Mini Review: “System Shock: Enhanced Edition” (Retro Computer Game)

2017 Artwork System Shock Enhanced Edition mini review sketch

Although this is slightly more than just a “first impressions” review of “System Shock: Enhanced Edition”, I should probably start by saying that, although I have played a moderate amount of this game, I haven’t finished it at the time of writing.

Due to the game’s sheer length and complexity, there probably wouldn’t be any reviews here for months if I finished it before writing. So, I thought that I’d point out that this mini review only covers my impressions of perhaps the first 20-40% of the game at most. It’s more than a “first impressions” article and less than a full review (hence the “mini review” title that I only usually use for collections of fan-made “Doom II” levels etc..).

That said, I have a lot to say about what I have seen of “System Shock: Enhanced Edition”. The idea of a retro cyberpunk game from the early-mid 1990s intrigued me enough that I picked up a DRM-free copy for about two quid during a sale on GoG last year.

Not to mention that, in an earlier sale on GoG, I also got a complimentary bonus copy of “System Shock 2” – so I was eager to take a look at the original game first.

Although “System Shock: Enhanced Edition” is probably also available on other platforms too, the GoG version of this game comes with a few extras (like a downloadable soundtrack, downloadable manuals, a copy of the original 1994 version of the game etc…).

Anyway, let’s take a look at “System Shock: Enhanced Edition”:

System Shock title screen

“System Shock: Enhanced Edition” is a slightly updated version of a first-person action/adventure/horror game from 1994. Set in the distant future, you play as a hacker who has been caught hacking into a large corporation’s computers.

Instead of being carted off to prison, you are offered a series of cybernetic enhancements in exchange for travelling to a space station owned by the corporation. The space station hasn’t been responding for some time and there are fears that the Artificial Intelligence (called “Shodan”) who runs that station has gone rogue. So, it’s up to you to sort out the mess..

This is Shodan. It's always nice to see a friendly face when you nagivate the dark and creepy parts of the space station.

This is Shodan. It’s always nice to see a friendly face when you nagivate the dark and creepy parts of the space station.

The very first thing that I will say about this game is that you should READ THE MANUALS! I cannot emphasise this enough – read them all! Then read them again!

The controls for this game are complex and counter-intuitive to say the least. Yes, they allow you to do much more than you could do in other first-person games from the time and, yes, you can get used to the quirky controls after a while – but there is something of a learning curve.

This is just a tiny fraction of what you need to know in order to play the game...

This is just a tiny fraction of what you need to know in order to play the game…

Another interesting thing about this game is the fact that this level of complexity also extends to the game’s difficulty settings too. One cool feature is that you can have different difficulty levels for different elements of the game.

If, like me, you’re terrible at puzzle games – you can lower the difficulty of the puzzles, whilst keeping the difficulty of the combat on “medium” – or vice versa. The one thing that I would recommend – for reasons I’ll explain later – is setting the “cyberspace” difficulty as low as possible.

Unlike in this screenshot, remember to set the "cyber" difficulty to zero. Trust me, you'll thank me later...

Unlike in this screenshot, remember to set the “cyber” difficulty to zero. Trust me, you’ll thank me later…

In terms of the actual gameplay, the mixture of combat, exploration and puzzle-solving is slightly different from many classic FPS games. At some points, the game plays a lot like a traditional first-person shooter, with frantic combat and exciting exploration (with plenty of secret areas to reward curious players).

These are, by far, the most fun parts of the game – although they are let down by the long iteration time after your character dies (eg: before you can re-load a saved game, you either have to watch a semi-skippable death animation and/or go through a non-skippable regeneration animation depending on whether you’ve activated a regeneration machine in the same area).

One of the highlights of the combat early in the game is getting to shoot a Borg drone with a pha... Sorry, shooting a CYborg drone with a "sparq".

One of the highlights of the combat early in the game is getting to shoot a Borg drone with a pha… Sorry, shooting a CYborg drone with a “sparq”.

Yes, there is life after death. But, you'll have to wait a good 5-15 seconds for it!

Yes, there is life after death. But, you’ll have to wait a good 5-15 seconds for it!

At other points, it plays more like an adventure game – where you’ll be searching for game-critical switches, using in-game items, reading in-game documents and solving small puzzles in your heads-up display.

Unlike many other classic FPS games, there is almost equal emphasis on both puzzle solving and combat (rather than just combat with a few token puzzles thrown in). Likewise, although you are given a limited inventory (and have to make choices about what to carry and what not to), the inventory size is fairly generous.

Then there’s cyberspace. It’s a cyberpunk game – so, this part of the game is almost obligatory. However, what should have been a really cool element of the game is let down by some criminally terrible design decisions. The first is that the cyberspace areas use a totally different mouse-only control scheme, which is clunky and confusing enough even after you’ve read the manual.

Somewhere, William Gibson is weeping...

Somewhere, William Gibson is weeping…

Although the cyberspace areas include a few visual signposts (eg: arrows etc..), they can be visually-confusing and difficult to navigate with the clunky mouse-only controls. However, if you set the cyberspace difficult to “zero”, then these sections of the game are pretty much on-rails. Even so, just learning how to use the controls will probably take you a while.

In many ways, “System Shock: Enhanced Edition” was extremely ahead of it’s time. Compared to the more limited range of player actions in games from a similar time period (like “Doom), you have an almost life-like level of freedom. You can jump, crouch, look around freely with the mouse, climb ladders, lean sideways, throw objects and interact with the environment in all sorts of ways.

Sometimes the gameplay can be extremely fun, and sometimes it can be extremely frustrating. Since the game takes place in one large environment (divided into several “floors” you can travel back and forth from), it can be very easy to get lost or confused. Even though there is a very small in-game map (if you know where to look for it in the HUD and have picked up the relevant in-game gadget), it doesn’t exactly help all that much. A full-screen “Doom”/ “Duke Nukem 3D”-style level map with a specific hotkey would have been much more useful.

Still, the fact that you can traverse large portions of the space station relatively early in the game makes the level design even more non-linear than that found in other classic games like the original “Doom”. Not only does this add an extra sense of realism to the game’s environments, but it also allows for more complex game design too. For example, a malfunctioning lift on one floor might require you to go to another floor in order to restore power to it. This is both the game’s greatest strength and it’s greatest weakness.

The visual design of the game’s environments is varied enough to stop the space station’s many rooms and corridors from getting visually monotonous, and to make the player want to explore more (whilst also mildly reducing their chances of getting lost). Plus, as I said before, the “organic” nature of the level design (eg: you can go back to floors you visited earlier etc…) helps to immerse the player in the game.

These glowing pillars look really cool, although they're highly radioactive!

These glowing pillars look really cool, although they’re highly radioactive!

Likewise, many other parts of the station have seen better days.

Likewise, many other parts of the station have seen better days.

However, unlike classic non-linear levels in games like “Doom” etc.. if you don’t know where to go (or what to do) next then, rather than just having one medium-sized level to go over with a fine-toothed comb until you find where you’re supposed to go, you have to do this with large portions an entire space station. Needless to say, it can occasionally get a bit frustrating.

As for the game’s atmosphere and storytelling, it does this fairly well from what I’ve seen. Even with it’s cool retro graphics, this game still stands up as a horror game better than you might expect. Yes, although some of the game’s horror elements quickly lose some of their shock value through sheer repetition (eg: you’ll see lots of severed arms, severed heads, bloodied corpses, skeletons etc…) the game certainly has it’s creepy moments.

"Pick up severed head?" Yes, this game really is A HEAD of it's time!

“Pick up severed head?” Yes, this game really is A HEAD of it’s time!

For example, at one point, you find an audio log from a member of the station’s crews which points out that she and several other people have holed up in one of the ship’s communication rooms. She tells you that the corridor you need to find is marked with the word “gray”.

A while later, you find the corridor. The word “gray”, of course, is scrawled on the wall in blood. Which is never a good sign… When you finally fight your way through the corridor, you reach the communications room – only to find a large robot standing over the torn and bloody bodies of the besieged team.

After defeating the robot, you then find more audio logs scattered amongst the crew’s bodies that detail their last moments in the communications room. You even find the body of the character from the original recording in a nearby room. This is how to make sci-fi horror genuinely creepy.

The character in the audio log at the bottom of the screen is in a different room. However, she is speaking to you... from beyond the grave!

The character in the audio log at the bottom of the screen is in a different room. However, she is speaking to you… from beyond the grave!

In terms of reliablilty, this game can be a little bit unreliable at times. It might just be my computer but, sometimes the game’s controls would randomly change slightly for no real reason when I started up the game (although quitting and restarting the program often seems to solve this problem). Likewise, during seven or eight of the times that I’ve started up this program, the game’s music has refused to play for no real reason (only to later return again equally inexplicably).

As for the music, it’s reasonably good. Although the soundtrack is the kind of sci-fi MIDI music that you would expect from a game released in 1994, the game sometimes dynamically alters the soundtrack depending on how much danger the player is in. For something from 1994, this is way ahead of it’s time!

As for the voice-acting in the game, it’s fairly ok. One problem is that the game tries to add “interference” to the audio logs in an attempt to make them sound dramatic. Whilst some of the audio logs are still clearly audible, others end up being almost mangled beyond recognition.

Thankfully, there's still written text at the bottom of the screen, which comes in handy when the audio logs are a crackling, stuttering mess.

Thankfully, there’s still written text at the bottom of the screen, which comes in handy when the audio logs are a crackling, stuttering mess.

The voice actor who plays “Shodan” (the station’s AI) is suitably creepy though. However, the voice of one of the station’s other systems sounds almost exactly like an old text-to-speech machine (like the one used by Stephen Hawking), which was kind of surprising.

All in all, I have very mixed views about what I’ve seen of this game so far. Sometimes, it’s really fun, fascinating and dramatic. Sometimes, it’s extremely frustrating. Whatever it is, it is very much ahead of it’s time! I don’t know if this will be one of those games I’ll end up leaving unfinished or not, but it has certainly been fun.

If I had to give what I’ve played so far a rating out of five, it would probably get three and a half.

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