The terrifying weight of System Shock 2

Shodan, the villainous AI from System Shock
(Image credit: Irrational Games)

System Shock 2 is a first-person sci-fi survival action RPG, which is just a list of my favourite words. We can't claim they don't make them like that anymore, because the made three more (BioShocks 1, 2, and Infinite). But they don't make them quite like this anymore.

The first thing you notice is you're tall. First-person games often make your viewpoint lower than it realistically would be to avoid environments feeling claustrophobic when viewed through the small window of your monitor. Shock 2 has a very different feel, and it comes out in your movement too. You don't burst into a full-blown sprint the moment you touch the forward key, you build up to it smoothly. And you come to a stop smoothly too, which screws you up the first time you try to do some fiddly jumping. You also have no air control: the moment your feet leave the ground, your trajectory is completely determined.

The result is a game where you feel weighty, real, even a tiny bit cumbersome. But you have a sense of yourself in this place. You're not just a camera zooming around to the next thing to shoot. That's partly why it's frightening: it's hard not to associate yourself with this fragile body lurching around the corridors of the Von Braun, being bludgeoned with lead pipes and frazzled by green laser pips.

Pre-emptive apologies

Yet a lot of the horror wasn't really about your own predicament. The zombies bludgeoning you weren't undead, living dead, or brain dead: they were parasite-infected people who knew full well what they were doing, and didn't want to do it. "Hurry! Run!" is what you expect to hear from an ally, not the deformed wretch you're running from. And when they catch you, there's no ferocious roar; just a tormented "I'm... sorry..." as they bring their blunt implements awkwardly to bear.

It gets worse. The stiff, screeching Cyborg Midwives turn out to have had their machine parts forcibly inserted while they were still alive. Then come the eggs, erupting on contact into slithering worms, infected spores, or swarms of blood-drinking alien insects. But even when the hordes of semi-invisible poisonous spiders show up, nothing SS2 throws at you is ever quite as startling as the screech of its psychic monkeys.

The Von Braun is mankind's first faster-than-light spacecraft: a huge vessel, all five decks fully explorable. The hub structure has been used before and since, but it's never quite as exciting as when it's on a space ship. You pass the central elevator dozens of times on every floor, its satisfyingly chunky yellow button a reminder of all the places you haven't explored yet. Each deck feels different: Engineering the hellish radioactive bowels, Med/Sci the convenient home base, Hydroponics a disgusting jungle, Operations an intimidating nexus of ninja-infested boardrooms, and Recreation at once luxurious and sinister.

Dead quiet

The people who lived there are all dead, infested, or fleeing, but their lives were still in evidence through their recorded messages to each other. Audio diaries have become a cliché since, but that's not what these were. Most were messages from one crew member to another, and sometimes you'd find the reply. It might not have had Quark from Deep Space Nine in it like BioShock, but the non-actors give the kind of naturalistic performances you rarely hear anymore. Most are just people talking, which simply doesn't call for acting with a capital A.

Most articles about System Shock 2 are primarily about SHODAN, but for me she was never the focus. It was these smaller stories I spent my time thinking about: Tommy Suarez and Rebecca Siddons' impossible quest to find each other in the chaos, Delacroix's rising panic long before anyone else saw the problem, Diego's subtle transition from proud UNN officer to servant of the enemy, Bronson's ruthless measures to curb the threat—and her utter defiance to the last breath. 

Since SHODAN's influence is unknown at first, little of the incidental plot actually relates to her. And it's the incidental stuff that kept me company as I crept through Shock 2's endless corridors.

Survival horror is really just the cooler cousin of resource management, and in a nerdy way I think that's what keeps me coming back to System Shock. The permanent upgrades to your cybernetics are much more meaningful and exciting than Deus Ex's augs, and the frightening ammo drought has you frantically reconfiguring your weapons mid-fight to spend your shots more efficiently.

The firefights themselves aren't much fun in shooter terms, but the guns feel like guns. Every shot jerks your aim off course with an alarming bang, reinforcing your instinct to make each one count.

Eight years later, BioShock would surpass it as an action game, but BioShock never felt as clean, smooth, and crisp. That still makes its predecessor more exciting to explore—even the third and fourth times round.

Reinstall is a monthly regular in the magazine in which we revisit classics that are still worth playing today. This article first appeared in issue 220 of PC Gamer UK.