System Shock II

Fabio 02/16/2003 

Everyone you know tells you that this is one of the greatest games ever made. Everyone you know is a goddamn whore.

Whenever debates on the greatest PC games ever made come up, there are always a few staple titles mentioned: Civilization, Doom, X-Com, Star Control 2. Some people might try to show off their old school l33tness and throw in some lesser known, but still great titles like Ultima Underworld, Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri, and System Shock (all made by Looking Glass, oddly enough). Then someone who's not l33t themselves but wants to impress the hardcore crowd will pipe up and say, "don't forget System Shock's sequel!" (NOT made by Looking Glass, not oddly enough because it sucks). It's at this point where the debate comes to a screeching halt. It's also at this point where it's socially acceptable to call that person a crazy mother fucking cunt.

I Have This Idea See….

The most overused cliché in sci-fi horror, leaking steam pipes (if you don't count the whole haunted spaceship thing too).

System Shock 2 is the perfect example of a good concept brought down by poor execution, just like communism. Except communism didn't inflict quite as much suffering upon the world. The basic premise of the game is this; you're stuck on a haunted space ship with lots of horrific things that want to kill you. The same idea was behind the original System Shock, except that instead of a space ship it was a space station, the enemies were flat square pixels, and performing the slightest movement required clicking on a paper doll at the top of the screen. Despite this however the game was praised by gamers for its groundbreaking setting and execution. The best way to describe it was "Die Hard in space". You were a cybernetic Bruce Willis foiling the plans of a terrorist A.I. at every turn.

So if the original game managed to deliver a superb gaming experience with crappy graphics and a clunky interface, then a sequel with full 3D polygons, great use of lighting, and unbelievable sound would be the most kick ass thing ever, right? It would take a pretty monumental act of Satan to make it suck. I'm not even sure Roberta Williams could have pulled it off. However, what the prince of darkness couldn't do, Irrational Games managed. HOW DO YOU FUCK UP PLAYING A BRUCE WILLIS CYBORG?! It seems that whenever a great game gets a sequel that doesn't involve the original designers, that sequel will always suck. Just take a look at Star Control 3. It's a good thing Irrational redeemed themselves with the excellent Freedom Force, because holy Christ on a cracker did they take a great concept and fuck it up with insane design decisions.

In a Nutshell

"I know this looks bad officer, but it wasn't me! He was like this when I got here!"

The best way to classify System Shock 2 would be to call it a First Person Shooter with RPG (Role Playing Game) elements thrown in. There are several skill areas that your character spends experience points (called "upgrade modules") on in order to improve them. Unfortunately blending genres isn't always a good idea, and in most cases blending the fast paced, reflex based action of a FPS with the slow paced, stat based tinkering of an RPG is like teaming up Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Hawking for an action movie. Wait no, that would actually be pretty cool. In fact if SS2 had you play Steven Hawking upgrading the systems and weapons of your cyborg wheelchair then it would have been the best thing ever. If only…

The Butler Did It

The RPG elements are what killed the game, period. There are plenty of other negative qualities too, but they're just desecrating an already dead corpse; the skill system is what pulled the actual trigger and left the body out where the scavengers could get at it. Having stat based skills is fine for a dedicated RPG because everything is abstracted; you see your avatar swing a sword or launch a fireball and the stats then take over and determine if you hit, how much damage you did, etc. In a FPS however you're more immersed in the game world; you don't issue an order to attack an enemy, you point the crosshairs at him and pull the trigger yourself, you don't see a number float above his head to tell how much damage you did, you count the brain fragments exiting the cranium. That's why horror games are real time, non-abstracted action. They immerse you into the game world far more than any turn based strategy RPG could ever hope to, and immersion is a key element in horror. The totally arbitrary skill system and other flaws kill the immersion, and with it any chance at a good horror game.

They're Pretty, but can They Fight?

The game starts you off at the beginning of your character's four year military career. You get to choose one of three branches to enlist in to determine your specialty: marine (shooty guns), navy (geeky technician and h4xOr), and Psi-Ops (psychic/telekinetic powers) then choose what posts to take in your first three years to further customize a class. A lot of people claim that this class idea is great, that you can play through the game three times and have it be different with each class. First of all, I can't imagine anyone wanting to suffer through this thing THREE goddamn times. If they did a modern remake of It's a Wonderful Life then heaven would send Charlie down to someone contemplating playing SS2 a second time, let alone a third, and show them how much better their life would be if they had listened to me and never played it in the first place. Second, all that the branch choices do is start you out with certain skills one point higher or lower than the other branches; you'll be able to catch up to any of the other classes within the first half hour. Other than that there is NO difference between the classes, no exclusive skills to each class, no varying plots, nothing. The only thing the classes do is take up 15 minutes of your time choosing them before you get to the actual game. This builds tension for the horror to come. Not the horror of scary zombies but of having to trudge through this game. That's like having to spend an hour watching the executioner smile at you while he sharpens his axe. Just hurry up and get it over with you cruel bastards

Now once the actual game starts is where the arbitrary and intrusive nature of the skill system really shines through. There are skills for different weapon categories. If you don't have the appropriate weapon skill you cannot fire that weapon, and I don't mean you can't fire it effectively in a "oops I didn't know it was loaded" kind of way, you can't fire it at all. You can't even equip it and brandish it at a monster and try to bluff it into thinking you know how to use it. There are some complicated heavy weapons in the game like a rocket/grenade launcher and fusion cannon, but EVERY weapon is subject to your character's utter incompetence in firearms. It's entirely possible to start off with a standard weapon skill of zero, which means your character cannot fire a simple pistol. It's even possible to choose the gung-ho marine class and lack the skill to handle anything more than a pistol; a pump action shotgun is beyond him. Your character has been in the military for three YEARS at this point, when were they going to get around to teaching him how to use an icky gun? Could it be he doesn't know how to load it? Nope, it lets me load clips into guns I can't use. I guess he needs all those advanced upgrade modules to figure out how to take the safety off. If your character is supposed to be a futuristic, state of the art military cyborg, I'd hate to see what army regulars look like.

I have a friend in the national guard; his job is to maintain computer networks and he wouldn't see combat if Iraq was invading the White House after China and North Korea's surprise nuclear strike, but even he has been trained in over half a dozen types of firearms. Hell last week I went to a shooting range with him and was able to figure out how to load and shoot despite never holding a gun before in my life. I even managed to hit the target most of the time from 30 feet away, and this was with a .375 magnum, not the little old lady mugger-deterring popgun you get in the game. Am I more badass than a third year marine? According to SS2, it would have taken me four years to take that first shot, with the magnum rusting and falling apart after the fifth bullet.

What's this about disintegrating guns? Welcome to the worst game design afterthought ever conceived, courtesy of System Shock 2. In attempt at "realism", the designers decided to make the weapons degrade with use, and they ended up with "total bullshit". Every time you fire a weapon in this game, the quality of the weapon decreases until it hits zero and the weapon breaks. Depending on the condition of the gun when you find it (usually about to break or already broken), it can be good for about 10-30 shots. What utterly retarded nonsense is this? You can repair guns, but that requires you spend lots of points to upgrade your repair skill. Even then you need disposable (just like the guns themselves) repair kits, and you don't find a single repair kit until a good 3+ hours into the game. Thanks to this "feature" you'll get to the point where you run out of working guns before you run out of ammo. One time I had 4 pistols with 5 clips of ammo, guess what happened? Five minutes later I had 4 broken pistols and a spare clip full of bullets. At one point I was throwing my stash of broken guns at enemies in hopes of distracting them away from me. Utterly ridiculous. I suppose that since giant corporations rule the future in SS2, it only makes sense to make your military hardware disposable in order to boost sales.

Professor Plum, in the Library, With a Wrench

My Jedi Knight duels with monkeys. Should I be scared or doubled over with laughter?

So because of all this the weapon you'll be using for most of the game is a wrench. I'm totally serious. A goddamn wrench. It's one of only two weapons in the game that never degrade, the other being an energy sword that takes a crap load of experience to use, and by that stage in the game most of the enemies are resistant to energy weapons anyways. How it is that my laser gun with no moving parts breaks down more quickly than my wrench that I repeatedly smash into metallic cyborg skulls, I have no idea.

Since you never find a wrench-launching bazooka in the game, you're limited to swinging it hand-to-hand at enemies. When are people going to learn that hand-to-hand combat has never worked and will never work in a FPS? The tactic for engaging enemies hand-to-hand has been the same in every FPS since Doom:

  1. Let enemy get close till he stops and winds up to hit you.
  2. Take a step back.
  3. Enemy misses.
  4. Take a step forward and hit enemy right after he whiffs.
  5. Repeat

This guy is just happy to see me and wants a hug. Come here ya big lug, great to see you! That big box and health bar floating above your head really kills any atmosphere though. Why isn't my suspension of disbelief in this shot? BECAUSE IT'S GONE!

There are melee enemies late in the game that are supposed to be super huge and scary (they were ripped off from the pink bull demons in Doom most likely) that actually end up being easier than a basic zombie. The zombies swing at you semi-randomly while the big pink thing swings at you every single time he gets close enough, making it extremely predictable and exploitable. I think they wanted me to use my anti-personnel rounds on it so my shotgun would fall apart and the game could laugh at me for putting up with its crap, but I managed to dispatch each of the one-ton behemoths with my trusty wrench. In the world of System Shock 2, the plumber is king.

They're All Around Us! (because they're cheating)

The scarcity of working weapons is compounded by the fact that the monsters are cheating whores that constantly respawn all around you. You can clear out every monster within a five light year radius and soon enough you'll have one pop through the door to the room you were just in spouting the same scripted line you've heard hundreds of times and leaving your ammo/gun/health/patience supply even more desperately low than it was before. Sometimes you even catch new monsters teleporting out of nowhere in a flash of light. Hellooooooooooo suspension of disbelief! The spawned enemies don't even have any health or ammo you can loot off them. Sure that zombie was shooting at you for five minutes straight with a shotgun, but when you go and search him it will ALWAYS be broken with one bullet left. I'm guessing this feature was meant to keep you paranoid and give you the feeling that you're never safe and something could jump out at you at any second, but all it really does is piss you off. You quickly go from jumping in fright whenever you encounter an enemy to moaning "AGAIN? Give me a fucking break!". That right there is pretty much your SS2 experience after the first few hours, horror replaced with frustration.

From time to time you pick up audio logs left behind by the ship's now dead crew that give you important clues on how to proceed. When you click to listen to them though the game keeps going. You'll be in the middle of listening to a log when another spawned enemy pops through the door next to you. It's like trying to curl up with a good book on the crapper and having your wife/girlfriend/mother/younger sibling barge in without knocking EVERY SINGLE TIME.

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