Patrick has been stalked, mangled, electrified and subjected to brutal attacks by an AI in this remake of a cult classic...
Playing System Shock today is a bit like going back in time. The legacy this series has cannot be overstated. It revolutionized the action genre. It's clear that many games, such as Bioshock, Prey and Singularity would never have looked or worked the way they do if it had not been for System Shock. The question is whether System Shock has anything to say in 2023. You'd think, given the current discussions about AI, that there should of course be a place for this.
It all starts a little more than 50 years into the future. You are a hacker who is captured in an attempt to steal from the company Trioptimum. You are arrested and taken to Citadel Station, where you are asked to remove the ethical restraints on the station's artificial intelligence "Shodan". Edward Diego, who asked you at gunpoint to do this, promises you a deal before a guard knock you unconscious. The darkness embraces you and after a while you wake up, alone, abandoned in an incubator at the station. It quickly becomes clear that things happened while you were out cold.
I don't feel any direct nostalgia here, but already with my first stumbling steps I experience the charm of the games I grew up with. You are given simple instructions to pick up some equipment and then given some simpler missions. There are no clear markers or explanations how to do what you need to do. You are set free and can do whatever you like, really. It's a bit reminiscent of Prey from 2017. You have a backpack with a limited amount of space to keep track of and resources are limited. Every shot you fire counts and you really have to limit your usage of everything you find in order to survive. It quickly turns out that Shodan, the evil AI, has something to do with the enemies being mutated as it wants you and everyone else dead. Unfortunately, despite Shodan being intimidating, the AI in System Shock Remake seems as if it could use a bit of tuning. Enemies have difficulty navigating the environments and become easy prey most of the time.
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I think the graphics and design are really good. It looks very retro-modern, and I like it. Much of the squareness where the environments appear to be assembled from cardboard is retained. It looks good, sounds good and I am quickly engulfed by the atmosphere. Shodan's voice actress does a nice job of making the AI sound terrifying, like in the original. It's incredibly satisfying to hear Terri Brosius - who voices the character in the original - make her return for the remake. My big problem with both the original and the remake is the battles. They never felt good, not even in the 1990s. In this edition, it feels a bit like there is a lag on reactions and attacks lack power. Not much happens when you hit an enemy with an iron pipe. It feels rather disappointing considering that this aspect of the game still feels very stuck in the 1990s.
I'm a bit lenient with the fights, even if they aren't exactly brilliant, as much of the focus revolves around exploring and building your character. You get things early on to place on your character. A bit like dressing up a knight in an RPG, you place items in a menu that give you abilities. In addition to these implants, there are also tons of voice messages and information you can find. Just like in We Went Back, Observation, Tacoma and Prey, there are also puzzles to figure out. One of these sent me into a computer world of synth music. I really liked what I saw there. Without spoiling too much, it reminded me of older 3D space games.
There's more to do than just fighting and that makes some flaws less noticeable. With the help of objects and clues from the environments, you can pass through otherwise impenetrable places. Initially, when facing these obstacles I felt lost, which I liked. However, I can understand that many people dislike this. You will need to save often, walk around the environments and accept that backtracking is a part of the experience. It's about vacuuming the environments, navigating the station bit by bit and at the same time defeating the enemies you face. In some situations you can use the environment to help thanks to traps, in other situations you just need your trusty weapons. I love that you need to check the map to plan out your route around it, but I know many people hate to get lost and thus can experience frustration. It's personal preference, at the end of the day.
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If you haven't played the original System Shock, here you get treated to a very important but mostly forgotten action role-playing game with an emphasis on horror. You have a memorable villain who makes their presence felt in the right way. This artificial intelligence is not quite as tangible and present as, for example, Glados in Portal, but psychotic and murderous in a completely different way. There is a cold logic behind everything Shodan does and you carry with you the knowledge that you let her free from her ethical reins. In all of this there is perhaps an analogy or metaphor that can be connected to our real-life development of AI. System Shock getting a remake now is perfect. It allows us to dissect a classic in a new guise, with a topical issue that just so happens to tie in with the story.
However, it is clearly noticeable that even though some changes have been made here, that it is a game from the 90s at its heart. The user interface is clunky, the combat is imprecise and the story doesn't really dig deep. Still, I've had a pretty good time with it. It's dark, lonely and brilliantly atmospheric. Gaming historians and nostalgics will get the most out of this, but what we have here I don't think will win many new fans. The new graphics, increased amount of settings and other things have helped it to reach an acceptable level for gaming today. At the same time, the basic structure is old-fashioned and will scare some away. The environments are also the same and it is easy to get lost. This will make your first moments confusing. Then add in deadly enemies and you have something that won't appeal to everyone. Which is a bit of a shame because it's a good game.
Although time has not been kind to the original, the remake manages to blow away several of the problems I have with 1994's System Shock. It may not revolutionize our gaming world, but it can create exciting discussions around AI. It probably won't introduce many new fans, but it still stands as a declaration of love to the original players. I am satisfied with what I played. The whole trumps the individual problems. On the other hand, I have no real nostalgia to look back on, as I was a bit young to fully appreciate the original games. However, I can say that although there is much to criticize, this was innovative. It was ahead of its time and did a lot for storytelling in the action genre. I think if you love the series you will have a good time with this, because I did. I hope that the second one also gets this treatment before the third one comes out.
8 / 10
Great atmosphere, great design, excellent story, fantastic music, old-fashioned game design, iconic villain and great voice acting.