Review: System Shock – In Need Of An Update

While gathering my thoughts on the new remake of the classic immersive sim System Shock, I kept thinking about what I want from a remake. In recent years, games like Final Fantasy VII Remake (2020), Resident Evil 4 (2023), and Dead Space (2023), have set a certain standard for what a remake can be. It’s a visual update, a modernization of gameplay, maybe even a new take on the story, or an overhaul of the systems present in the original. System Shock isn’t all that. Now to be fair, the games mentioned are from some of the biggest studios out there and have budgets that many could only dream of – including, as I imagine, developer Nightdive Studios and publisher Prime Matter of System Shock (2023).

I should mention that I have not played the original System Shock, but all that means is that I can’t say exactly what was and wasn’t changed in the remake. I can say for sure is that, while it looks nice and shiny, System Shock (2023) still feels like an old game in many ways.

Some nice fellas introducing you to your stay at Citadel

For fans of the original, that might not be a problem; they loved System Shock back in 1994 and they’ll love it now – looking nicer and with better controls. But for people like me who have no attachment to the original and are simply looking for a new game to play, some of the design decisions present in System Shock might be a bit frustrating. They certainly were for me at times.

The visual upgrade System Shock has received is impressive without a doubt. The shiny chrome that makes up most of the space station paired with the bright and colourful neon lights make for a nice futuristic cyberpunk aesthetic, and the tight corridors and corners inside contrast with the endless, empty reaches of outer space and create a feeling of claustrophobia that won’t disappear until the very end of the game.

It’s just you and your trusty lead pipe

Similar things can be said about the sound design. Whether it’s your own or the enemies’ weapons, the enemies’ movement, objects in the environment like cameras and doors, or anything else, it sounds exactly how you would imagine it to sound. This might not seem like much, but it’s harder than you’d think, and is key to creating a world as full and complete as the one in System Shock.

This is really the biggest strength of System Shock. The Citadel as a location is so fully realized. You board it as a complete newcomer and when SHODAN takes over it, you have to find your own way, fighting the opposition one floor at a time with only the most barebones of instructions from your limited number of allies. And System Shock does a perfect job of making you feel just as lost and helpless as the main character. Honestly, I think it might do too good of a job of this.

Destination: Citadel

I understand that, for some people, the lack of navigation is part of the appeal. A game that doesn’t hold your hands, lets you explore the place yourself, and asks you to figure out what to do without much of anything in regards to instructions. If you’re one of those people, I sincerely hope you love every second of System Shock. But I’m not one of those people and if you aren’t either, then you might have a tougher time loving this game.

There aren’t typical quest logs or anything like that in System Shock. You’ll figure out what to do next by sifting through the many audio logs you’ll find lying around the station, and if you’re lucky, a few of them will give you an idea of what your next goal should be. Figuring out what to do might just be the easiest of your questions to answer, since once you know that you still have to figure out where to do it, how to do it, and the most difficult part, actually do it.

You will learn to cherish the sight of these

Figuring out where to go isn’t always easy, as the map in System Shock is as barebones as it gets. The map of each new floor slowly reveals itself as you explore the environment, which might give you an idea of the layout but that’s it. Even the most important rooms you need to remember aren’t highlighted or given a name on the map and there are barely any symbols for special interactable objects either. The only option you have is to mark anything you think is important. This itself isn’t the biggest problem, but what further complicates things is how similar the environments look. Don’t get me wrong, the individual floors have unique designs, but within a floor it all looks the same. That coupled with the almost maze-like structure of the floors makes it difficult to navigate them and left me confused more than a couple times.

As I’ve alluded to before, just because you know what to do doesn’t mean you know how to do it. Your task might be as simple as turning off an energy shield, but to do that you have to lower the security level, find a code, enter the cyberspace to hack open a door, then enter said room which is probably defended by guards, and then you can finally hit the switch that deactivates the energy shield. Every new task you get is really made up of a multitude of smaller tasks that ask you to run from one corner of the floor to the other, and sometimes even from one floor to another and then back.

A warm welcome awaits you at every new floor

On top of that, System Shock is anything but an easy game. Your ammunition and healing items are limited, respawn points are rare, and healing stations even more so. Enemies are countless, and if you wait too long they might just respawn. Many games force you to manage your resources in this way, particularly survival horrors, but I think System Shock takes it to the extreme. The sheer number of enemies you’ll run into is overwhelming, and the tight corridors make it so that avoiding fighting them is near impossible. As such, the game slowly whittles down your life and resources until you have nothing left. At one point, it even put me in a position where I was stuck and it was pretty much impossible for me to keep going and the only option I had left was to reload an old save and replay a little over an hour of content to get back to where I was, because I simply couldn’t progress with the state my inventory was in.

But to give credit where credit is due, System Shock actually does a decent job of allowing the player to customize the difficulty. Instead of just choosing the game difficulty you want (easy, medium, hard), you actually get to choose four different difficulties for different aspects of the game: Combat, mission, cyber, and puzzle. I think these are pretty self-explanatory except for maybe cyber, since I haven’t talked about the cyberspace yet.

Welcome to the cyberspace

The cyberspace is a set of levels which you enter at certain points in System Shock when you need to hack into the space station to activate or deactivate a plethora of the Citadel’s functions. Here, System Shock turns into a shooter with gravity disabled. You float around with your little spacecraft and shoot at enemies while you simultaneously dodge whatever they shoot at you. These levels tend to be fairly short, but they’re quite fun and a welcome change of pace from the rest of the game. But visually, it’s a bit barren. It looks cool when you enter cyberspace for the first time, but then it doesn’t evolve in any way.

If you love the original System Shock, then there’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll love this, and I’m sure there will be people who will discover this classic for themselves for the first time with the remake as well, but for me some of the systems at hand and simple design choices feel outdated and I wish they had taken the chance with this remake to put a new spin on things. I do believe you could have captured the spirit of the original while also updating it for modern times. And if they had failed in doing that, well then we’d still have the original game.

Nairon played System Shock on PC with a review key. System Shock is also available on Playstation 4, Playstation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series.

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