Post by KostaAndreadis @ 05:39pm 28/05/15 | Comments
Throwback Thursday is a weekly column here on Ausgamers where Kosta opens up the proverbial gaming industry attic, has a poke around, finds dusty copies of games from a different time – and plays them!
Watch Kosta wrench his way through some System Shock 2
The Game: System Shock 2
The Year: 1999
The Developer: Irrrational Games/Looking Glass Studios
The System: PC (Windows)
Since its beginnings in the early ‘90s as a genre where the goals were to simply navigate through a maze, shoot monsters, get new weapons, and have fun -- the first-person shooter (FPS) slowly evolved throughout the subsequent decades into one of the most recognised, complex, and diverse gaming genres in existence. Now, when we talk about a first-person game it can mean many things. As recent breakout indie titles Gone Home and The Stanley Parable can attest, it doesn’t even have to feature guns or monsters. Or have any shooting at all.
But, let’s be honest. The shooter part of FPS is still the main draw-card for people, including developers and publishers. Even so, this gradual shift away from a guns-only focus began in the mid-‘90s and led to many iconic moments in gaming history.
"Don't worry son, I won't let Obama take away our second amendment gaming rights."
By the late ‘90s elements from other genres would make their way into first-person shooters in a big way. As graphics and game engines embraced fully-3D interactive environments, things like the stealth elements in Thief: The Dark Project (1998) felt truly ground-breaking. Avoiding conflict and confrontation, two key things antithetical to early shooters, would prove to be intoxicating to players everywhere. In the ‘90s, an FPS was seen primarily as an action game, one where the immediacy of the interaction heightened the immersion. So to be able to do other things, like sneaking around in the shadows, or even just moving objects around, felt fresh.
On the other hand a typical computer RPG in the ‘90s was seen as a game built on a diverse set of rules and systems. The sort of experience where serious study was a required entry point. So even though the original System Shock, which came out in 1994, was a sci-fi based role-playing game (RPG) played from a first-person perspective, it was as complex as Doom was simple. For all its merits, the sense of immediacy that came from playing an action-centric shooter just wasn’t there.
In its place? Robots that enjoyed welcoming visitors with an open armed embrace.
System Shock 2 (1999), whose development was led by Irrational Games (who would later create the seminal Bioshock series), would not only be a deep and rewarding RPG like its predecessor – but also a shooter, a survival horror game, and a story-driven experience where the narrative seemingly never interrupted the gameplay.
Looking at all the individual elements that make up System Shock 2 and it’s clear to see why the game is still as revered today as it was when it was first released. By no means a commercial success, after all it sold less than 60,000 copies after six months on store shelves, System Shock 2 was a critical darling and earned many Game of the Year awards following its release. From a story perspective, things like finding recordings of diary entries, which you can then listen to on your PDA to get a sense of your surroundings on this strange and creepy space ship you’re on, is still a tool used today to convey a narrative without breaking immersion.
"Hi, and welcome to Space Frigate 5BBDC34. As the resident Ghost in the Machine, it's a pleasure to kill, I mean, greet you."
Perhaps the greatest strength of System Shock 2, is how it keeps doing just that. Never breaking the tension. In System Shock 2 there are no arbitrary menus, cut-scenes, or screens filled with numbers that serve no purpose other than to be the gamey part where you add numbers to numbers. As part-RPG, upgrading skills is handled via trait-specific upgrade stations, with a currency system, and without any pause to the action. And as complex as the game does get, you won’t need to spend time reading through the manual to come to terms with how it plays differently from something like Shooting Stuff 4: The Shootening. The tutorial system is narratively woven into the introductory sequences. It’s here in the opening moments where you learn the basics of shooting, hacking, and using psionic powers to conduct all sorts of space age wizardry. Plus make a choice on what style of player you want to be via enlisting in either the Space Army, Space Navy, or Space C.I.A.
It’s a clear design decision made on the part of Irrational Games that works wonders in creating a mood, one that slowly devolves into genuine horror in the later parts of the game. Detailed information on the game’s systems are also peppered throughout the early parts of the game in what look like information terminals. Even the inventory system, something which a lot of games tend to handle “adequately enough old chum”, is handled brilliantly here. And in perhaps one of the most seamless ways ever in a first-person game with heavy RPG elements. A simple press of a key adds an overlay where you can then use to check out each and every character detail as well as interact with any item you carry. As the process doesn’t pause the game or break the immersion in any way, it also serves as a secondary interface to point-and-click and drag-and-drop items like you would in an adventure game.
"I say old boy, you should definitely get that tentacle thing on your noggin checked out."
Like Deus Ex, which released shortly after System Shock 2 in 2000, this is one of the prime examples of a first-person game that was designed to be played in multiple different ways. This meant that it could be played with a focus on using weapons or using psionic abilities, or even a mixture of both. Plus hacking, or even a focus on being able to modify weapons. At the time there was nothing quite like it, something that was easy enough to pick up and play, but also provide a deep and rewarding system of choices that fundamentally shaped how the game could be played.
When you couple this with a clear and tension-filled narrative, and an environment of genetic experimentation gone wrong – to the point of crazy mutant humanoid things moaning in pain with horrific metallic objects protruding from their bodies – and it’s no wonder that System Shock 2 remains a must-play even to this day.
And even though the graphics have dated considerably since its initial release, and in a way as to lessen some of the game’s initial impact, a vibrant community has led to many improvements to the core game over the years. From simple things like improved textures and models, playing System Shock 2 today doesn’t feel like you’re playing something old. In fact, most of System Shock 2 feels as new today as it did in 1999. And if you’re a fan of games like Bioshock or Deus Ex, and have never played it before, it’s definitely time to do so.
Best Forgotten / A Trip Down Memory Lane / Timeless
Kosta Andreadis remembers a time when in order to get the best out of a console game you had to blow gently into it and whisper sweet nothings like "please work, I’m up to World 8-3, for fudgcicles sake". Situated in Melbourne, Kosta is a freelancer who enjoys playing RPGs, strategy, adventure, and action games. Apart from investing well over 200 hours into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim he’s also an electronic musician with an album recently released.
Find him or follow him on Twitter - @toadovsky, Steam - toadovsky and Xbox Live - Toadovsky.