System Shock Enhanced Edition is a mixture of both the CRPG and FPS genres, that takes place inside of an enormous space station now under the control of a malevolent AI named Shodan. It was originally released in 1994 with this version making it playable on modern machines without the need of DOSBox or any other tweaks to get it up and running. New additions come in the form of support for up to a 1024×768 resolution, a few bug fixes and most importantly, reworked controls to make it far more accessible towards modern gamers. Even with ‘wasd’ keybindings and the option to have mouse-look, this is still exactly the same title we’ve experienced back in the mid-nineties, so do not expect to run and gun like you would in Doom. I’d argue that one has to enjoy the CRPG genre more so than FPS, as System Shock’s roots stem from the devs previous Ultima Underworld titles.
Upon booting up the game for the first time, we are greeted with a short cut-scene that shows our character hacking and promptly being caught by armed people. Now this is what further makes pinpointing what genre this game falls in even more difficult. You see, we are given four different aspects of the game to control their difficulty level from 0-3. These are Puzzle, Combat, Cyber, and Mission. You can set Puzzles to automatically solve themselves and Combat to make enemies not attack you to make it like a Walking Sim. Setting Mission to 0 will get rid of all the story and audio logs while setting it to 3 will give you a mere seven hours to beat the game. Cyber refers to the cyberspace sections where you find yourself flying through a vector styled digital world and avoiding gunfire to collect data or unlock rooms. It is a huge decision to make right off the bat, and you should definitely read the included manual before doing so.
With such a modular system in place, even if we are playing the same title it could play out very differently between us. I’m going to assume you’ve picked the default setting for each of the four settings, as I did, in order to talk about combat, puzzles, and story that may not even occur for someone else. We are not even properly in the game yet, and I’ve just spent over two paragraphs explaining the intro to this title. That is the type of complexity at store here for anyone that may walk into this thinking its just an FPS. So after that entire thing of being dragged off, you awaken six months after to find the space station you were taken to oddly deserted. We arm ourselves with a nearby baton, and this is where our long journey to take down Shodan begins. Before heading out, it is best to familiarize ourselves with the HUD that posses a great many things on it as well as to get used to alternating between turning mouse-look on or off.
Having mouse-look on (E by default) makes it much easier to look around the environments and navigate during combat. You can even turn off the HUD to fill the entire screen with the game world. This however is not ideal for when you need to reload, equip a grenade, heal or anything that doesn’t involve running and shooting. Considering you are a hacker, not a super soldier, pretending to be Jon Rambo will likely end badly for you and healing supplies are not given sparingly. At the start, you can easily whack any foe you encounter with your baton relatively easily. That will unfortunately not last, and most of the later enemies have hit-scan attacks with one heck of an aim and robotic like reaction times to boot. Makes sense in the lore of the game and it translates into a game where you always want to be fully aware of your surroundings, carefully peek into rooms before going in and decide whether to waste energy powering your lantern to better see through the darkness. In ways, this is a horror game too.
To defend yourself from these cybernetic and/or mutated foes, we have a wide array of weapons at our disposal. We have a ton of different guns that we’ll find throughout our adventure, all having their own quirks. Some are automatic, other are energy weapons that feed off of your energy bar instead of an ammo pool, and we even have a lightsaber for those that manage to find one. One thing that they all have in common is that they will not all work well or at all for that matter, against different types of enemies. Most possess different ammo types you can swap between that may work better against them but having a wide array of weapons array is still useful. Darn near all of them have different ammo types as well, so having multiple of the same gun is useless anyways. That is unless your strategy is to carry a bunch of energy weapons, set them to overcharge all of its capacity in one powerful shot and switch to another one while it recharges.
There are drugs that you can take that temporarily enhance you with better sight, one that makes you smarter and a consumable that sets you into a berserk rage in order to quickly tear apart your enemies in melee. Most of these also carry negative effects like making your sight worse once it wears off and that lasts until you use a detox item. Even during that aforementioned berserk rage using melee is something that should only be used as a last resort. Being angry doesn’t make you bulletproof and running up to a bunch of foes that have hit-scan weaponry with a baton will leave you more battered than slowly picking them off from cover or simply throwing a grenade. Ammo is oddly enough, never in short supply in this title but health packs are an entirely different story. Regardless of how you kill them, they die in a gloriously violent fashion making defeating them something that you won’t tire of.
Fighting them, on the other hand, does get tiring. Their insane reaction times, precision and aim make combat kind of a pain after a while. Most of the times when you poke your face in to see into the room, you will immediately get shot in the face, and fighting consists mostly of you firing a single shot then fleeing into cover. The lack of some kind of flinching mechanic when you damage them amplifies this as even when up against a single foe, you’ll have to employ this same strategy since they will keep firing until dead. It’s functional though not all too much fun. What really makes System Shock shine are the environments, atmosphere, and Shodan herself. It’s dark, it’s dreary, and as you listen to the audio logs of the valiant struggles of the poor soul that is now a bloody corpse on the floor, one can’t help but to feel engrossed. And oh man, whenever Shodan talks to you it will make you panic, for she is not one to make empty threats and you’ll likely end up as another corpse if you don’t pull out your best gear immediately.
The presence of that AI that believes herself to be a god is felt all over the place in the form of the cameras that are her eyes. These are scattered all over the station and destroying them weakens her control over that particular area until it reaches zero. It is somewhat disappointing that all this does is open a door that was previously blocked by Shodan for some sweet loot instead of something more creative. In total there are nine levels to fight your way through, and these do not function like you’d imagine hearing the word “levels”. This is essentially an open world game, and the goal is not to merely blast your way to the next level. Shodan is not an enemy that you can defeat by killing hordes of her minions then simply killing her with your gun somehow. You’ll be completely lost if you play it in that fashion, as the key to her demise is in the audio logs. It’s not simple background noise or a way to give you lore, these were actual people trying to defeat Shodan as well and clearly failed since you usually find the log next to a corpse. It is up to you to carry through the mission that cost them their lives.
System Shock does not spell things out for you, even with the audio logs you will still need some brain power to carry your mission through. The answer is occasionally on another level. As an example in one point of the game, you are tasked with destroying some antennas, and your grenades are not doing it. It can be very easy to forget that you had previously found a ton of C4 on the storage level so always keep in mind that nothing is simply there for the sake of it. If you find something that you’ve never seen nor know what it does, leaving it there and placing a marker stating what it is called can prove invaluable later on. On the other hand, if you pick it up you may think it’s completely useless then toss it somewhere on a different floor or worse, you may end up destroying humanity yourself by accidentally firing a laser towards Earth much to Shodan’s amusement. Find a room full of radiation, and you can still explore it even if you haven’t found the necessary suit to keep you from possibly growing an additional limb. This is freedom in the purest sense of the word and demands your full attention in order to progress forward.
The areas you’ll be exploring are maze-like in design and features auto-mapping to make it easier to navigate. It will not however, mark anything of interest on said map. That is up to us in the form of markers we can place and will be of incredible use if we actually take the time to place them instead of relying solely on muscle memory. Marking where you found a surgery table can very well save your life the next time you are around that level again or just random levers that seemingly do nothing can save you a ton of searching for it later on. An interesting feature of this title are the Cyborg Conversion centers. These small chambers will allow you to respawn if you are killed in that level with no penalty other than your high-score at the end being slightly damaged. This allows us to be a lot more careless and go around slicing things with your light-saber which one normally wouldn’t do. These handy machines will not be on every level. Once we enter deeper into Shodan’s territory all bets of any mercy are gone.
There are two ways of regaining health anywhere you are. One is a drug called medipatch that will slowly heal you a bit over time, and the other is an actual first aid kit that will replenish all of your health immediately. As you may guess, the latter is far more difficult to come across and is insanely valuable while you are in a pinch since healing slowly during a gunfight is not ideal. The first aid kit has an inventory section of its own called General where you can collect random stuff like batteries, decapitated heads or soda cans if you want. Batteries are another very valuable item to have. They will restore part of your energy meter which is used for a wide variety of things. One is the energy weapons and the second are our cybernetic enhancements that we gain throughout. These range from insanely cool to practically useless. I’ll start with the useless one which gives you a small screen that shows you what is behind you or later on gives you a full 360-degree view. This has been made near useless due to the mouse-look, back when we had to slowly turn around by clicking the edges of the screen it was pretty handy.
Then on the other end of the spectrum, you have rad things like Jump Jets that let you fly around as long as your energy holds and a Booster that lets us run at insanely impracticable speeds. We also have an energy shield to absorb a certain percent of damage, a flashlight to see better in the dark or night vision which takes up more energy. Each have different module levels to find that will improve that enhancement. There is no end to the reasons why you would want to explore every nook and cranny of the station. At times you may also find a terminal which you can “hack” into. These are where the cyberspace sections take place, and you fly around shooting at floating heads, collecting data and racing towards the end. It is bizarre, to say the least, and yet another area where the mouse-look greatly improved the game. While flying around in there, you can also access some arcade style mini-games to play on your HUD when you want to take a break from shooting robots. Just do so in a safe place because they most certainly can and will still shoot you.
I’d like to state again that System Shock was released in 1994. That is simply insane and was so ahead of its time it felt unreal, especially against games of that year like Doom 2 or Warcraft. It mixes so many different elements of different genres together into some kind of Frankenstein like creation, and the result was still somehow pretty darn good. The developer Looking Glass Technologies (R.I.P) not only had vision but they more importantly had the necessary skill to pull it off. As a total nerd and retro game enthusiast, this game is still mind-blowing to me, but the fact remains that as of this review System Shock is 23 years old. It has aged and what was once impressive is lost on a pair of fresh eyes. What remains is the maze-like level design of FPS games and the unintuitiveness of an early CRPG title. Neither of these things are all too prevalent today so people interested in playing this title for the first time should keep this in mind. This version does come with a guide which will certainly help those willing to give this classic title a try. With that said, System Shock Enhanced Edition is well worth playing and is in my opinion, one of a kind.