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System Shock Review

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It’s a topic which has been explored in the entertainment world for decades. What happens when machines go bad? Well, AI is very much back on the news agenda as technology continues to leap forward at an often alarming rate. However, plenty of cautionary tales have already been told, and one of the finest was System Shock which released way back in 1994.

You assumed the role of an unnamed hacker, who was caught snooping by the shady tech firm TriOptimum. After being taken in for interrogation, one of the execs strikes a deal with you to compromise an AI’s ethical boundaries in exchange for the latest implant. As you can probably imagine, it doesn’t end well.

The construct in question is SHODAN, who runs the Citadel Station and thanks to your meddling has transformed the crew into cyborgs and reprogrammed the various types of robot on the station to shoot on sight. Your mission is simple. Stop SHODAN from decimating the Earth with a weapon of unimaginable power and converting everyone unlucky enough to survive.

System Shock review 1
System Shock – shocking?

Well it’s been thirty years and System Shock is back, and it has to be said the game is looking pretty gosh darn gorgeous. It’s been given a total graphical overhaul by developers Nightdive Studios, and despite the scale of detail being ramped up, you can still easily identify this as a game with its roots way back in the ’90s. It’s a great balance.

What really completes the experience is the use of sound, because this is a shooter steeped in the world of survival horror. The Citadel Station is eerie and filled with danger at every turn. You’ll hear cyborgs announcing they are searching for you and reporting back into “mother”, mutants grunting and wheezing as well as cameras beeping and tracking you.

You’ll regularly get ambushed, and I fell victim to the jump scares all too often. SHODAN herself will warn and threaten you in a genuinely chilling manner, often glitching and stuttering as she grows increasingly manic and unstable. There’s a feeling that she’s always there, watching like the unwanted companion from hell. The original voice actress (Terri Brosius) is back, and is as unsettling as ever.

Your journey in System Shock will see you explore each level of the Citadel Station, exploring the various different sectors such as Engineering, Medical and even the executive suites. Your aim is to reach SHODAN on the bridge, however doing so is far from straightforward. Each level is a maze, and as a result you can approach it in many different ways. Your map will prove essential, and expands as you explore, marking off key resources and facilities. This also means you can stick to the main objectives if you wish, or head off and explore the station and discover its secrets. Audio logs and data sticks flesh out the back story, and sometimes provide key information too. It’s a brilliant mechanic and one used by so many games that came after the original System Shock.

Overall there’s a trade off as (keeping with the survival horror theme) ammo, health and other items are scarce which makes things challenging. I played on the regular difficulty and that was plenty for me. I died often, which wasn’t too much of an issue once I shut down the cyborg conversion units. There’s one of these on each floor, and you should think of them as a safety net which prevents you from losing significant chunks of progress when you die. There’s no regular autosave feature, but you can save from the pause menu as long as you aren’t engaged in combat.

System Shock review 2
Get ready to die, often.

Being honest, at times I did long for a more linear environment as there’s no hand holding or waypoints to rely on in System Shock. This means exploring is almost inevitable, as you try to figure out exactly what to do and where to go. Things can get tricky when you’re out of ammo too. Relying on melee weapons is fruitless, especially as you climb the station levels. As a result things can go very wrong, very quickly. The difficulty is brutal and unforgiving at times, which means despite how attractive your inventory looks you are always vulnerable and never safe. 

My advice? Stock up on cash. The environments in System Shock are populated with all sorts of items, and a lot of them are seemingly useless. However, if you vaporise them and turn them into scrap, you can hit up a recycling centre and convert it into Tri-credits. These can then be used at the various vending machines on the station to purchase all sorts of essential items and even upgrade your weapons. Improving your gear is crucial to surviving the upper levels too. Sadly you are restricted when it comes to inventory space, so it’s important to make use of the cargo hold storage lift which you can access from each floor.

There’s a satisfying range of weapons you can find aboard Citadel Station. Carrying a mix of different types will make it easier to dispatch enemies, for example chucking an EMP grenade to paralyse hostile robots or using the flipping awesome laser rapier to chop down mutants where they stand. Using less effective weapons will make life much more difficult, and most likely end badly for you. As a result, System Shock demands a certain level of strategic and logical thinking from the player.

This is also the case with hacking, which is great fun. Through various nodes dotted around Citadel Station you enter cyberspace in a mini-game of sorts to fight off the firewall defences and force open locked doors. It’s a little reminiscent of Starfox as you fly through cyberspace fending off polygonal enemies whilst navigating a glistening maze in search of the system core.

Your grey matter will also be put to work thanks to certain doors requiring you to repair their circuitry. There are various setups, but the main aim is to reroute the power through a grid based maze to open the adjacent door. These puzzles increase in line with the overall difficulty, but again I found them challenging enough of the default setting.

System Shock review 3
SHODAN – captivating and terrifying

I suppose my biggest issue with System Shock is the control setup. The classic item mapping from the days of PC FPS games remains, now navigated by the D-Pad. This is telling of where System Shock has come from. Don’t get me wrong, it all works fine but still feels clunky. I had to remap the inputs a few times, as I would repeatedly press the wrong button as they didn’t naturally translate to the actions I wanted in game. This usually meant I lobbed a grenade or used a power pack whilst trying to change my weapon setting or reload.

The player interface is also very busy, there’s a lot of information available to you. Despite the changes, it still isn’t as slick as it could be and it took me a little while to figure out how to get straight to what I needed.

On balance I really enjoyed myself with System Shock, and there’s a lot of gameplay hours here, especially if you’re the curious type. SHODAN remains as captivating as she is terrifying, and the storytelling is top notch. It’s perhaps unfair to say, but due to this remake being a surface level glow up the drawbacks from a thirty year old game haven’t been fully overcome. Still, if this is your first time exploring Citadel Station you’re in for a treat because System Shock remains an immersive, tense and thrilling experience all these years later.

System Shock very much deserves its second coming, and so many groundbreaking elements of the original game still impress today. However, beyond the cosmetic upgrade the same foundations remain, warts and all. 

SUMMARY

Pros:
  • Brilliant storytelling
  • Stylish updated visuals
  • Chunky single player campaign
  • Cyberspace segments are great fun
Cons:
  • Fiddly controls
  • Punishing difficulty at times
Info:
  • Massive thanks for the free copy of the game, Prime Matter
  • Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), Xbox One, PC, PS4, PS5
  • Release date and price - 21 May 2024 | £TBC
Darren Edwards
Darren Edwards
I have been playing games since a very early age, thanks to my Dad's encouragement. I've been an Xbox gamer since the very beginning, the Master Chief is to thank for that. I'm also a big Nintendo geek, and my other half is a PlayStation nut. I'll play pretty much anything in any genre (although FIFA and COD maybe pushing it).
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<b>Pros:</b> <ul> <li>Brilliant storytelling</li> <li>Stylish updated visuals</li> <li>Chunky single player campaign</li> <li>Cyberspace segments are great fun</li> </ul> <b>Cons:</b> <ul> <li>Fiddly controls<li> <li>Punishing difficulty at times</li> </ul> <b>Info:</b> <ul> <li>Massive thanks for the free copy of the game, Prime Matter</li> <li>Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), Xbox One, PC, PS4, PS5 <li>Release date and price - 21 May 2024 | £TBC</li> </ul>System Shock Review
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