Fans of Looking Glass Studios' classic stealth game Thief have continued making new missions for it (I'm partial to The Sound of a Burrick in a Room), as well as for Thief 2 and the free standalone Dark Mod. But the other classic 1990s immersive sim Looking Glass worked on, System Shock 2, has received less love from modders, despite being one of the most beloved PC games of all time. Only a handful of fan missions exist for System Shock 2, but a few in particular made by modder Christine Schneider are worth playing. Schneider's four-part series makes the bold choice to continue the story of System Shock 2 beyond its ending.
A direct continuation of the story is an interesting decision because the ending of System Shock 2 is legendary—legendarily bad. After the villainous AI Shodan delivers her "join me and together we can rule" speech, our silent protagonist in goggle-eye sunglasses dramatically pauses and utters the only word he says in the entire game: "Nah." Then he slow-mo shoots Shodan, who wigs out like she's going through a bunch of YouTube reaction faces before exploding. For a game this clever, twisty, and atmospheric it's weirdly 'extreme' in the most '90s sense of the word.
Then there's the post-credits stinger. Tommy and Rebecca, two characters only glimpsed through glass or heard via audiologs until this point, have escaped on a lifepod. In this final scene it's revealed that Rebecca has somehow been possessed by Shodan, which is demonstrated by her hair turning into wild electrical cables. It's a real THE END… OR IS IT? kind of finale.
Christine Schneider's mods take this ending and run with it. The first of them, Ponterbee Station, opens with a cutscene that repeats the stinger (one of the things that marks her work out is the cutscenes, sometimes incorporating FMV). The reborn Shodan is then picked up by a research station called the Ponterbee, because the universe of System Shock is full of well-meaning scientists just waiting for a chance to accidentally let loose a variety of menaces.
Which is, of course, what happens. As in System Shock 2 you play a cybernetically enhanced soldier in sunglasses with the misfortune of being assigned to this doomed station. But as Soldier XT269T2 you don't begin the mission on Ponterbee Station. You're on Earth, hanging out in a high-rise apartment with a guitar on display in the corner that lets everyone know you're cool.
The tutorial of System Shock 2 also let you walk around a street-level slice of Earth to contrast with the tight confines of the rest of the game, but Schneider's living city block full of traffic and high-rises is an early sign of the ambition her mods would display. While most of Ponterbee is corridors and backtracking for keycards, this early section shows she knows how to do more with the ShockEd mod tools than recycle pieces of the original game. That becomes even more apparent when the saurians show up—reptilian creatures of an entirely new design.
While the new models and textures are impressive, the voice acting is a bit rough. The traditional audiologs are everywhere, but a few of them are read by people with impenetrable accents, and Shodan doesn't sound nearly as creepy as she does in the actual games. Still, that's the way it is with mods and it would be ridiculous to expect volunteers sourced from a fan forum to be able to compete with Terri Brosius.
Schneider's second mission, UNN Nightwalker, is more traditional, with another spaceship infested by mutants to explore. But in the third part of the series, Polaris, things get really wild. Suddenly you're on the surface of a planet rather than orbiting it, walking across an ice world where the air is plump with snow and transparent ice beasts are a constant danger. Being outdoors, surrounded by trees and open sky after hours mostly spent in dark metal hallways is exhilarating.
In any other game 'the ice level' would be a mundane gimmick, but to see something like this recreated in an engine mostly used for the kind of tight corners you can hide jumpscares around feels like a dramatic change. And the ice beasts themselves, horned weirdos who charge at you and shatter into a damaging spray when killed, are totally different from the clanking robots and droning mutants that make up System Shock's typical enemies.
The back half of Polaris takes place in another scientific facility, but one with its own feel, much more open and lived-in. There's an area like a shopping mall, with pizza, a bar, and an ice cream parlor that begins a side story about experiments performed on the customers that may have resulted in the creation of the ice beasts.
Schneider's missions contain occasional strange touches like this. The tuneless singing that sounds like a monster turns out to be a drunk janitor named Peggy. As well as ice monsters, Polaris is home to harmless Christmas snowmen. Then there are the recurring rubber ducks—there's an entire room full of them in Ponterbee Station.
The fourth and final mission in this series, Urlaub, is the strangest of them all. Urlaub is the German word for vacation, and in this mission Soldier XT269T2 finally gets some time off, and is sent to the Caribbean to relax. Released on April Fool's Day, Urlaub initially seems like it's just a joke mod. You wander between beaches watching NPCs dance the macarena while monkeys throw coconuts at you.
But the pistol you've stashed in your room and the broom that can be wielded like a wrench aren't just there for killing monkeys so you can take their bananas. After bumming around on the island for a while you take a boat trip and stumble across a heavily guarded mansion, which turns out to have a secret lab inside it. Underprepared for violence, it's easiest to sneak past the goons at first, though eventually you get an uzi to take them on with. Finding a completely new weapon not seen in the original game is another surprise, unexpected in a throwaway gag mission. Urlaub starts to feel more like one of the goofier James Bond movies at this point, complete with a mad scientist with plans to create an army of clones, and nothing to do with Shodan at all. Finally, it turns out the genetic source material for these clone soldiers is the survivor of the disasters on Ponterbee Station, the UNN Nightwalker, and Polaris—you.
Obviously you can't let that stand. For once there's no keycards to collect and instead it's all about discovering evidence, trashing the place, and cruising off into the sunset. Schneider's series of fan missions turn outrageously silly with this ending, but I still much prefer it to the actual finale of System Shock 2. For one thing, as you sail off directly into the sunset, you finally find a reasonable use for the goofy sunglasses you've been wearing all this time.
System Shock 2's fan missions can be found here, and you'll need to download and install SS2Tool before you can run them. And don't be afraid to try the cheat codes, because sometimes all that weapon maintenance is a hassle worth skipping.