Released in 1999 System Shock 2 is the sequel to, you guessed it, Babe: Pig in the City. I say sequel, but really you don’t need to have played the first game – SS2 pulls the dick move of plot-convenient amnesia. The protagonist in a horror video game has amnesia? What a shock to the system. A System Shock you might say. Perhaps it’s for the best, System Shock 2 is already actually quite a difficult game to summarise without cramming in story threads from the first game. It is, like its monsters, sewn up from many different parts: an RPG, a First Person shooter, and a sci-fi/horror nightmare. The best way to describe it would be as the end result of a LARPing group meeting the William Gibson Appreciation Society.
Set aboard a faster-than-light capable ship named Von Braun after a major incident has turned its inhabitants into Christian Bale’s character from The Machinist, System Shock 2 sees the player control the sole surviving soldier after he wakes from cyro-sleep. All the hallmarks of the Gibson-esque narrative are present as the player tries to find a way to escape his nightmare: there’s grungy cyberpunk tech, evil god-like AIs, and more techno-babble than an episode of Doctor Who in which the Doctor’s trying to teach an old person how to use a smart phone. The only thing that’s missing is the punk girl who inexplicably loves your Mr Robot-esque lack of social skills, and wants to ball you.
System Shock 2 is one of those rare games which is able to organically develop story through a combination of environment and carefully placed exposition. As is also the case with Bioshock, the protagonist arrives to the party far too late: the hot girl from the office has already copped off with someone else, and the bar’s been cleared out. Unfortunately, any humans you do encounter have been turned into hybrids; either pulpy humanoids with tendrils, or stern cyborg overlords. Victims of The Many, a parasitic/ mechanical alien hive-lifeform similar to The Flood (Halo), The Strogg (Quake II), and the Conservative Party. So you’re forced to fight and explore your way through the cold, metal corpse of ship, aided only by a disembodied voice of a surviving colleague, and pick up scraps of the story through the ‘ghosts’ and audio logs. A setup Dead Space and Doom 3 would later rip-off. And incidentally, why do all Deep Space exploration missions in fiction go badly? Is this why NASA never gets funded?
It’s worth noting that SS2 is hard. Resources are harder to find than Liz Truss’ principles and, being a late Nineties PC game, you’re forced to put skill points into everything from hacking to nose-picking. This can lead to the awkward situation later on in which you put all your skill points into nose-picking, only to that find that you now need arse-picking instead. On the one hand, I appreciate that it doesn’t hold your hand throughout, like a masked gentleman at the masquerade ball leading you through the dance. But like when it turns out the bloke’s Vincent Price, I’m not going to live long enough to appreciate the life lesson. Of the three classes, the (in the) Navy class is probably the most useful as it focuses on hacking and repairing – two things you’ll be doing a lot of in this game. Hacking is pretty fun, taking the form of a node connecting mini-game. The same can’t be said for repair, which comes up often as the weapons in this game have the functionality of a bike made entirely out of paperclips and elastic bands.
System Shock 2 does maintain a tense atmosphere throughout, mostly due to playing out almost identically to the parade of post-Half-Life shooters that favour exploration to enemy encounters. The Von Braun is a horrible place to navigate, if only because there’s only so many gun-metal corridors you can explore before you feel like the school bullies have put you in a trash can again and rolled you down a hill. It’s a game many consider the scariest of the Shock series, and I’m inclined to agree. The pained pleading and horrific noises made by the fallen humans is enough to make the skin crawl, and the fact they’re unwilling victims makes them scarier than Bioshock’s junkie Splicers. Main villain, an insane AI named SHODAN, is equally horrific – especially in her ability to manipulate and mind-rape the player throughout. Even if she’s only a disembodied head and a few silicon chips – just like my last girlfriend.
The regular enemy designs are perhaps the most chilling: forcibly mutated humans who now resemble emaciated cyborgs. Reluctantly lumbering along as the infection forces them to kill, whilst keeping them fully aware. Virus, the 1999 Jamie Lee Curtis vehicle, came to my mind when I was picturing the ‘chop-shop’ design of the enemies – but now I want to forget that I’ve actually devoted brain cells to that movie. Alongside these humans are inside-out monkey things and creatures that resemble the pink demon from Doom’s dad. SS2 may start off a little bland with its level design. But the intensity does ramp up once you reach the levels heavily influenced by The Many, as these have a strong body-horror vibe – almost as though you’re the gerbil in a weird exploratory act of deviancy.