Say the name System Shock to gamers and you’re bound to get a variety of responses. Some will have fond memories of the original game’s tense atmosphere and innovative shooter-RPG gameplay, others will know it by its reputation and ties to the Bioshock series, and still others will remember it as an obtuse slog that’s kinda hard to play on modern computers. Whatever your stance on the game, Nightdive Studio’s newly-announced System Shock remake looks posed to please fans of the original and give newcomers a chance to experience the game in a modern and convenient fashion.
The demo is offered as something of an incentive to get involved with Nightdive’s Kickstarter campaign for the game. According to the developer the new game started off as a simple HD remake of the 1994 original and slowly evolved into a ground-up re-imagining of the original game with assistance of series producer Warren Spector. Taking into account the game’s differences from the original – and no doubt being aware of the various issues other high-profile Kickstarter game campaigns have encountered – the company released a demo both to illustrate what they hope to accomplish with the remake and to hopefully convince fans of the original that things haven’t changed too much over the last 22 years.
To that degree, the demo is a success. The overall look, feel, and atmosphere come straight out of the original, albeit brought up to modern standards thanks to the Unity engine, a few low-res placeholder textures notwithstanding. You’ll encounter claustrophobic corridors, old-school Deus Ex-style inventory management, and various code or circuit puzzles to open doors and further your progress. The walls are covered in blood, health can be restored at strategically-placed medical pods, everything feels kind of blue, dingy, and lived-in…if you’ve spent any time on Citadel Station before, it all basically looks how you left it, except now it’s in shiny new 3D.
But what helps set the new System Shock apart are the concessions it makes towards modern gaming. Now, if you’re a fan of the original, I know what you’re thinking right now, and I promise you that the game hasn’t suddenly been dumbed down and turned into a linear action shooter in some attempt to appease the ever-present specter of ‘a wider audience’. There’s been changes, sure, but they’ve all been made in the interest of streamlining the original experience without alienating longtime fans.
The original System Shock almost felt like a computer literacy test at times with its complicated control layout and over-designed interface. Thankfully, 22 years of refinement in PC gaming control schemes have given System Shock the means to accomplish more with less: leaning, for example, is now handled with E and Q as opposed to having to click on a little icon, and the standard WASD/mouse-look combo have replaced the need to press at least seven different keyboard buttons for moving and aiming. Combat is handled with the mouse, and even if the melee combat doesn’t feel quite as responsive as it could at this point, you have just enough heft in your trusty lead pipe to defend yourself without feeling either overpowered or completely underwhelmed, which is a crucial balance in any game that strives for horror. Overall, even with the revamped controls. you still have the same abilities to interact with your environment that you did in the original, they’re just not as unfriendly as they used to be.
By and large, the biggest differences in the new System Shock are basically cosmetic, and they all serve to improve your experience. Hovering your mouse over an item gives you a brief description of what it is, and finding items is accompanied by a small but amusing animation of your hacker adding it to their cybernetically-enhanced arsenal. Clicking around the levels produces pop-up text to add to the atmosphere and explain your surroundings, and while none of it is particularly helpful or well-written the writing can surely improve in time over the development cycle.
Most importantly, the new graphical touches do even more to make Citadel Station feel like a more lived-in place. The layout of the demo’s lone area mirrors that of the original game’s opening zone, the Medical Station, but with a few small tweaks – needed codes to open security doors are now smeared nearby in blood as opposed to requiring a data tablet, and several new installations like consoles, seating areas, and monitoring stations just add to the ‘abandoned futuristic nightmare’ vibe of the original. Security cameras are still a present feature, although they don’t seem to bring an army down on your head so much as serve as window dressing, at least now in the demo version. It’s clear that Nightdive knows what gamers expect out of any reimagining of System Shock, and any concession to the modern era of gaming is done solely to streamline and enhance the original experience without any kind of over-simplification of what made System Shock unique.
Of course, it bears mentioning that the demo is maybe 10-15 minutes long, or longer if you’re like me and you completely forgot (or didn’t know in the first place) how the circuit puzzles are supposed to work. Perhaps, then, it’s fair to say that we might not have the clearest idea of what Nightdive intends to do with the rest of the game, but if nothing else we are off to a good start. System Shock’s reverence for the original game is clear and abundant, and even if the puzzle solutions aren’t quite as obscure as they used to be we can all rest assured that System Shock hasn’t mutated into some overly-scripted action game or a pachinko machine or whatever else we’ve seen beloved franchises turn into lately.
If you’re curious to see how Citadel Station has been holding up without you, check out the System Shock Kickstarter and grab yourself a free copy of the alpha demo. And prepare to RUN, HACKER!