Posted: February 25
System Shock 2 (aka the System Shock that people liked) has gained and maintained its reputation as one of the best videogames ever made for the past 16 years, and with good reason. It is worth your time, money, and attention.
16 years later, and the aRPG mechanics have not lost their luster. Switching between the menu-driven GUI and FPS combat feels extremely natural, and with a little control-binding the scheme feels equally natural. While the graphics and aesthetic have been rendered antiquated, the mechanics haven't aged a day.
Mechanics that are only matched by the brilliantly written dialogue and stellar sound design that remains rock-solid through the entire game. Goes to show that you can have catchy, memorable tunes in a horror game. The dialogue (though monologues would be a better fit, with more soliloquies than you could cast a play with) is intensely engaging, even spread through the 50 billion character drama plot threads that it has.
All this delivered with maximum impact by the levels. A useless map aside, each level just as interesting as the last, each one a joy to explore, each one with it's own layout quirks and exultingly memorable aspects.
These aspects cement it as the classic that it is. The rest of the aspects, though, are not all sunshine and daisies.
System Shock 2's quality can be easily separated into two parts, which for conveniences sake we're going to going to name "Pre-Rickenbacker" and "Post-Rickenbacker". The bulk of the game takes place Pre-Rickenbacker, easily 9/10s of it.
Not great in either stage are that the enemy variety peters out halfway through the game, Xerxes never rises above his role as an utterly forgettable antagonist (So much so that SHODAN steals the show as the antagonist, despite being allied with you for the majority of the game) and the random enemy spawns is just obnoxious, and occasionally outright grating.
In those Pre-Rickenbacker 9/10s of game, the pacing is fantastic, a slow steady rise of power and stakes. The character drama mini-plots equally so, the diary-and-corpse-based delivery meaning that the chronological order of the events is such that you eventually catch up to them and see the climaxes played out before your eyes. The art direction shines because in spite of the dated models, the clean sci-fi look is explored on in so many different interesting ways that take advantage of the limitations.
Post-Rickenbacker, the game takes on a new direction.
Imagine that you're a child, sitting around a campfire as another kid tells a fantastic ghost story. The kid takes you through its twists and turns, the moment-to-moment memorability being so engrossing that it doesn't even occur to you that nothing has actually happened in the story proper. And right as the child gets to the crux of their character spinning and woven strands of fate, they takes out their arm and blow a 30-second long raspberry into it, the stunned, awkward silence of the audience capping off the performance.
Art direction becomes an eyesore. Level design, forgettable. Boss fights, disastrous. The single new character story serves only as an exposition dump, as the game throws the same enemies you've been fighting since the midway point at you just to burn through accrued resources. Despite the 9/10s of game before it, (and despite it still being worth your time, money and attention, just to reiterate), the game gets bored, burns through the last of its budget, and throws its hands in the air limply while giggling - ending in one of the most hilarious examples of asset reuse ever seen.
That's how System Shock 2 ends, not with a bang nor a whimper, but a muffled fart as a tuba plays in the distance.