The Local Ditch Gaming Emporium Features:

Local Ditch > System Shock

At A Glance

  • Release Date:
  • 1994
  • Platform:
  • PC
  • Developer:
  • Looking Glass Studios
  • Publisher:
  • Origin Systems/ Electronic Arts
  • Premise:
  • Hacker must prevent rogue AI from destroying space station in an adventure/FPS hybrid

\\ Here's a game that has been the critic's darling since its release, but no one would be able to tell by its sales. Of course, there's a reason for that: another big player was taking everyone's money in 1994: Doom. System Shock seemed to target the same audience, but even though they were both first-person games with some shooting, beyond that they had little in common.

System Shock is an early 3D-adventure game blended with a first-person shooter. I don't like to associate the term FPS with Shock, because it implies that the game is a run-and-gunner, where the action is fast, furious, and you'll be leaping all over the place, outgunning enemies.

Instead, System Shock is an adventure game first and foremost. As the game begins, you take the role of an unnamed hacker who has just awakened from an induced 6-month healing coma. In exchange for hacking into the Citadel space station for one Edward Diego, he's rewarded you with a cyber-jack that'll let you plug electronic gadgets straight into your noggin.

Waking up from the healing chamber.

System Shock: Waking from the healing chamber.

The jack works great, but there's a problem: Something has gone horribly wrong on the Citadel. Instead of the normal hustle-and-bustle of everyday space station life, there are servo robots trying to attack you. People are nowhere to be found, instead replaced by attacking robots, mutants, and cyborgs. Hacking into the Citadel wasn't the greatest idea, after all. The station's AI program, SHODAN, has gone off the deep end and decided to replace humans with its own perfect biological and robotic creations. Soon, SHODAN will apply its merciless plan to Earth.

And it's up to the hacker to stop all of this. Naturally, the first step is to figure out what the hell is going on, which takes a little bit of exploring. Actually, there's a lot of exploring in this game. As you wonder through different areas, you'll find that you need to get to the very top of the space station to overthrow SHODAN. Now, it's not as easy as finding a stairway and heading on your way. With most of the crew toast and SHODAN running the show, you'll have to gain access to secured areas, destroy the computers running SHODAN, and generally figure out a myriad of obstacles that are thrown at you.

With no hints, this could be a major problem. Most of the storyline and most of the plot in System Shock is told through the use of personal logs, e-mails, and data collections. As you venture through the levels, you'll happen upon blue discs along the ground. These contain conversations, recollections, messages and notes from former crew members. Some of the info is pretty mundane, sometimes essential, and almost always filling you in on what happened aboard the Citadel and how things went very, very wrong. It's a unique way to tell the story, fleshing it out bit-by-bit. It also helps with the games obstacles, giving players the hints they'll need without simply saying "Go here, do that." All recordings are full audio in the CD version of the game.

E-mails work the same way, as a full-audio message will play. These come from contacts on Earth or from SHODAN herself. Yes, this may be the creepiest part of the game. As SHODAN actively defends herself, she'll taunt you along the way in a robotic, voice that slows in pitch and varies between slightly soothing to downright evil.

As you attempt to make it to the top of the ship, SHODAN's creations - your enemies - will litter the levels. What do with them? Take'em out, of course. There's a plethora of weapons to choose from, ranging from pipes and tranquilizers darts, to the more standard pistols and rifles, to the assorted laser beams and pulsers. There's a nice assortment of grenades to go along with the "firing" weapons, which tend to be pretty deadly.

Attack of the medbot

System Shock: Attack of the medbot.

In addition to the different weapon types, there's also different ammo for each weapon. And to top it off, different enemies respond differently to different weapon and ammo types, leaving plenty of enemy/ammo/weapon combinations to experiment with. Tranquilizer darts will (obviously, I guess) not do any good against a robot. On the other hand, an EMP grenade will take out most robots instantly, but do absolutely nothing to a mutant.

But even with all of the weapons and ammo, System Shock is not a run-and-gunner. The pace is way slower, allowing players to lean around corners and spot their enemies, picking them off before they get in the way of danger. Now, potentially, you could play the game as a first person shooter, as Shock allows you to set the difficulty of the puzzles and enemies independently. So, the plot elements could be cranked down and the enemies cranked up.

Unfortunately, the controls don't really lend themselves too well for this. System Shock is an early 3D game, and it shows. The standard "WASD" configuration isn't applied here. Instead, the AD will turn the players while S and X are used for reverse. There are separate buttons for strafing, looking up and down, leaning left and right, and standing or squatting down. Mouselook as it's currently known is not implemented. Instead, the mouse is used to aim inside of an area of the screen, like Mechwarrior 3. In a slower-paced game like this it's alright, but it does add a learning curve and make the game feel dated. Alternatively, you could use the mouse for everything (seriously), but it's a slow and clunky affair.

Shock contains a few RPG elements too, with the player finding various "upgrades" to his person. His cyberjack lets him plug electronics into his skull and body, adding various new features like a targeting system, an automapper, and even jump boosters.

It also lets him hack computers, which is an important part of the game. After finding a computer terminal, the hacker can enter cyberspace, which is represented with a wireframe outline. In here, SHODAN will try to defend itself by attacking the player. You can fire back, as you float through the wireframe world. Why bother with the cyberspace? There are certain doors and messages that can only be obtained by hacking through SHODAN's system and you'll need to get through cyberspace to make that happen. In space, you can also gain upgrades to your hacking programs, allowing access to more areas in cyberspace, and even a few mini-games, which Shock reminds you "not to play on company time."

Medical Level

System Shock: Where it all begins.

System Shock holds up pretty well today, mostly for its impressive story and atmosphere. There's a lot to play around with as far as weapons, and there's a bit of brain-power needed to get through some of the puzzles and obstacles. The controls and graphics feel dated, and I can't help but get the feeling that if I had played the game back in 1994, I would have fallen in love with it, but in today's time, it feels good - not great.

In about '97, I was looking through a local Book & Music store, where they had a small collection of older PC games. I remembered that there was a Shock game, a fairly rare, but awesome, have-to-play kind of game. PC Gamer and the other mags had almost universally praised it as one of the top games of all time. And what was that in front of me at the store? A Shock game with some weird cyborg looking thing on the cover.

Of course, I couldn't risk missing out on a classic, so I picked up the game on the spot. When I got home, I realized it wasn't System Shock at all, but rather, Future Shock. Another 10+ years later and I'd finally play System Shock.


>> The Local Ditch