System Shock

From Academic Kids

System Shock is a computer game series developed by Looking Glass Studios (formerly Looking Glass Technologies) and offshoot Irrational Games. The first game was published by Origin, which was subsequently bought by Electronic Arts (EA). The sequel (1999) was published by EA. The series is considered by some people to be one of the greatest ever made.


System Shock

System Shock was Origin Systems' 1994 entry into the first person sci-fi/horror genre, set aboard the fictional Citadel research and mining space station. The player is a hacker hired by an ambitious Tri-Optimum Corporation executive to do a secret hack job on the stations controlling Artificial Intelligence, SHODAN. In return, the hacker receives a valuable, military-grade cybernetic implant. However, once the hacker awakes from his post-operation healing coma on board the station, he finds all hell has broken loose. He must fight for survival against mutants, cyborgs and robots created or reprogrammed by the brilliant but insane SHODAN. The story is mostly told through log disks and email messages found and recieved throughout the game.

Although the game was superficially similar to many other first-person shooters on the market, it was critically acclaimed for having detailed environments, an engrossing storyline and a memorable villain. System Shock is often cited as an inspiration for games like Deus Ex and Half-Life. Even though it was considered technologically superior, it was still outsold by more mainstream action games of the time, most notably Doom. The game sold fewer than 100,000 copies. The game used an enhanced version of the engine used in the two Ultima Underworld games.


The weapons system was considered by some to be quite innovative (for an FPS). Certain weapons affected certain enemies differently, depending on if they were biological (mutants), technological (robots) or biotechnological (cyborgs). This makes certain enemies immune to certain weapons, and vulnerable to others. EMP weapons, for example are devastating against robots and cyborgs, but useless against purely biological targets. On the other hand, gas grenades are effective against weaker mutants and cyborgs, but do not affect robots at all. Some of the tougher enemies are not even hurt by some of the weaker weapons, as the shots just can't penetrate their armour. Some weapons are adjustable, with sliders for the power of energy weapons (also affecting energy usage and heat generation), and for the timers on timed explosives. Most energy weapons also have an overload button, for a powerful (if inefficient) blast. Most bullet weapons can be switched between two types of ammunition, each unique to those guns. A couple weapons are practically useless (in the player's situation), but add to the realism, as they would have been used for stunning of individuals or non-lethal suppression of rioting groups, before everything went haywire on the station.


An unusual aspect of the game is its interface. It was quite complex for a game of the time. Indeed, this complexity may have served as a barrier to entry to some less patient players. However, at the same time, the interface gave a level of control that was not found in other first person games of the time (nor many that came afterwards). Players could duck, and crouch, they could lean left or right, even forwards, they could jump and mantle onto some platforms. Players could also look up and down, and climb ladders. The player character could also become fatigued from constant running and jumping, needing to slow down or stop to catch his breath.

Aiming of weapons is performed with the mouse cursor, which is not locked to the centre of the screen. The picking up of items is manual, as opposed to other games where it is automatic. Items are picked up by moving the cursor over them and double clicking, instead of simply walking over them. Proper usage of thrown explosives requires a special technique, explained in the manual. Players who do not know about the technique often drop grenades and bombs at their feet, with disastrous results. The interface had, among other things, three multi-function-displays (MFDs): One in the middle, generally used for inventory, and two side MFDs, which could be set individually to show several kinds of data, such as minimaps, ammunition counts and target information. One of the cybernetic devices obtainable in the game, when active, uses the central MFD as a rear-view camera that updates once per second. With upgrades, the camera becomes real-time, and the side MFDs provide side views.


The bodies of the station crew and destroyed enemies can be searched, and items taken from them. Although System Shock was not the first FPS to have allow a player to do so, it was a very rare feature at the time. Most of the time, these items were randomized, which helps change the gameplay experience each time the game is played.

As the player progresses through the game they find hardware that can be attached to their cybernetic rig, including shields, lights, and mapping and targeting systems. Nearly all of these can be upgraded, with newer versions making them more powerful or offering more features. However, some of them drain power from a main reserve when used, meaning that a player cannot have the luxury of having them on all the time. Thus, the player must balance their energy use, deciding when and where best to make use of the systems. The game Deus Ex makes a similar use of this concept in regards to its Augmentation system.

The player can also find various pharmacalogical patches throught the game, each with varying effects, and sometimes negative side or after-effects. The Medipatch can heal, but unlike healing items in most games, does so gradually, not instantly. The Staminump patch stops a player from getting tired, but when it wears off, the player is left exhausted. The Reflex Reaction Aid patch speeds up the player character's reflexes, slowing their perception of events, as well as boosting their sprint speed. The Detox patch comes in handy if the player is suffering from biological or radioactive contamination, and also neutralises the negative side-effects/after-effects of other patches. However, it also neutralises the beneficial effects of other patches, and it stays in the player's system for some time. There are a few more types of patches not listed here.

The game also contains 'Cyberspace' areas. At certain points in the game, the player can use their cybernetic rig to "jack in" to Cyberspace terminals. The player is then able to fly around a fully 3D user interface, collecting data and fighting security programs. Some actions in Cyberspace generate events in the real world. Some doors, for example, are locked, with the only way to unlock them being accessible via Cyberspace.


There were two versions of the game released. The original floppy disk version was released in early 1994. It only supported one screen resolution, and did not have speech. The CD enhanced version, released some months later, had speech for almost every log and email. This considerably heightened the atmosphere, and is considered by most the superior version. It also allowed for several resolutions, up to 640x480 (quite a feat for a 1994 game), including more detailed graphics to make the most of the higher resolution. This was enough to tax nearly any system of the time. The game actually supported much higher resolutions, but these were disabled as they would still have been unplayable years later. System Shock was also realeased for the Apple Macintosh.

System Shock 2

System Shock 2 beta screenshot
System Shock 2 beta screenshot

System Shock 2, the sequel to System Shock, was developed by Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios and released in 1999 by EA.

This game takes the tenets of its predecessor, namely to combine a sci-fi/horror action game with role-playing elements, one step further by relying on a modified version of the Dark engine from Thief for visuals and atmosphere. Similar to the earlier game, the story takes place in an artificial construct (a spacecraft named the Von Braun) that has been taken over by an alien intelligence, basically turning all the surroundings against the player.

In both System Shock games, the player character has a number of specific skills that can come into play at various points in the game, depending on how the player decides to create the character and play the game. The character can be customized towards various professions, like a gun-slinging Marine, a hacker/engineer or a psi-corps "wizard". In these aspects, the System Shock series has as much in common with computer role-playing games as with first person shooters. Gameplay furthermore requires more variability and alternative problem solving than most first-person shooters, mainly because the combat has been toughened up in comparison; most guns require special skills, and skill points are hard to come by. Also, guns degrade through use, and can eventually break, and have to be repaired, either by nanites or special skills. In a typical game, the player will only be able to use about half of the weapons or psychic powers (depending on one's choice of specialization) - this provides a good amount of replayability, and forces the player to think strategically.

Items are picked up in a similar fashion to the first game. However, the Dark Engine allowed for specific placements of objects, so that the possibilites for item and weapon placements were increased greatly. For example, hiding an item under a bench chair, where the player has to crouch down and manually grab the item, would not be possible in a game such as Half-Life, where the player automatically picks up items by touching them.

Much as the original System Shock's commercial defeat was at the hands of the mainstream Doom, System Shock 2 was essentially eclipsed by Half-Life.

The official patch updates the game from the release version (1.15) to version 2.3. You must have the release version for the patch to work. It adds multiplayer support, a new difficulty level, and several bugfixes. It is recommended to get the patch before playing. However, it can be applied without breaking savegames.

System Shock 2 Fan Modifications

A free fan-made add-on pack, called "Rebirth," is available on the net, which improves some of the textures and polygon counts that had been kept simple in the original release to ensure high performance speed. It has been criticized a little though because some fans believe that it changes the 'feel' of the original enemies. As such, it is recommended to play through the unmodifed game at least once (but one should still apply the official patch), before deciding whether or not to use Rebirth.

The "No Spiders" patch removes the spider enemies from the game. Some people with severe arachnophobia were unable to continue after encountering these enemies.

System Shock 2 criticisms

While lauded as excellent by devoted fans, many people (particularly more 'casual', 'mainstream' gamers) have criticised certain aspects of System Shock 2.

Most of the complaints take issue with System Shock 2's gun degradation system. Designed to add tension to the game, many feel that the guns degrade too quickly and too often. Also, ammunition is scarce, compared to most games. However most complaints about ammunition come from players attempting to play the game like a 'standard' first person shooter.

The next issue is spawning. Unlike most current games, System Shock 2 frequently spawns enemies in area that have been cleared. These enemies then come looking for the player. Some criticize the spawning as a flaw, as dealing with the seemingly endless number of enemies requires using up more of the finite resources you find on the Von Braun. This respawning, however, serves to generate fear and tension in the player as they must be cautious when returning through areas they have been through before. There are, however, some areas where players are safe from enemies, giving them time to collect their thoughts and plan their next actions.

In light of these complaints, the patched version of System Shock 2 allows players to tone down (or remove) some of these aspects of the game. This can also allow these aspects to be increased (some experimentation is required though), for players wanting an extra challenge.

It also appears that Irrational Games was running out of time on SS2, due to the interior design of the Rickenbacker. The areas appear hastily constructed, disjoint, and they reuse a lot of the Von Braun textures (even though the ships are supposed to be different). This section of the game is also very short, leaving the player wondering if there was supposed to be more.

Finally, System Shock 2 is sometimes considered (by some experienced players who have played both games) as holding the player's hand very slightly at certain points, in regards to how problems in the game are solved, in comparison to the first game. However, some people, mostly newer players, prefer this method, and easily lose their way in the first game.

System Shock enemies

There are a number of powerful enemies within the System Shock universe. Here is a short list of the primary leading enemies, with a small description.

SHODAN: As noted above, SHODAN is the primary enemy in SS1. Her name stands for Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network. At the beginning of the game she has her ethical protocols taken off-line, leading to her insanity. She returns in System Shock 2.

XERXES: An AI similar in structure to SHODAN but not quite as intelligent, and with many more safety protocols, XERXES is the primary computer of the starship Von Braun. He is corrupted by the infestation that takes over the ship and becomes a puppet for the will of The Many.

The Many: A biological collective that has evolved from SHODAN's genetic experimentation, The Many have infested the Von Braun in hopes of spreading across the galaxy. Turning against SHODAN (whom they call the "Machine Mother"), they are the primary antagonist in System Shock 2 and the only reason why SHODAN tolerates your presence in the second game.

Edward Diego: A former Vice-President of marketing of Tri-Optimum Corporation, he is the one responsible for hiring the Hacker to remove SHODAN's ethical protocols. He thought he could use SHODAN to hide the evidence of his corrupt dealings. Instead, he greatly underestimated SHODAN's power, intelligence, and savagery. His son is the captain of the military vessel sent with the Von Braun forty two years later.

Capt. Anatoly Korenchkin: The Captain of the Von Braun and a true "company man," Korenchkin wants so much for the mission to succeed that he is willing to go to any lengths to make sure that anything bad on the ship is covered up, up to negligently ignoring the warnings of the Chief Engineer, Dr. Marie Delacroix. He is also the one responsible for bringing the annelids to the Von Braun in the first place.

Future of the System Shock series

Recently, Doom 3 has used some survival horror elements from the System Shock series to create ambience, as well as borrowing some plot devices. However, Doom 3 only resembles System Shock superficially, having a rigidly linear plotline, something that was very much against the Looking Glass Studios philosophy of emergent narrative.

Though some hold the opinion that Doom 3 is the spiritual successor to System Shock 2, a far more likely successor would be Deus Ex. Deus Ex was in part developed by many ex-employees of Looking Glass Studios, and embodies much of the Looking Glass Studios philosophy of emergent narrative.

Because of the way the rights to the System Shock series were sold after Looking Glass liquidated, the possibility of a true System Shock sequel is unlikely. Many companies purchased small sections of the franchise, and many of these companies do not even know they own them. This may work in fans favour however, as it prevents any company from making an "unworthy" sequel. Electronic Arts however, does appear to own the majority of the rights, as they have sent cease and desist letters to groups and individuals making unofficial System Shock-based content for various games.

As such, Irrational Games recently announced a true 'spiritual successor' to the System Shock series, entitled BioShock. The game takes place in an abandoned WW2 lab uncovered in the 21st century, in which the genetic projects started during the war have lived on. Whereas System Shock is considered "a convergence of technology and commercialism", BioShock will instead represent "a convergence of technology and biological life."

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