Examining What Makes System Shock 2 So Frightening
Whatever happened to the crew of the Von Braun happened in different ways to different people. Audio logs tell a story of growing, latent insanity and danger. Crewmates turned on one another. Some seem to have grown almost fanatical, and now even the ship’s artificial intelligence is entranced by The Many, a strange biological force that unites the remaining, living crew almost as a single, monstrous organism.
Early on, players discover mutated former crew scattered throughout the Von Braun, carrying anything from clubs to shotguns. They’re dangerous and angry, vicious and fast, but also tragically pitiful — the audio design used to create the voices of these creatures tells a story of something that might wish to retain some of its humanity, but is hopelessly warped by warring forces within each body. Speaking with the voice of The Many, mutants will tool around the ship talking to themselves and maybe to you; listen closely and you’ll hear many of them crying out in latent pain, or warning you to run and apologizing even as they lope after you, intent on crashing a bludgeon through your skull. They are not in full control of who they are or what they’ve become, and many wish for death.
None of the enemies are what they seem to be as you move through the ship. Protocol-type androids that might remind players of C-3PO will chase and attack, even as they seem to be speaking pleasantries. Monkeys brought for experimentation on the ship have been transformed into powerful and brutal psychics. Female cyborgs wielding lasers were the ship’s former nurses, butchered and remade to care for alien eggs. All of them were once innocent in some way or another; it’s a rare game in which the player is made to feel empathy for those she destroys along the way.
Where System Shock 2 outpaces its subsequent pseudo-offspring in the BioShock series is in leaving the player with a true, distinct challenge: survival. There are a number of systems at work that leave you struggling in every encounter and every battle. Every weapon you find or use slowly breaks down under stress; repairing it requires you to amp up your skill in that area at the expense of others. Ammunition is fairly rare, as are food and other health items, and the space in which you can carry things is also highly limited.
In short, journeying about the Von Braun is incredibly dangerous. Even as you become more powerful throughout the course of the game, you’re never really strong. The careful balancing of placing points into a number of skills over time forces you to prioritize some abilities over others, and each choice is a painful one: will your guns be strong enough to take down whatever comes next? Will you be able to effectively use a weapon you’ll need in a pinch?
And then there’s System Shock 2′s proto-Plasmids and Vigors, your psionics abilities. Using a specific item, you can channel psychic energy and use it in a few key ways, like freezing adversaries or lifting objects. But again, the resources you need to do so are extremely limited — so while your Psi powers often give you an edge, they won’t always save your life.
Probably the most interesting thing about System Shock 2 is how it manages to be so like the BioShock series, and yet so different from it. While hitting many of the same steps as its successors, the game still manages to induce dread in all of its systems — be they the trolling enemies you hear moving through the Von Braun‘s darkened corridors, or deciding which items to carry and which to abandon, or making the simple choice of which skills to bolster and which to ignore.
With System Shock 2 now available on Steam and GoG, and with BioShock Infinite taking the series in a previously unrealized direction, this is a piece of gaming history that’s worth experiencing (or re-experiencing). It’s also a game in which you’re going to want to save frequently — you never know what’s around the next corner.