The System Shock remake is looking damn good

Three years ago, Nightdive Studios crowdfunded $1.3 million to remake System Shock, with the pitch "it’s not Citadel Station as it was, but as you remember it." One year ago, Nightdive more or less started over, after deciding the project had veered off course and deviated too far from the original game. At GDC on Monday, a year after I played the barebones back-to-basics demo Nightdive put together, I got to play the real thing. Citadel Station has been fully blocked out, its starting areas have shambling mutants and angry robots, there are audio logs, and there is SHODAN.

There's a certain retro chunkiness to the graphics: Not a lack of detail, but a style of square corridors and sharp angles and big glowing buttons that all feel like they'd be at home in a '90s game

I've played some of the original System Shock, but I can't speak to the minutiae of exactly how Nightdive's remake does and doesn't compare to that game. But after walking around freely in the latest build for half an hour, I can say that this feels like a Shock game in the ways that matter. I jumped straight into it, grabbing a pipe and a few supplies and exploring the spooky, mostly abandoned station with no clue where I was going. I got clues from audio logs, found security keys to access doors that were previously closed off to me, and reflexively yelped "shit" when I ran out of energy for a stun pistol I picked up along the way. 

It felt like a game from that era, but with mouse support and an easy menu screen for managing items. There's also a certain retro chunkiness to the graphics: Not a lack of detail, but a style of square corridors and sharp angles and big glowing buttons that all feel like they'd be at home in a '90s game. "Major elements like the lighting aren't final but the pieces are all there," Nightdive CEO Stephen Kick tells me as I'm playing. "Everything is back on track. We're in no danger of not being able to deliver the final game."

There's an old skeleton here—it's just wearing some fancy new skin courtesy of Unreal Engine 4, and lit in a way that screams moody sci-fi. So far, "it’s not Citadel Station as it was, but as you remember it" feels spot-on. This is not a dramatic reinterpretation, but a careful recreation intent on capturing the open-ended exploration and scavenging for resources of the original game. Even without nostalgia for the original System Shock, I got pulled in. 

Nightdive's remake is still a year away from being finished, and that definitely shows. It runs smoothly and looks great, but I've only seen a small portion of the station. There are puzzles that still need to be implemented, big chunks of the UI, sound effects and so on. What I hope to see more of in the final version are bits of decor, changes in lighting, and so on that do more to differentiate some of System Shock's corridors. They get pretty samey pretty fast. 

The first area's mutant enemies don't make a good first impression for combat, because their only move is "shamble forward, moan, and take a ponderous swing at you." It'd it'd be nice to see them do a little more, even if they're the game's most basic baddies. But there are around two dozen enemy types in System Shock, and one of the changes Nightdive is making from the original game is combining them in different ways to push you to change upp the weapons and abilities you're using to suit the situation.

"We love Doom 2016 and we think that's one of it's strongest aspects," Kick says of the way Bethesda's shooter mixes different enemies into single areas. "We're going to emulate that with the characters we have at our disposal."

Like old immersive sims, though, I don't think this remake of System Shock will have shooting or melee attacks with the impact and detailed animation of today's first-person shooters. That might not be in the budget or scope of the project, but it also would make for a game that feels very different than System Shock, a path Nightdive has already gone down and walked back. For a studio that cut its teeth reviving classic first-person shooters, this feels like the version of System Shock they've wanted to make all along.

As for what other unrestored old games are still on Nightdive's wishlist, the studio says that Monolith's spy shooter series No One Lives Forever remains "the holy grail" of first-person shooters to re-release for modern PCs. Westwood's original 1997 Blade Runner adventure game is another dream project.

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