The Many are still strong — System Shock 2 is 20 years old today
You travel within the glory of my memories, insect. These memories are exactly 20 years old today, and System Shock 2 has forever secured its spot as the masterpiece created at the intersection of important historical lanes and stories of some of the brightest minds in the industry. System Shock 2 is a definition of “legendary” — it’s something that is remembered, respected, regarded, but not actually widely experienced today (although you can still play it relatively effortlessly on modern systems), and many people say it’s better in the glory of our memories than it actually is. It was a flawed but still an incredible and revolutionary game. GameSpy, Edge, IGN, GameSpot, PC Gamer and numerous other outlets named System Shock 2 one of the greatest games of all time.
System Shock 2 was very different from the original. In 1994 Looking Glass, equipped with a highly modified version of Ultima Underworld’s tech and encouraged by their debut’s success, made the game freed from the cruft of old-fashioned stats-and-numbers, where choices were rather defined by the tools you used. The sequel, however, again leaned heavily towards more traditional RPG territory, mechanically — there is a selection of three character types, builds are again defined by numbers and statistical upgrades. Luckily, it didn’t stop there — the use of Dark Engine, inherited from 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project, meant physics and world properties were gameplay tools, which enabled various creative psionic abilities like Kinetic Redirection or Metacreative Barrier. On top of all that, there was a sophisticated inventory system and mechanics such as hacking security cameras and items research. Ultimately, System Shock 2 was still an immersive sim, but way more RPG-focused than the streamlined stealth-action of the Thief series Looking Glass developed in parallel.
Out of a million things that System Shock 2 is remembered for, the most upfront one is the sense of fear. It’s regarded as one of the scariest video games of all time — most of the tricks modern horrors are using were either invented or refined here. As Allgame said, System Shock 2 is “absolutely, teeth-clenchingly disturbing”. Even if you think you are well hidden in a remote room, eventually the door might open and you will be attacked by a mutant. Many times, you will be attacked while you sort through your inventory or try to make sense of the labyrinthine map — the game deliberately doesn’t pause when you do it. You will be attacked by deadly spiders when you crawl through a pitch dark corridor. You will be attacked by robots that rush to you and explode at your face. You will be attacked even if you think that the level is safe, as the enemies respawn and you can’t kill all of them. Part of the dread comes from the realization that you’re always almost out of ammo or health, your weapons are always on the verge of breaking down, and you will never be equipped or healthy enough to overcome all the odds. In System Shock 2, there is nowhere to hide and you are not in control.
And then there is SHODAN. The setting of System Shock 2 is unnerving in itself, even without the AI going rogue — you wake up on a space ship and realize that something went wrong, everyone around you is dead or turned into mutants that moan “Kill me!” before they rush to you and attack you against their own will. But then you realize that one of the characters that guided you from the very beginning and that you fully trusted, ends up being a puppeteer, the artificial intelligence that sieged the space ship Von Braun, and you are her insect — a pathetic creature of meat and bone. SHODAN is not the scariest thing you have to face in System Shock 2, but she is the hallmark of the series and one of the most iconic villains in the history of games. 20 years later, the cover of the game, with SHODAN’s sinister face, looks as freaking cool and as frightening as ever.
Thief holds up amazingly well after two decades because, aside from the old tech, it has few things that would feel irrelevant today — gameplay, mechanics, stealth and audio all stood the test of time. System Shock 2 is not quite as age-proof. The role-playing system and abilities feel somewhat vintage, and the game is now remembered as a bit unbalanced, as it is possible to invest in certain character progression choices that would make your life significantly more difficult. Being an assault-focused immersive sim, the game often relies on shooting mechanics, which are a bit awkward and not Dark Engine’s strong suit. However, the feeling of space is of course the core value of System Shock 2, and the immersion aspect of the game is as strong as ever. Various decks and areas of Van Braun still feel alive and vibrant, the sound design is still excellent, and enemies are still terrifying. As such, despite some of its wrinkles, System Shock 2 is a timeless classic, and if you haven’t played it yet, you absolutely should.
System Shock 2 was a curious mutation. While working on Thief: The Dark Project, Ken Levine, Jonathan Chey and Robert Fermier decided that they wanted to leave Looking Glass and do their own thing — however, they didn’t move too far either. Irrational Games negotiated the rights to make a sequel to their beloved System Shock, built a small team partially from ex-Looking Glass employees, got Looking Glass’ Dark Engine, and rented a space in the Looking Glass’ office space. It was a collaboration, but it’s hard to say where Looking Glass ended and Irrational Games started in the design of this game. System Shock 2 got the tech, many gameplay systems and even some assets from Thief: The Dark Project, but then again, Thief 2: The Metal Age, released in 2000, borrowed some of the System Shock 2 ideas and code back.
Of course, System Shock 2 was praised by critics but didn’t sell well. Years later, when Irrational Games was a mature studio, they made “the spiritual successor”, BioShock, that set the world on fire and made Irrational and Levine personally the stars of the games industry. Immersive sim purists look down on BioShock as a “dumbed down shooter” because it was way more linear and not-at-all RPG-like — however, BioShock did still let you play your own style offering the variety of tools, and it was an even tighter designed and written game.
The Many has grown to a massive size, as traces of System Shock 2 can be found all around games in the past two decades. Ion Storm’s Deus Ex is essentially a blend of System Shock 2 and Thief, peppered with a futuristic anti-utopian setting. Dead Space, a cult horror classic of its own, is said to have started originally as System Shock 3 — even though the game changed the name later in development, some of Dead Space’s plot twists are clearly inspired by Irrational Games’ work. And then, of course, there is Arkane’s Prey, which is arguably the closest thing to System Shock 2’s heir the world has yet seen, both thematically and gameplay-wise (and yet, Prey puts a different spin on System Shock 2’s ideas, similar to how Dishonored is both inspired by but very different from Thief).
Currently, OtherSide Entertainment are developing the official sequel, System Shock 3. The team is lead by Looking Glass veteran Warren Spector, and it seems that the third game in the series would be closer to the first one in feel. In the meantime, the echo of Irrational Games, now called Ghost Story Games, is working on something secret but probably unrelated to the “Shock” games. Thus, 20 years later, System Shock 2 remains unique — often inspired by, but never repeated or properly followed.
When the history of my glory is written, your species shall only be a footnote to my magnificence.