System Shock

System Shock (Console)

Don't worry, Nightdive's sharp remake works just as well here as on PC.

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It's absolutely crazy to think that System Shock is from 1994. I was three years old at the time and the Soviet Union had barely dissolved, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's fourth season had just been released. It's crazy to think about because the System Shock remake, which was released last year on PC (please read our razor-sharp review of this) and is now finally on console, feeling incredibly fresh, while also being like travelling back in time. And that says something as the original was ahead of its time. This remake is truly an impressive achievement and now it can be experienced on console.

Although I spent my childhood sitting at the family's crappy beige Windows 95 PC installing and playing Quake II, Doom, Warcraft 1 and 2, Hitman 1, and many other classics, I never played the original System Shock. However, as a huge fan of Dishonored, the Deus Ex series, BioShock, and games with less obvious immersive sim elements (e.g. Hitman), I've always had a deep respect for the game, as I do for the early Thief games (which also desperately need remakes).

That's why it's so exciting to get my hands on this remake of System Shock. Because unlike many other games that have been given the remake treatment, such as Resident Evil 4, System Shock is so far much older that it doesn't just need a little refresh. It's so much older that it was released on MS-DOS. It's the type of game where you can't really see what's going on in screenshots because it's so ancient. In other words, if any game needs a remake, it's System Shock.

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System Shock

The great thing is that the System Shock remake is not only incredibly playable, but also feels quite fresh. You can really feel the love that went into making this game, which was so far ahead of its time, shine like it was brand new. And it succeeds to a great extent, also on console.

Perhaps we should take a step back and ask: what is it that makes System Shock so special? The original is considered one of the most defining games of the immersive sim genre - games that give the player the freedom to use a set of abilities and weapons in many ways and interact with the world (think Prey, Dishonored or BioShock). In addition, you are placed on a space station that has been taken over by the malevolent AI SHODAN - which has a definite god complex. Almost everyone on board is either dead or have been turned into cyborgs, mutated freaks or something else entirely. Combine this with a cool cyberpunk aesthetic, lots of footage, logs and other things you can read from the dead crew members, and you can already hear how this 1994 game has laid the seeds for many, many games you've probably played over the years (like Portal, and many more).

The remake has retained a distinctly retro aesthetic that adds plenty of character, and visually it just looks really, really cool, with a perfect blend of a kind of lo-fi graphic look, but with enough detail and nice lighting effects to make it feel modern. While character models and environments look detailed enough from afar, they're actually pixellated up close, and combined with much of the world being bathed in neon lights and shadows, you get a pretty special look that both honours the original and looks new. For example, all the things you find around the world are clearly recognisable and distinguishable from each other, but at the same time everything has this simple retro style. It's a world that's really well done.

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System Shock

System Shock is essentially a product of a bygone era. In my opinion, it should be preserved rather than modernised. I'm talking about the utterly insane level design that both makes you tear your hair out and makes the experience memorable. But it's also about the choices you make and how you interact with the world. You don't always realise that you made an important choice until you face the consequences of it. In other words, the choices are subtle rather than explicit, and it's always a good idea to have a save game ready. It could have been a mistake to throw away the Magnum pistol in favour of the shotgun.

In System Shock, you crawl through shafts and search every nook and cranny of the nine hellish levels of the terrifying space station, Citadel Station. But you don't do it to find a fun Easter egg, you do it because it's necessary for your survival, even if it means your death. You do it because your resources are always scarce and you're always missing a damn access card to some door. Here, the game has a Metroidvania-like element, reminiscent of the Resident Evil games, for example.

System Shock

System Shock is old school, but it's also exactly the type of challenge many people miss in modern games. The understanding of what has happened and where you're going lies in environmental storytelling - most obviously audio recordings, but there are no quest markers, few tutorials, and you're not held by the hand. It's entirely up to you to figure out how you want to navigate the nerve-wracking levels.

On the audio side, we're dealing with a nice soundtrack and some essential, recognisable enemy sounds that you actively use to navigate the world. It's a fairly simple but effective setup - though the soundtrack isn't particularly memorable. The game could also be a little sharper about when to add more fast-paced battle music. I've experienced a number of times when the battle music didn't really make sense, probably because there was technically an enemy somewhere, but I wasn't really in danger. Otherwise, we're dealing with an excellent cyberpunk soundtrack and good sounds in general.

One place where the game's audio side shines is in the voice acting, and specifically from SHODAN, the malevolent AI that is everywhere, in every corner of the space station you claustrophobically navigate. Around every corner is a new camera to shoot to minimise SHODAN's control, and this evil technological demi-god is one of the cornerstones of System Shock. Everywhere you look you can see the consequences of this AI's control, with mutilated, deformed bodies everywhere, and because her cameras stare you down everywhere, you never forget this supervillain.

In terms of technical quirks, I haven't really experienced anything, other than some unintended movements from dead enemies. I primarily play on Xbox Series X, but have a Series S in our spare room. I chose to play this game on the Series S and only experienced momentary drops in framerate, for example when switching between areas. It stayed sharp on my 1440p monitor throughout.

System Shock

And now we come to what probably sets the console version apart from the PC version the most: the controller controls. One rather odd choice made right from the start is that the camera sensitivity is crazy high. I immediately turned it down from 50/100 to 35/100 and it worked fine. Otherwise, we're dealing with pretty nice controls that are a bit on the Doom-ish side. One fun choice Nightdive Studios made is that on console you still have your weapons, grenades, medkits etc. displayed in a list from 1-9(+0) at the bottom of the screen. This makes sense on PC as you can use the numbers to switch quickly, but on console you use the left and right of your D-pad to choose between these 10 items in total. It's pretty inefficient, and almost every game since has managed to make it easier to heal, throw grenades etc. Likewise, System Shock's inventory system and menus are rather old-fashioned, but that's part of the charm.

Gameplay-wise, System Shock is a bit like if you took the shooter mechanics and pacing from very old shooters like Doom and combined it with immersive sim elements and puzzles - and a confusing level design. It's slow and you can die around every corner. It's heavy, confusing and you have to constantly orientate yourself to the map. I think it's great, but it's not for everyone.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of System Shock comes down to why you play it. Yes, you want to have experienced shooters with better pacing and you definitely want to have played immersive sims that give you more freedom. There is no stealth here, which is an expected part of immersive sims today. The question is whether you sit in total fascination while playing a well-made remake of a game that has defined some of the building blocks that games are made from today, or whether you think 'better environmental storytelling has been done since'.

In my opinion, System Shock is a deeply fascinating game, and with such a well-made remake, there's no reason to hold back if you want to experience a piece of evocative, well-designed and frustrating gaming history. The fact that you can enjoy this remake speaks volumes about how groundbreaking the original was. It's even a remake that was almost cancelled many times over and is therefore something of a miracle. The insane level design is worth an experience in itself, and with modern improvements in all the right places, this is an easy recommendation, also on console.

09 Gamereactor UK
9 / 10
Great atmosphere. Lots of love for the original. Great mix of old and new. Stable. Good controls in general.
Somewhat anonymous music. Inefficient weapon switching.
overall score
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