This week, Zero Punctuation reviews System Shock 2.
You know, I used to PC game a lot more than I do now, but that was back before I mainly used laptops. So I eventually had to inch my bum along to the console end of the bench of gaming for the sake of playing processor-intensive games without having to microwave my keyboard hand. Lately however, I've been feeling like it's time to start inching my bum back again because I've just noticed a smelly tramp sitting on the console end of the bench with a Kinect lodged in his forehead, and he keeps muttering the word 'preowned' and stabbing himself in the hand with a tin opener.
With a new console generation coming up like a cloud of eldritch black vapour on the horizon, this is turning into the ideal time to reminisce the fuck out of retro PC gaming. And it seems Steam agrees, 'cause it finally released System Shock 2 the other day, and while we're still muttering about the Bioshocks and the Bioshock Infinites and the Biotoxicshocksyndromes, we've a timely enough gap in new releases to look back on how that all began.
Well, the sequel to how that all began anyway, but playing System Shock 1 was like trying to pilot a helicopter with your head stuck in a Commodore 64, so personally I don't count it. In System Shock 2, we play a random Johnny about whom all we know going in is that they're a bit tasty in a fight, in what would become the grand tradition of Ken Levine games with 'Shock' in the name. We're assigned to an experimental FTL ship exploring a distant galaxy, but wake up in a fridge and can't remember why. Also the ship is now infested with papercraft beef jerky monsters because polygon graphics haven't quite shaken off the pubescent bum-fluff by the point. You set off to piece together what happened and look for survivors, although you won't find any (spoiler alert) because there wasn't enough room on CDs to have friendly NPCs, and even if they had, the game had no way to prevent you whimsically stoving their heads in with a wrench.
Again, setting the tone for all future games, there's more behind the plot than there seems at first glance, although one could've figured that out from the intro. "Hey!" it says: "Did you know that in the last game, there was this nutty computer that tried to kill everyone?" No, I did not know that, why did you bring it up? "...erm, no reason. Here's a totally unrelated plot. Also try not to look at the box art."
So the adventure begins, and then stops again two seconds later when you realise you need to rebind the controls. A and D to turn rather than strafe? X to backpedal? Are you taking the fucking piss? It's lucky the game was never ported to a console, you'd probably have to walk forward by licking the shoulder buttons. Then again, you can't port System Shock 2 to a console until someone invents a gamepad with mouse control and more buttons than a microwave in an Arts and Crafts shop.
It's very much steeped in the PC gaming attitude: you either memorise about ten million keyboard shortcuts or switch to a mouse interface that attempts to simultaneously convey more information than a fucking textbook on visual design. You got your inventory, your equips, your nanites, your cyber modules, your weapon, your weapon setting, your ammo selector, your logs, your research, your stats, your skills, your goals, your hopes, your dreams, your secret racist opinions and your teeth get knocked out by a mutant with a lead pipe, who you didn't see coming because your vision was covered in bollocks like a monetised YouTube video and you were playing Minesweeper. So you can see how Bioshock was perceived to have dumbed the gameplay down a bit, but in all fairness it had a pretty long way to come down. If a plane adjusts its height from forty thousand to thirty nine thousand feet, the houses on the ground below don't get evacuated quite yet.
The thing about System Shock 2 I found is I know a lot of people who've played it and have fond memories of it but virtually none of them could claim to have actually finished it. It's the kind of RPG where you can't fucking blow your nose until you've sunk eight points into nose-blowing but also some points into research because you can only use the snotty hankie once it's been analysed with the correct chemicals. So you have to be very careful about where you put your experience points because you'll be about three quarters of the way through the game before you get to spin the Wheel of Arbitrary Success and find out if you've been allocating your points sensibly all along. "Oh no! Looks like you sunk all your points into scratching your bum to get past the itchy trousers section, but they'll never show up again and all the enemies from now on are only weak to nose-blowing. Better luck next time!"
Still, it makes for a rare kind of tension. Yeah, doing the pipe wrench dance with a security robot's kinda hard, but with quicksaves and resurrection booths, it's more of a wheelchair ramp than a stumbling block. The real tension lies in knowing that these points are never coming back once you've spent them. Oh, the paralysing agony where an extra point in endurance sounds lovely, but if you just held out a bit longer you could get that one Psi ability that makes alarms time out faster. Wait, what the fuck do you want that for, you idiot? You might as well put all your points into Scrotum Size and try to bounce your way to victory.
Not that the rest of the game isn't tense with all the creeping down dark hallways, taking gambles on when it is and isn't safe to pop your little cyber-hood and piddle about with your interface or listen to one of those audio logs that were all voice acted by whoever happened to be hanging around the office that day who could just about speak without banging their heads on the floor. No sound is more unnerving than the bleep of a security camera spotting you. Snap decision: Either jump back into cover or draw your melee weapon and try to running jump-smash the fucking thing before the alarm goes off, optionally while screaming "BANZAAAIIIII!".
So it's a very tense game with very good sound design, at least it does once you've turned off that fucking techno music, but isn't that the beauty of PC games? If something pisses you off you can change it or turn it off or, at the very least, mod it out. For example if you think it's a shame the female nurses didn't get their tits out after having their bodies unspeakably violated by forced cyber-augmentation, then you'll be pleased to hear that someone created a mod to address that issue. And of course, another someone wanted in co-op gameplay at one point which has happily been included with the Steam release. Of course, I'd have been even happier if we could've gotten out of the first room without crashing to desktop.
You know, the more of this review I write, the more I wonder why I liked System Shock 2 so much. I suppose it's because for all the fiddliness and goddamn-double-fuck patty-on-a-sesame-seed-bun weapon degradation and those weird Dark Engine physics that feel like you're walking around with your feet trapped in bowling-balls, it's a game of dizzying depth in both gameplay and writing. I could spend hours reading the flavour text on all the inventory items until a suicide robot comes up and repaints a bulkhead with me, but I would die content with knowledge that they'll write something interesting on my tombstone.
He performs well for an insect: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Look out for the upcoming musical "System Rock" featuring such hits as 'Panting And Sweating Your Way Through My Heart'
Shodan at the OK Corral