Look, Ken Levine and his crew gave us all the writing on the wall of what was coming much later with System Shock 2. This was his team’s second game made, which came out to look and feel quite a bit like the first. Then so did Bioshock years later. Then so did Bioshock Infinite after that.
This team was as reliable as a sunrise for a couple of things: taking their time with games, and not doing much to switch up the main thread between them. But when your concept is this good with no one else brave enough to tread on your territory, why would you?
In the same way that Nintendo defined genres early, Looking Glass Studios defined the art of the narrative twist. Their stories were always tightly wound at the poles, leaving it all out between for a complete, satisfying tale that never bothered to bait. Again, no one else was coming close to what they were doing. Even Half-Life, a common touchstone having come out around the same time, relays an ending that leaves a distinct door open for a sequel. How’s that turning out, Half-Life 3 conspirators?
System Shock 2 helped to define PC game stories as well as gameplay possibilities. You are an unnamed soldier thrown into the grinder to protect the Von Braun and Rickenbacker spaceships during their voyages, which doesn’t end well. You awaken to a voice in your head, hallucinations, illegal psychic powers, and murderous crewmates. An introduction to The Many brings haunting voices that echo throughout the creaking hallways, and a mission to stop them is laid bare.
The Many are my favorite enemies from an Irrational/Looking Glass game. Unlike the splicers or the Columbia revolutionaries, these are beings integrated into slavery via implants and psychic control. Between their threats and allures you can hear them begging for death or apologizing for their horrifying deeds. This fuels your mission to perhaps save a few of them from this terrible fate while making your wrench swing feel a little heavier.
Their effectiveness also comes from the plain fact that they’re creepy as f*ck. Drones wander with pipes and shotguns, whispering and howling in deep tones that reverberate in your headphones. My favorite nightmares are the Midwives – just about the most H.R Giger things I’ve ever seen. Their screeches are unnerving and can bring you near panic if you’re up close for a melee attack. Look at these things!
The big ol’ twist has been outed for years so it didn’t exactly stun me, but that’s never really why I play these games. If you know there’s a twist, then the twist can’t surprise. My judge of quality is the narrative build to that point and how the game is affected, both of which Systems Shock 2 executes beautifully. You steadily feel the voice in your head losing a certain veneer around halfway into the game and the questions begin to creep into your mind.
Once it hits, the reveal sticks wonderfully. The mood and syntax of the game changes on a dime at the reveal too, bringing you closer to questioning your own actions than any other game from this studio. As Levine is prone to do, of course. None of his games start and end with your point of view the same. There’s always another angle that your character and the player can be seen from. That’s part of the reason why their journeys are some of the most complete in all of video games.
By the way, yeah, I said a wrench a few paragraphs ago. And psychic powers. Bioshock is very, very System Shock 2.
Besides The Many, you’ve played against these enemies before if you’ve played anything Bioshock. Security turrets, flesh tanks, metal tanks, the works are all here. Beyond the few mentioned above, there isn’t much identity to go around for any of the other attackers. There are faceless walking robots, cyborg assassins (huh?), and the bane of all hell in massive spiders. Seriously, these bastards are the worst. They seem to give wayyy too much damage on top of toxic poisoning that doesn’t stop until you find a toxin hypo. Then, for extra hell-sprinkles, they can become nearly invisible in the later game areas. Fun!
An interesting way to counter how annoying some enemies can be is the research system. As you wander through the Von Braun and Rickenbacker, you’ll pick-up some strange materials that you can then research for lore and boons. You can also get extra weapons out of this, so it’s well worth the time of doing a few laps until the research concludes – as long as you have a chemical room nearby with the required elements inside.
Circling back around to those a-hole spiders, their research highlights an issue with the whole system in that the effects never seemed to really help. My swings and bullets seemed to do the same damage as before I researched these droppings, so I took to only researching for new weapons. I didn’t see the point otherwise.
That being said, System Shock 2 is still eminently playable today to a level beyond even some games released this year. The story is as timeless as a story can be with strong punctuation at the acts and a classic twist. Gameplay was innovative and still feels accessible.
Basically, I’m asking if you want more Bioshock in your life. Do you? Then I have a certain collective for you to meet in person.
System Shock 2 Score: