Five years would pass until Looking Glass Studios would tap Irrational Games on the shoulder with a proposal to work on something together. And after EA agreed to publish the title, the project that would emerge became the sequel that many believed not only matched the original System Shock for its immersive power but pushed well past it in several other ways. It was the Fall of 1999, and System Shock 2 invited us back into SHODAN’s grasp all over again.
SS2 didn’t start out as a sequel to the first game, but it turned out that way after EA suggested that the title be called System Shock. Ken Levine, who wrote up the design and dialogue behind what would become SS2, went on to incorporate elements of the first into what was there turning what had at first been an assassination mission against a mad captain aboard a starship into a technological horror show.
I found myself loving the sequel as much as the first game. A number of additions to the original formula, elements of which would also emerge again in Irrational’s Bioshock nearly more than a decade later, made SS2 a different but familiar experience.
It’s forty years after the events of System Shock, so it’s the year 2114. You start off as a prospective recruit for the United National Nominate and this is where you make the decision on how you want to play teh game. Three different “classes” representing your traditional “fighter, thief, wizard” configuration seen in RPGs were presented: The Marine class focused on weapons training and fighting, the Navy career focused on tech skills such as being able to fix broken devices, and then there was what I picked…the OSA, which was the PSI Corp of the game.
After you picked a career and tried it out in training, the game simulated three years of duty. You got to pick which missions you wanted to undertake which added certain bonuses to your character depending on what your focus was for that year, until you finally get the call to board the Rickenbacker.
The world of System Shock 2 has gotten a bit darker since the last game. After the Citadel incident in the first game, national governments tried to curb the power of megacorporate empires like TriOptimum and instead have only gotten away with an uneasy truce. Now things have gotten more interesting with the development of the faster-than-light ship Von Braun by TriOptimum who the UNN reluctantly allow to go forward to build. As conditions worsen on Earth and the hope goes out to find other worlds beyond the solar system, people start pinning their hopes on the Von Braun.
Of course, the UNN isn’t about to let a corporation hog all the glory (and the colonization rights), and after a bitter negotiation, have hammered out a deal in which the Rickenbacker will be tethered to the Von Braun on its maiden voyage making everyone happy. Of course, things don’t always go to plan especially when tensions continue to rub everyone raw between the military of the Rickenbacker and the civilians aboard the Von Braun.
And that’s where you come in. Another cryo capsule later, you wake up in another foreboding room with a corpse to tell you that something has gone terribly wrong.
SS2 took everything that I loved about the first game and made things even better with the deep RPG elements it brought to the table. You now had statistics that affected your character determining how much they could carry, how many hit points they had, or how effective their PSI skillsare. Many skills were also broken up into different tiers of increasing power, such as PSI’s higher level abilities, and there were even upgrades you could find to give you permanent boosts such as permanently improving your hacking skills or how quickly you moved. Many of these concepts would find their way back to Bioshock in the form of plasmids and their associated upgrades, yet SS2’s implementation was incredibly diverse with its many opportunities for improvement. These additions made SS2 feel a lot more like a CRPG than the first game and I loved it for that.
The open-endedness was also part of its DNA, something that Ken Levine and his Irrational team would revisit with Bioshock. Though the story, revealed through log entries left behind by the former crews of both ships as well as moments of interaction with ship’s mainframe, XERXES, was rigidly linear, how you went about doing certain things was left up to the player. Can’t open a locked container? If you were strong enough, you could bash it open. Or if your tech skills were sharp enough, unlock it with a little fiddling.
The environment also felt as if everything had actually been built as it probably would be if the ships were real. Fluff content of pointless corridors and rooms were in short supply, like in the last game, and nearly everything could be interacted with or stored in your handy inventory.
The CRPG/Adventure Gamer’s mantra of picking up everything that isn’t nailed down still holds, but with a limited inventory, it forced you to be a little smarter. One of the first things I hoped to find was another laser rapier like in the first game. It was one of the reasons I picked PSI – the hope that I wouldn’t need to use too much ammo. But I still had to reply on hypos to refill my PSI gauge.
Death also came easily and the Save Game key was my best friend. Almost mercifully, the game had nano-reconstructors that could rebuild you (as long as you had the nanites) to save you the trouble of restoring an earlier save point…something that Bioshock would revisit again with Vita Chambers. Yet it did try to fight the idea that death was it, a novel concept that other titles like Prey years later would also try and tackle in their own way.
And “she” was back. Before GlaDOS spoiled us as a motherly AI delivering cake and death threats in one breath, SHODAN rumbled with players with cold, calculating insults mocking our very existence in the first game. And now she’s back to do it all over again with a glint in her camera’s eye, but that came much later in the story thanks to a clever twist. She also wasn’t alone.
Horror isn’t easy to do, but SS2 managed to creep me out more than once with its ghostly apparition and disembodied voices murmuring through empty corridors. SHODAN isn’t responsible for the mutants that you’ll find onboard now. Some “alien” contagion is responsible, working its way through the crew on both ships, and they want you to join the “Many”. Hearing the moaning call of the “Many” or the shuffle of a mutated creature echo somewhere ahead was all I needed to get my PSI amp out and prepare for the worst. Great stuff.
But SS2 wasn’t all PSI powers and horrific sunshine for me. One of the most aggravating things about the game were the disintegrating weapons. Even as a PSI user, I still had to shoot a gun, and it could wear out and break after a few shots. It was as if everything was made out of paper mache, or that Cosmic Rust had infected only the usable stuff. Even after getting the one power that stopped weapon degradation, it was only temporary I’d still have to worry about the weapon AND the PSI points I was spending to keep things from breaking. It was a drag on the whole game, but it was manageable if not annoying to deal with.
Graphically, the game wasn’t great on the eyes, but it was minor when my imagination filled in the blanks. The degradation stuff was really the only bad thing about SS2 that I thought was worth mentioning. Everything else was just so fun to play with and would be seen again in other games afterwards such as the horror angle of Dead Space or the spiritual successor that Irrational would return with in Bioshock. There were just so many great ideas in this game and the manual even has a few “designer’s notes” written by Ken Levine and Jonathan Chey in describing what they did to make the experience work.
SHODAN is leering at you from the ad which also shows off a few screens with the CRPG-like inventory and menu system on each. It may look cumbersome, but actually worked out pretty well at least for me as I tried to survive what the game threw into my face. Running the game on modern OSes had always been somewhat problematic, but Good Old Games wraps it up on their store for everyone to finally try out without having to figure it out on their own.
SS2 is one of those few sequels that does nearly everything right. And even though Bioshock doesn’t quite plumb as deeply as the CRPG system that SS2 had detailed, the same spirit behind the Many, the Rickenbacker, and the Von Braun live on in many other games alongside it.