Review: System Shock (16-Bit DOS)

In this review, we play the action adventure game System Shock. We find out if this game is a game that sets a new standard for video gaming or not.

System Shock was released in 1994 and has been highly praised by some game critics. Some say that it opened the doors to immersive video games and set the stage for many more modern hits.

One thing I should comment right off the top is that some people seem to like attaching a whole lot of genres to this game. One genre that I disagree with is RPG. This game is not an RPG game. Ultima Underworld is an RPG game. Lufia and the Fortress of Doom is an RPG game. The Final Fantasy series is an RPG game. Earthbound is an RPG game. System Shock is not. Many RPG games have an experience point system set of of some sort to denote your characters progression. This game does not feature any such system. RPG games generally have different kinds of characters with different attributes to either choose from or play with. This game does not feature that. The only thing that is really RPG-like is the length it takes for a standard non-speedrun playthrough and that doesn’t make it an RPG game by a long shot. This game features elements of a first person shooter, puzzle, action, and adventure game, but generally speaking, this game is simply an action adventure game.

The game is set in the future and you take the role of an unknown hacker who gets caught hacking into a computer system. When you are arrested, authorities (namely Diego) offer leniency if you can remove the ethical protocols of SHODAN – a computer AI aboard the space station Citedel. To sweeten the deal, Diego also offers a military grade neural implant. Naturally, you go for this deal and go under the knife. You then go under a medically induced coma to heal up from the surgery on the space station. After many months of being unconscious, you wake up with your neural implant and in a space station with SHODAN completely in control. Everyone you see is either dead or mutated into a bloodthirsty killer wanting to take you out. To make matters worse, all of the cyborgs are also trying to turn you into another red stain on the station floor. It turns out, SHODAN, with the assistance of Diego, is trying to wipe out all life on the station as well as on Earth. You are the only one left alive that is able to stop the mess that you basically started.

You start off in the medical hospital level of the station. Overall, there are nine levels, a Reactor level, and a few other smaller areas you have to explore. You start off with nothing, but the tutorial portion of this level shows you that there are various small items laying around waiting for you to collect.

One small item is the medipatch. This can restore a small portion of your health. Another item is the stamina. This reduces fatigue which you can build up by running or dying in Cyberspace. Reflex will slow things down like in the Matrix. This can help you out in some areas where enemy count is high. Detox will temporarily reduce radiation poisoning. You will encounter irradiated areas a fair bit in this game and this item can really save you. Generally speaking, I never encountered a limit to how many small items you can pick up. If there was one, I never hit it. This was after getting well over 40 medipatches.

Along with smaller items are larger items. There is limited space in your inventory for this items, but these items are generally extremely useful. The most useful out of all of them is the med kit. Each med kit restores your health completely. There’s only so many of these to go around, so it is usually best to save as many as you can early on in the game. Another item is the logic probe. These probes will instantly solve some of the puzzles you encounter throughout the game (namely the panel puzzles). While I only ever used one in the antenna mission (a seemingly mandatory thing), I found the puzzles to be quite solvable and ended up never really using more than one of these. There’s the plastique which is basically a bomb used in the antenna mission. There are two kinds of batteries as well. The blue ones restore some energy while the red one, I’m presuming, restores more (never used a red one myself). One item you can collect is the fire extinquisher. Never found a use for it and may be useless.

In addition, you can collect various grenades. Like small items, there doesn’t seem to be a capacity limit with these. To use one, you just click on the grenade and throw wherever your mouse is pointed at. You can get a fragmentation grenade (standard grenade), a gas grenade (effective against some of the mutants you encounter), and EMP grenade (useful against cyborgs and can make your screen go all funny when used), and a concussion bomb (a more powerful version of the fragmentation bomb it seems). Under most circumstances, these grenades end up being useless, unfortunately. This is because you end up taking a certain amount of damage most of the time in the process – even if you give a nice amount of space between where you are and where it lands. The grenades can also “catch” on corners in walls and floors and explode more prematurely. They usually explode on contact with anything. They are pretty good a taking out live landmines and the rare circumstance where you can toss grenades down a pit where enemies are located, but these encounters don’t occur that often.

Ammo can also be collected. Whether or not you have the right weapon that uses them, all ammo can be collected. Like the small items and grenades, the capacity seems to be unlimited, so collecting everything you can get your hands on doesn’t seem to be a problem.

With the ammo, of course, comes the weapons you can collect. At the beginning, you only have a lead pipe to defend yourself with. This may be the only weapon that uses neither energy nor ammo. Another melee weapon is the energy sabre which uses energy when you strike something. The sparq weapon is probably going to be the first firing weapon you collect. It uses energy as well. The pistol will be the first ammo weapon you’ll likely find. It’s probably the most basic of these weapons and uses two kinds of ammo. Many ammo weapons use two kinds of ammo and they are usually regular ammo and slightly more rare more potent ammo (though, in one case, it’s just a higher magazine capacity). To reload, you double click on the ammo of your choice. You can also simply unload a near empty clip and reload with a full one if you have the extra ammo as ammo is cumulative on a per bullet basis. You’ll also notice while reloading that you have a small bar that denotes how many clips you have left. Red indicates that this is the last set of ammo clips while yellow indicates that this is the second to last set. Green, meanwhile, indicates two or more sets of ammo (re: lots!). Curiously, you had a limited capacity for how many weapons you can carry at a time. While it may seem pretty good, you will likely have to make some hard decisions towards the end of the game as to which weapon you bring with you and which one you will leave behind.

There are also accessories that you can find. One can give you general statistics about your health and fatigue levels. Another one is basically a compass. A mapping system can also be located in this game which can be useful in figuring out if there are visible enemies nearby, if an area is flooded with radiation (late in the game), and generally figuring out where the heck you need to explore next. Some areas are dark, so it’s nice to find head lamps and night vision goggles. Late in the game, you’ll also be thankful for finding envirosuits and the shield. These items can be upgraded (based on the “v#”) to be more powerful, but if you encounter an item that is of the previous generation, it’ll automatically be discarded.

Finally, you can encounter random logs that can be read in your e-mail. These logs mostly provide back story, but on occasion, they can give you codes to certain keypad guarded doors. Some of these items are found in cyberspace as well. You can also receive e-mails both from friend and foe depending on where you are in your missions.

As you explore, you’ll encounter a number of different enemies. This can range from the borderline pathetic maintenance bot to the hard to locate assassin bot to the deadly Security-2 bot. Upon killing them, you can, like the human corpse, crates, cabinets and briefcases, double-click on the scrapmetal pile for ammo. Most of the time, you’ll find ammo and small items, but on a rare occasion, you’ll also find larger items like the medi pack. What you get is generally randomized, but you can probably take what you can get.

There are two really helpful things that you can encounter as you venture through the station. The first and, for me, single most useful thing is the automatic healing station. Every time you use one, you automatically regenerate all of your health. The other, and interestingly more common, thing you can find are the recharge stations. Using one will fully restore your energy. Additionally, there is a radiation treatment facility located on the R level. This clears up a large portion of any radiation poisoning you may encounter. If you are badly poisoned, then two treatments may be in order so you can fully remove the poisoning from your system. In addition to these areas are the cyborg generators. There is one in every major level of the game. If you encounter one of these, you simply flip a nearby switch to reactivate the restoration procedures. The reason for this is that if you die, you’ll regenerate on that levels regenerator. The downside to this is that a number of enemies will also respawn (even the occasional ambush enemies will reactivate in the process!). So, ideally, you’ll want to just restore a recently saved game to save on ammo, energy, time, and health. The problem here is that if you do not fix the one on a level and you die, SHODAN will turn you into a cyborg and it’s automatically game over. So, fixing these whenever you can are probably a good idea.

One thing you can encounter are radiation flooded areas. These areas can have differing degrees of radiation. This can be read on the upper left portion of your screen. The higher the number, the more severe the poisoning. Envirosuits can absorb some of this, but usually not all. If you leave an area that is flooded with radiation, it’ll take time for the radiation poisoning to subside. While you are poisoned, you’ll gradually lose health. The more severe the poisoning, the faster the decline in health. So, exercise caution when going into these areas.

While you will encounter switches, teleporters, and jump pad elevators, you’ll also encounter certain panel puzzles. Generally, they fall under two different types of puzzles: wire puzzles and circuit completion puzzles. Both of these are more or less trial and error puzzles. The objective of the wire puzzle is to find the right combination of start and end points to cause the bar to reach a certain level (the thin red line). Once you’ve done so, you’ll hear a sound and the green bar will exceed the red line. That means you’ve solve the puzzle. The circuit completion puzzle is generally a puzzle where you try and turn certain “X”s to “+”s so that the electricity can go from the box on the left to the box on the right. In some cases, not as easy as it sounds as you sometimes have to complete multiple paths going to the boxes along the way.

To add to this complexity is the certain amount of control SHODAN has on each level. SHODAN always starts with 100%. Ideally, you’ll want to reduce SHODAN’s control over the level all the way down to 0%. This is done through either smashing the security cameras (which relinquishes a small amount of control) or destroying the levels computer nodes (decimates that number quite effectively). You have to destroy them all in order to get the number down to 0%. In most circumstances, some doors or corridors can only be opened once the security level falls to 0% (re: “locked by SHODAN security”). 6 of the games levels will display a number which is critical for a late game mission.

The final major thing you’ll encounter are cyberspace terminals. These items that have handlebars and mounted on the wall will take you to a wire frame “cyberspace” level. In some cases, you’ll get software upgrades. Other times, you’ll merely get pieces of information. On occasion, you’ll also unlock certain doors in the station. Either way, using these terminals can range from a small distraction to mission critical. Left click will speed you up while right click will fire your weapon here. You will encounter enemies along the way in cyber space as well as various indestructible mines that can harm you. Maintaining shield integrity is critical. If you lose your shield/personal integrity in cyberspace, you’ll get kicked out and booted back to the real world with your fatigue maxed out and your health reduced. There is also a time limit in these areas. If you exceed the time limit, SHODAN will discover you and eject you from cyberspace with similar results.

One great thing about this game is the overall expansiveness of the game. You could free up a whole day to play this game and end the day having, say, half the hospital level explored. Some levels can take you the better part of an afternoon as they are smaller, but others are massive enough to eat up the entire spare day you have. Overall gametime for me to complete this game was just over 19 hours at the default difficulty (I only made puzzle solving one notch easier mostly in a subtle effort to reduce completion time while still giving me some challenge).

On that line of thought, it’s interesting that certain elements of this game can be adjusted by dificulty in the beginning. There isn’t just a set “easy/medium/hard” difficulty. Instead, you can adjust battle and puzzle difficulties among other things. I thought this was certainly a big positive for this game.

One thing I am not a huge fan of in this game is the learning curve. It takes a good amount of time to get used to the interface. I ended up making it more than half way through the game before I finally had a solid enough understanding of the interface. One frustrating part was managing the left and right info panes. It took me forever to realize that I can click on the subtle buttons on the extreme left and right side to toggle what is on these things. Even then, they can occasionally change on their own anyway which means you have to duck for cover and readjust on occasion. For me, it did help that I had already played Ultima Underworld which shares a good number of similarities in both interface and gameplay, but it still took a bit to get used to the controls even with the help lessons at the beginning.

Some people called the level design confusing. This criticism puzzled me mostly because I thought it provided a nice challenge. Besides, with the map, you can figure out where you have and haven’t been relatively quickly. If you don’t know where to do, try exploring the areas of the map that haven’t been drawn in. Chances are, that’s where you need to go next. In addition, you can mark the maps with custom icons. I personally wished I marked the maps more with things like number locations, medi-packs that I couldn’t carry, and energy and health regenerator locations. It would have saved me a bit on backtracking. The added bonus to the level design is that once you complete the level, shortcuts open up which makes traveling between completed levels a breeze. A nice bonus if you ask me.

The difficulty curve was also very nicely done, though the beginning was a bit tougher then I would have liked. This is mainly with you fumbling your way through the controls and having very limited weaponry at your disposal.

One thing I didn’t like was the controls. Reloading on a sometimes changing pain can mean the difference between life and death. Unless there is a speed key that I was missing, reloading your weapon can be a real slow and painful process. Sometimes, you think you’ve reloaded, but you haven’t while other times, you end up running out of ammo and switching to another weapon can be quite time consuming as you fumble your way through the menu system. While this can be more acceptable in an RPG game as you simply have an enemy waiting for their turn, in an action adventure game, this is just a clumsy nightmare that mandates preparation ahead of time.

Another thing that bothered me was the over-sensitive edges of walls. It’s especially pronounced in the energy pulse weapon where you clearly aimed just past the wall, but you end up having your shot dissipate in seemingly mid-air. It’s especially bad with grenades as they seem to explode prematurely.

Another glitchy thing are doors. Sometimes, if you are close to a door when it automatically closes, you can get pushed a considerable distance. In a few cases, I ended up getting knocked clear off a ledge because of this. A small nuisance to say the least.

Generally, a good strategy I found in this game is to take things slow. Make some progress, but when your health runs low, retreat to the health re-generator before making your next assault. This can save you on resources big time. In the poisonous grove, I ended up using a bunch of resources which, while made life easier for me in this one area, made things tricky as it took a while to recover those resources later in the game – more than possible even if a bit nerve-racking.

So, overall, this is a game that has both strengths and weaknesses. If you want a nice long game that unfolds gradually, I would say you should consider this game. It takes a lot of time getting through this game, but the game does grow on you after a while even though the beginning can be a bit rough for some.

Graphically, while definitely not the first 3D game out there by this time, it was nice to see the free-roaming abilities here (as opposed to the grid-based system that many of the other RPG games have at the time). It was also nice to see that when I looked up or down that the world didn’t distort in weird ways like other games like Duke Nukem 3D, Doom, and Ultima Underworld. Having said that, I found that this game had troubles with darker areas. While in and of itself not a huge thing (as that is the purpose of darker areas to begin with), the night vision goggles did precious little to help. The head lamp sometimes was much more useful than them simply because the monochrome-like look just didn’t cut it as much as I would have liked. The effects like the radiation treatment and the warping was nicely done. The cyberspace wireframe levels was a bit hit and miss for me. While it is impressive that there was full-fledged 3D objects in a game so early on, it was sometimes difficult to figure out what was a hole in the wall or simply a wall. Still, one thing to consider was that many games at this time were 2D still and few games had the courage to attempt full-on 3D. So, I would say the graphics were pretty good all around.

The audio had its strengths and weaknesses. The music was not bad in that it does provide atmosphere, but very little was really all that memorable. The only track that was closest to being memorable was the elevator music, but I once you dive into other games with richer music, this will likely become a faded memory. The sound effects were a treat as they really exemplified the late 80s and early 90s computer hacker feel this game strives for. If you can get it to work, the voice acting was a nice added touch to the overall sound atmosphere.

Overall, this is a long game with both strengths and weaknesses. The overall size and complexity of this game was definitely a real treat here. The different things you can encounter really allows this game to be immersive. That’s not to say this game is perfect. The learning curve and the controls did leave a fair bit to be desired at times. The sensitive walls and the glitchy doors did detract from this game and the ending was definitely a huge letdown. The graphics were nice because it shows was early 3D environments were capable of in early gaming. The cyberspace levels were impressive in that there was use of full-fledged 3D objects, but the wireframe environment made navigation confusing sometimes. The music was largely forgettable, but the sound effects and the voice acting gets a thumbs up from me. So, overall, if you’re looking for a decent adventure game with a lot of gameplay depth that has the ability to submerge you in the experience for hours on end, I would definitely suggest giving this game a try. It may not be the worlds most amazing game in general, but it’s more than possible to sink a lot of quality hours here.


Furthest point in game: Defeated SHODAN. Probably didn’t do too shabby with the end game stats:

General gameplay: 17/25
Replay value: 7/10
Graphics: 8/10
Audio: 3/5

Overall rating: 70%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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