Monday, December 19, 2011

System Shock

Caught hacking into the TriOptimum corporate network, you are apprehended and taken to Citadel Station, a science and research space station orbiting Saturn. However luck is on your side and one of TriOptimums executives, Edward Diego, offers you your freedom in exchange for hacking SHODAN, the AI that controls Citadel Station. He even throws in a military grade neural interface if you carry out the task.  It’s a bit of a no brainer and after removing SHODAN’s ethical constraints and handing over control to Diego, true to his word you are fitted with the neural interface which requires a six month healing coma. However upon waking up six months nothing is as it seems. You are attacked by the station’s robots, the crew has been replaced by hideous mutants and cyborgs and it seems SHODAN, now given a voice and personality, is very much in charge.
The excellent System Shock intro explains it much better than I ever could

System Shock is based on a modified Ultima Underworld engine. While it can’t match the large open spaces or the sheer number of enemies thrown at you by Doom, in many ways it’s a far more sophisticated engine. Movement of the player and objects are governed by a physics engine. It’s not as robust as today’s physics engines but back in 1994 this was groundbreaking stuff. This allows the player far more interaction with the environment than most FPS games, where the only interaction is usually with the end of a gun. Items and grenades can be thrown and the player can jump and even scale the sides of obstructions; maybe not impressive now but a very big deal back then. You can also lean around corners and duck under obstructions, again not impressive now but very novel ideas at the time. The engine supports sloped surfaces, unlike Doom, and also supports polygonal models in the environment. The result is some very detailed environments with a sense of place and purpose to each room in Citadel Station. The engine also allows for some very impressive effects like faking room over rooms, transparent force bridges and security monitors that update in real time. Impressive shadow and lighting effects add atmosphere and even affect gameplay, finding a light source is critical to survival in the early stages of the game.

An example of the extra detail System Shocks engine allows

 System Shock is not your normal first person shooter and contains many RPG elements. The HUD takes up most of the screen and is necessary for manipulating all the items and weapons you collect on the way. Weapons must be chosen wisely since there is limited inventory space. Most weapons have multiple ammo types that are effective against different enemies. For example, EMP grenades and armour piercing weapons are useful against robots while the magnum’s hollow point ammo makes a mess of cyborgs and mutants. System Shock is also quite possibly the first game required you to manually reload weapons and has recoil governed by physics.

Executive area is none too shabby, apart from the dead bodies

 At the time the only objective in FPS games, and even now in most cases, is to find the exit to the next level. Systems Shock instead presents you with complex and far more interesting objectives requiring complex steps to complete. These can range from destroying antennae to stop SHODAN from downloading herself to earth’s networks to ejecting a garden grove where SHODAN is performing sick experiments on what is left of the crew. Citadel Station is set up as a vast non-linear series of floors interconnected by elevators. Completing objectives may mean going back to previously visited floors. Clues as to how to complete objects are found in audio logs and subtle environmental details. As a hacker, hacking also plays an important role. Hacking is presented as a mini-game, where panels need to be rewired or power redirected to bypass security. You can also enter cyberspace which is presented as a ‘Tron-like’ fully 3D wireframe environment to explore, although watch out because SHODAN has set up elaborate defences and will kick you out of cyberspace if you take too long.

Cyberspace can be a bit disorientating!
System Shock has an interesting method for dealing with death. SHODAN has converted revival chambers in each floor into cyborg conversion units. Get incapacitated and you will be turned into a cyborg that will serve SHODAN and its game over. However you can switch these chambers back to their original function and if you die you will be restored at these chambers. It’s a bit like the Vita Chambers from Bioshock but instead of the constant safety net, you only gain it once you find a way to convert the chambers back to their original function. However not all floors have a revival chamber.

Oh shit!

Systems Shock's cyberpunk story of corporate greed and technophobia is one of the highlights of the game. For a game from 1994 it is remarkable that System Shock not only has an elaborate story but also a really good one. The story is pieced together by the player through a series of audio logs you find scattered throughout the station and on scraps of paper you find. It’s the same method used by many modern games such as Bioshock. These audio logs are surprisingly well acted; you really do feel like you are listening to the last few desperate moments of these people’s lives. System Shock absolutely nails the atmosphere. The tight claustrophobic corridors of Citadel Station and eerily empty living quarters are punctuated by the inhuman sounds of the cyborgs, mutants and robots around the next corner. Sound design is excellent as is the soundtrack, which changes dynamically depending on the location. It’s one of the best midi soundtracks ever composed and well worth listening to. System Shock has its fair share of scares and creepy moments, in particular the entirety of the maintenance floor which is badly lit and full of semi transparent and thus hard to see mutants.

 An example of the excellent music in the game

And of course there’s SHODAN. She will constantly interrupt communication with Rebecca, your only contact with earth. She will constantly mock you; referring to you as an insect and making you feel insignificant. Even when you can’t hear her, her visage will appear briefly in security monitors just so you know she is always watching you. Fantastic voice work by Terri Brosius and a raft of sound distortion effects really bring the character to life. It’s no surprise that she constantly appears topping lists of videogame villains.

She's always watching you

System Shock is a game that I really recommend you should experience, particularly people that are interested in the evolution of the first person shooter and the genesis of masterpieces like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex. I still fell System Shock is just as relevant today as it has ever been despite being superseded by its amazing sequel. It’s become one of my favourite games ever. However the game isn’t without problems and the main one is the control scheme. There’s a lot more verticality to System Shock than games like Doom so it really needs a mouse-look type control system. However since it was created before Quake popularised the mouse-look WASD scheme for FPS games, System Shock uses a strange hybrid system. Calling this system awkward is putting it kindly. After years of playing FPS games it was like trying to learn how to ride a bike but using my hands to push the pedals. These controls are also stupidly not configurable. This is the third time I’ve tried to finish the game and thankfully this time I was successful thanks to System Shock Portable.


SSP is a version of System Shock with Dosbox included that will run on Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7. It also has the ability to toggle between mouse-look and a free mouse for manipulation of the HUD.  Best of all it also has configurable controls. You’ll need to open a config file with wordpad to change them but it’s better than nothing and to be honest the default controls that are included are excellent. One tip I have to give is to always save before entering the full map screen because the game often crashes when exiting the map. If you play with invert mouse like me make sure to change the y-axis mouse sensitivity to a negative value in the cfg file. Unfortunately there’s no way to invert the mouse in cyberspace so you’ll just have to deal with it. System Shock Portable is available here:

There are also instructions on how to install a soundfont which will really improve the music and really make the excellent soundtrack standout.


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