The original System Shock is easily one of the most influential and important games of the MS-DOS era. Widely credited as the genesis of the immersive sim genre, its first person perspective and techno horror atmosphere can be traced through titles such as Half-Life, Deus Ex and, more recently, Arkane’s Prey and beyond. While its historical significance is unarguable, modern players will find returning to the original game a tough pill to swallow compared to some other 90s classics. Can this full System Shock remake revamp it for a modern audience?
In some ways we’ve been here before. Nightdive Sudios released System Shock Enhanced Edition in 2015 with a clutch of quality of life fixes and support for modern Windows systems. This was really more of a teaser as Nightdive soon announced a full remake of the game. Finally, after years of delays, that remake is now here, and… it’s still System Shock, for better and for worse.
The cinematic opening of the original is present and correct, although here you immediately get to take control of your unfortunate hacker protagonist. After exploring your apartment you click on your laptop and start to hack into Tri-Optium systems. Immediately you are rudely interrupted by armed security and ‘persuaded’ to break into the settings of SHODAN, the AI of the Capital space station. Instructed to remove SHODAN’s ethics settings you are then drugged and the screen fades to black, only to wake up in the Capital’s medical bay and have to contend with robots, mutants, and the psychopathic SHODAN herself.
The first thing players will notice is the Unreal Engine 4 graphical update. Gone are the primitive blocks of colours and blocky enemies, replaced with a far more detailed and contemporary aesthetic that breathes a whole new life into the world of Citadel. Underneath this lick of paint is almost entirely the same level design and object placement, but there are some added difficulties in actually spotting items in the much busier environments. This aspect is compounded early on by being able to pick up everything you can see (albeit with the restrictions a limited inventory). In the first few hours, collecting everything and then either junking or recycling for credits is a necessity, but this busy work drops away as your offensive options increase.
To begin with, you’ll just have access to a metal pipe and have to get up close and personal with your enemies, but there are a multitude of other weapons to find and choose between as you get deeper into the game. I was surprised how far these options took the game into first person shooter territory, although there is still some complexity in juggling the guns and ammo best suited to either organic or robotic foes.
Given the limited nature of your inventory you’ll have to make hard choices about which weapons to carry and prioritise the appropriate resources. Quest items and healing share the same limited space, so managing your inventory is an essential requirement. There’s an obscure nature of some of the quests (almost all being hinted at through missable audiologs) so it is a welcome improvement that you can’t accidentally discard vital quest items, even if they do still take up valuable space.
The real star of the game is still the story and atmosphere. SHODAN remains one of the best villains in gaming and her icy putdowns and scolding tone is perfectly recreated here. The narrative is pieced together through the aforementioned audiologs and requires you to scour each level to find all the details. Whilst this is resolutely old school it fits perfectly with the idea of being an intrusive hacker in the system.
The moment to moment gameplay is a mixture of combat, exploration and puzzles, with all three having individual difficulty settings to customise your experience. These can only be adjusted at the start of the game, so you will have to restart if you find yourself overwhelmed partway through, and I found that even on the easiest difficulty settings and with the limited resources you can find, the game is still very challenging.
As much as I enjoyed revisiting Citadel and stopping SHODAN, there were quite a few annoyances and minor issues in my time with the game that might prove obstacles to gamers more familiar with modern game design. The in-game map doesn’t seem to respond properly – not auto-marking lifts, recharge points etc., and the manual markers seemingly broken – and the game sorely needs a journal or objective tracker, the lack of which just leads to tiresome backtracking because you’ve missed that one audio log with the hint you need.
Similarly, it is too easy to get yourself trapped due to not having the equipment upgrade you need – the Beta Grove section being impossible without a higher level biohazard suit than the game suggests. This pack also unactivates if you reload so you have to quickly fiddle with menus to avoid dying repeatedly. In most of the game you respawn if you find the appropriate medical room on each level but the Groves bring about an unskippable 60 second death scene that tested my patience. I’m glad I persevered to finish the game, but as the final third descends into more standard FPS combat, it highlights somewhat clunky gunplay. Combat lacks weight or impact, so you often can’t tell if you’re doing damage or wasting your ammo.