‘SYSTEM SHOCK’ REMAKE: FUN TO REVISIT, UNLIKELY TO GAIN NEW AUDIENCES
The System Shock series was one of the first narratively-driven first person shooter games, and its influence continues to be felt in gaming today, its blend of cyberpunk and horror yet to be outdone. After spending years in IP limbo, Nightdive Studios acquired the franchise rights in 2012 and Kickstarted the System Shock remake in 2016. In anticipation of the game’s launch in Q3 2021, Nightdive released a demo last week that allowed players to explore the first part of the game, which gives us an idea of what the result of those five years in development will be.
As a big fan of the System Shock series, even I have to admit that the first game hasn’t aged well. The Enhanced Edition allows you to launch the game on modern systems, but it still lacks a lot of modern conveniences. The ideas behind the game are still intriguing, but it’s very much a product of 1994. So, I had high hopes that a remake could take the original vision behind System Shock to a new level.
From the demo, it’s obvious that for better or worse, this game is more of a blend of a remake and a remaster rather than one or the other. The story remains the same, placing you in the role of a nameless hacker who is trapped in the orbiting Citadel Station in 2072. You still have to face off against the SHODAN AI after being blackmailed to remove its ethical constraints. Predictably, the AI kills most of the crew, mutates the others into mindless creatures, and turns all the station’s security systems against the hacker.
What has been updated for the better are the graphics and UI. The System Shock remake utilizes Unreal Engine 4, so players can expect to see a wide array of modern particle effects and lighting. The developers chose to go with a retro graphic style that’s reminiscent of PC games of the 1990s, instead of something more realistic. I get what they’re going for, but at 4K, it sometimes looks more blurry than stylized.
The new rendition of Citadel Station is much darker and heavily punctuated by the neon of control panels on the walls and furniture. This is a double-edged sword because it adds to the tension, but it makes navigation by sight alone difficult. The original game’s areas were relatively bright, and the environments varied enough from room to room that players could make their way around without constantly checking the map. The original also utilized shadows and darkness with a bit more restraint, which felt tenser to me than being dark all the time.
The entire UI has been overhauled, but the biggest change is how items are handled. Now, the game has a system reminiscent of Deus Ex and Resident Evil 4. Instead of having multiple inventories to comb through, all the items go into a grid-based repository and can be equipped to a quick bar. This approach is easier to deal with than that found in the original, but with it comes an odd adjustment.
There are now tons of junk items scattered throughout the game that don’t have any discernible use that I could find. Useless items existed in the original but appeared much less often. Maybe I missed a hidden new crafting system somewhere, but as far as I can see, the only thing you can do with these items is to drop or destroy them. Unfortunately, the retro graphics style and poor lighting combine to make this junk irritating. Often, you just can’t see what an item is, so you have to comb a room and keep an eye on the info section at the top of the screen to make sure you’re not leaving something useful behind.
Adding to the frustration with junk items is the lower spawn rate of helpful items. The original game peppered you with dermal patches and ammo regularly. I haven’t made a mathematical comparison, but it’s obvious that the enemy drop rate is less lucrative compared to the same difficulty settings in the original. Luckily, the enemies are still dumb as posts, and running around them while rotating and flailing about with the pipe is an effective strategy for the common types of foes I encountered.
Besides the modern FPS controls and revamped inventory and UI, there are a few more gameplay changes in System Shock. The weapons system has been overhauled and simplified to an extent. This is also true of the hardware system. I noticed that the Sensaround attachment was missing, though it may have been moved or be in the final game instead of being removed.
With a few adjustments, the System Shock remake could be a great recreation of the original with a bunch of modern conveniences. However, fans who want a true remake will likely be disappointed here. I’m content with what we’re getting, but I hoped that we would get a complete reimagining that would revitalize the series. Longtime fans are sure to enjoy it, but I fear it doesn’t go far enough to attract a new audience.
Photo courtesy of Nightdive Studios