Sponsored By: Jillsammich, Wandering Taoist and Davet010 (I only accepted one copy, but I’m not telling whose it was. Neener neener!)
Requested By: Rubb Ed
Time Played: 70 minutes
I want to call this Bioshock in Space, but it would be more accurate to say that Bioshock was System Shock 2 underwater.
It’s funny, going backward. Not dad-joke funny (Why did the AI go to the dentist? Because it had a kernel stuck in its teeth!), more “Hmm, that’s interesting” funny. The kind of funny that leads naked scientists to run through the streets of Syracuse telling everyone that they smell bad. I’ve learned some things. About games, about myself, and, well, mostly about myself and games. This ain’t Kerbal Space Program, where I learn about myself and games and albedos.
The first thing I learned is that I am grateful to whomever decided that WASD was the way to control a first-person shooter. When I first booted System Shock 2, I wanted the authentic experience. I loaded the original controls, which uses S to crouch and X to walk backwards, and played for twenty minutes, at which point I died because I kept ducking when I meant to backpedal. When I realized I had to start from the beginning because old games don’t autosave, I grumbled “eureka” at the game and started over with modern controls.
What a difference!
The next thing I learned was that I’m terrible at navigating maze-like environments in games. I’ve always kind of known this, but older games that require you to search every cranny for key-cards throw that fact into sharp relief. After a while I get sick of walking past the same crate that I already opened ten minutes ago, and I realize I’m not grokking the level design. I had a similar challenge with the Bioshock games, but overcame it by not giving a crap about audio logs. Sorry, Mr. Levine, but I’m a spiteful person, and if I get the impression that the game is teasing me, I’m more likely to just ignore the stuff that I’m supposed to be tantalized with. If you want me to see all of your story then don’t make me play hide-and-seek with it.
The thing I learned about video games is how far we’ve come while simultaneously standing almost still. System Shock 2 and Bioshock are, fundamentally, the same game wrapped in the trappings of the decade they were a product of. Spooky, corpse-laden corridors hide gibbering monstrosities that used to be human, and the explanation for it all is buried under a mountain of well-acted wav files. Your character has super powers, which can be upgraded in a million different directions, and which are justified by the scientific bogeyman of the era. In Bioshock it was genetic manipulation. In System Shock 2 it was nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. If there were an analog of System Shock 2 in the 1960s, the powers would have been related to radiation somehow. In another ten years the same game will be made with, oh I don’t know, VR headsets or something – whatever bugaboo makes the Airport Bookstore Best Seller list.
This is not me complaining. I’m an advocate of doing one old thing well being better than doing a bunch of new things poorly. New things are necessary and all, but nothing beats watching an artist evolve to mastery. The timeline from System Shock 2 to Bioshock contains exactly that kind of curve, and it’s fascinating. At any point in the game you can spot what got better, what got cut, what got rethought completely. It’s like watching a person’s thoughts directly, and I’m grateful for the experience.
The fact that System Shock 2 is a well crafted first-person shooter in its own right is just an added bonus. It reminds me of a time when I went to a renaissance faire and got to watch a master glassblower explain his craft. In the heat of the summer, there stood a man holding a ball of lethally hot glass on a long tube, swinging it from side to side to shape it as he casually spoke to a crowd of a hundred people about the process. He turned what looked like a cave troll’s booger into a vase before our very eyes. It was mesmerizing.
I can see why System Shock 2 is so beloved. In an era when everyone was trying to make the next Quake, Irrational was forward-thinking enough to realize that what everyone would eventually want is an FPS with RPG trappings.
Will I keep playing?
If I can ever figure out how to get to the next objective in the first level, I’d love to continue on, even if only to see what sort of stuff the engineering character-build I’m working on can do in this world.
Is it the Devil Daggers of turn-of-the-century RPG-FPS mashups?
Games of the 1990s were difficult more by accident than design. A lot of them were just poorly made, like Daikatana. System Shock 2 is not poorly made. It is also designed to accommodate myriad approaches to playing it. That simple design choice mostly negates the ability of the game to be simultaneously hard and fun. It’s one thing if your choice of attacking an enemy is between shooting them and hitting them. It’s quite another when you want to make avoidance and hacking a viable option. So no, System Shock 2 is not the Devil Daggers of the day. Unless you play it with classic controls.
Seriously, what were people thinking in those days?
EDIT: I want to apologize. An earlier version of this post contained a reference to an author who is now deceased. I was unaware, being the out-of-touch sort of guy I am, but now I'm better informed and have replaced the joke with another one.
We thank you for your patience.