draining nature) usually keeps up with the ominous world the rest of the game creates. Yet what really drives SS2, what really makes it tick, what really makes you go back over and over again, is -- simply -- the fear it seeps into you. The atmosphere absolutely drips from this game, impresses you behind every corner, chills you to the spine...even when you don't exactly know how. Yet it's all part of the experience. It's all part of having to play with other people at home so you feel safer. It's all about replacing your shorts every half-hour or so. It is, indeed, an intelligent, intense gem that should not go unnoticed.
Graphics: Crisp, dark graphics with superior character modeling.
Sound: Music is almost non-existent, but the ominous ambient sound effects and chilling enemy speech are outstanding and instantly memorable.
Enjoyment: Quite tough and enduring when starting out, but worth the struggle for amazing, immersive game-play.
Replay Value: With the three core character types, a few difficulty settings, as well as some engine tweaks and co-op multiplayer play (as per later patch), replay is relatively high.
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System Shock, Deus Ex, Diablo 2, Fallout 2, Baldur's Gate, Fallout, Half-Life, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
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