A remake that closely follows the original classic, with a slightly different overall effect.
As a newcomer to System Shock, I’d like to take a moment and declare my undying love for SHODAN, aka Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network, aka the murderous AI villain engulfing the entire remake. Literally. As a hacker captured aboard the Citadel space station, you’ve been asked to remove “ethical constraints” from the station’s artificial intelligence (i.e. SHODAN) in a patently shady exchange. You get your freedom back plus a cool cybernetic implant, and the ruler of the megacorporation who’s in charge of the operation can do bad things with the new ethically unconstrained station.
System Shock Review Publisher: Prime Matter Developer: Nightdive Studios Platform: Played on PC Availability: Released May 30 on PC.
Things aren’t working out for either of you. Months pass and you woke up, still on the Citadel, but this time humans have turned into bloodthirsty mutants, killer robots and cyborgs are attacking with vengeance, and my beloved SHODAN leads the whole dark party .
The System Shock remake begins much the same as the original 1994 game. Exactly the same events take place, but they have been changed. The opening cinematic of the original System Shock has this loud, driving beat in the background. The retro animation was a bit surreal, almost like it came straight out of a fever dream. The remake dulls some of that energy in exchange for something more palatable.
A look at System Shock in action.
I’m focusing on the intro because I think it’s emblematic of the whole remake. Developer Nightdive’s System Shock update is a very faithful – sometimes shocking – remake recreating much of the Citadel’s zigzag layout as it was three decades ago, but the somewhat intimidating quirks of the original have been ironed out, replaced or deleted altogether. This fidelity means that System Shock (2023) doesn’t quite stand up next to the many great games inspired by System Shock (1994). Although that means the pleasures of the classic are now easier to enjoy than ever, made more accessible for modern audiences.
The general structure here is the same, however. After adjusting a few difficulty sliders for combat, puzzles, cyberspace and more – just like you did in the original – you begin the trek through the steely levels of the Citadel in an attempt to thwart SHODAN’s humanity cleanup plans. Emphasis on the plural, SHODAN is cunning. As you sneak under crawl spaces and through maze-like hallways, you’ll jump to destroy SHODAN’s cameras, find access cards, flip switches to unlock new areas, and eventually move up and down the station’s various floors. You slowly unravel and discover these knotted environments as you go.
The first immediately noticeable change is, of course, the look of the Citadel this time around. Or rather how it feels. The environments in the System Shock remake look decidedly darker and creepier than in the original. Some walls still have some blocky pixelated textures, taking on that retro charm. So even when the remake doesn’t strive for realism, it still looks pretty darn cool. Either way, thick shadows, silver pipes, and steep corners are all over the System Shock remake, leaning into that horror-adjacent atmosphere very effectively.
The sound effects also contribute greatly to this. Picking up a page from the blood-soaked book of Dead Space, you’re never quite sure whether or not distant moans are coming from the creaky parts of the station, the grunts of nearby enemies, or your computer slowly overheating. . The sometimes deafening soundtrack is also gone, replaced by quieter ambient beats that incorporate lots of clicking, slapping and thumping synths – because it wouldn’t be cyberpunk without thumping synths. And the end effect has you stopping, turning, peeking around corners, guessing if you’re really alone in a room.
Even an encounter with the enemies of the tutorial – the hollow-eyed mutants – can be terrifying thanks to their inhuman stares. Most of the fights actually instill a sense of fear thanks to tight resources and even tighter inventory – which duplicates Tetris’ management. System Shock Remake’s shooting and slamming has been improved and feels more like a modern shooter, but your general lack of supplies adds a touch of survival horror jamming. Carefully matching the right bullets to the right enemy can make all the difference, and your future you will thank you for saving ammo.
My inventory was usually low on ammo, health restoring items, or grenades, but never all three. So, as an immersive simulator, there is normally a way out of sticky situations. Running out of ammo? Just throw an EMP grenade at your enemies, disable them, and run with your key until they shatter. The fight almost always has you on the back foot, but that desperation can inspire some clever thinking (or some clever cheese) and lead to massive sighs of relief. Just how I love my horror.
The last-minute struggles fit the tone of the game perfectly, but compared to other modern immersive sims, the combat can feel stuffy at times. You don’t have the plethora of options you might expect from an Arkane game, for example, so once you’re fully loaded with supplies, many encounters turn into long-range shootouts. Which is fine, even if it doesn’t inspire the cohesive creative problem-solving that really makes an im-sim sing.
These im-sim-isms play into how you discover and map the labyrinthine world, happily. Most levels are a series of intertwining hallways, and you’re pretty much free to attack these nodes from any direction. Naturally, many doors have been locked, whether by SHODAN, faulty wiring, or lack of access cards, and the remake trusts you to sort it all out. Seriously, a complete map of any level looks like what I imagine Area 51 floor plans look like.
This freedom leads to many satisfying a-ha moments. While you can’t chain stealth attacks or throw Plasmids, you can find a way to disable respawning drones. Or maybe you want to prioritize unlocking the level spawn point for yourself. Or maybe you want to find a crawl space to completely avoid a specific enemy. The game gives you a lot of freedom in the order in which you tackle the objectives, opening up opportunities for decisions and discoveries, big and small.
The System Shock remake’s structure is largely unchanged from the original, and (again) that can be liberating, but some of those vague goals do cause annoyance. You see, progress is regularly tied to access cards, levers in specific rooms, and other items of interest, but the game rarely emphasizes these. So I’m torn between loving the process of deciphering objectives through environmental clues and emails, and feeling frustrated as I take turns down indistinguishable hallways, only to finally find my key on a dead enemy’s body. since a long time.
Oh, and cyberspace is back. These were the abstract areas of the original where you float in confusing space and shoot colorful shapes. Now these are neon-tinted abstract areas where you shoot angry colored faces. It’s a fun, unexpected distraction, and while those shootouts aren’t the highlight, I’m glad they’re still here. Cyberspace is weird and helps this remake retain some of that weirdness from the original. In fact, come to think of it, there’s a lot of weird stuff here – from moaning “I’m hungry” mutants to a mournful audiolog dedicated to a crew member’s cat.
Overall, there are both new and old annoyances in this remake, mixed with new and old pleasures. And the heart of those delights comes from SHODAN, a villain so delightfully wicked and creative that he pretty much runs the whole game. The AI is literally the whole game. Citadel and SHODAN are now one and the same – think Citadel as to the body and to the SHODAN as to the brain. This means that as you pass through the station, you also pass through SHODAN’s innards which creepily reframes all the visible pipes and creaking noises throughout the place.
System Shock leans into this horror, hard. Audiologs constantly remind you of this relationship between technology and our environment, from enemy cyborgs repeating “nothing” in a monotonous voice, to SHODAN itself. The manic AI is still there. It’s the ship, and it’ll celebrate your small victories with deadly traps, sneaky remarks, and hidden alternate plans. I was constantly surprised by how SHODAN manipulated the world, either disabling a bridge below me or opening doors for more bad guys.
Shock system accessibility options
Ability to remap buttons, subtitles, ability to change color on UI and adjustable difficulty sliders for different parts of the game (combat, puzzles, cyberspace, mission.)
And, oh boy, the voice. It cracks and contorts in truly unsettling ways. Weird static sometimes makes it look like he’s crying or someone else is screaming. The inflections simulate curiosity, small moments of joy, something vaguely human. Quickly followed by casually ultra-violent threats. And every ugly part of this station is a reminder of the greed needed to create something so evil. Wonderful.
SHODAN is what makes parts of this game really special, even with a few warts. Thankfully, the original’s inscrutable Excel sheet menus are gone. But Nightdive isn’t taking the Capcom or Square Enix approach with this remake; they’re actually quite adamant in their mission to update the original. As a result, there aren’t any wildly dynamic abilities or playful ways to move around the resort (à la Prey) that some beginners might expect. But ultimately, the System Shock remake faithfully recreates a classic, retains most of its appeal, reframes everything with a horror slant, and as a result, makes it more playable for everyone.
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