System Shock Review – Frustrating Space Escapades

System Shock Review

As far as classics go, System Shock is an accomplished albeit niche choice. An enjoyable mix of shooter and RPG mix like there were few in the ’90s, it was a skilled game with a steep learning curve and a baddie that kept on thwarting your plans. Nightdive Studios brings a long due remake that tries to capture the magic of the original, but the troubled development and some outdated design decisions make it a game that isn’t quite sure if it should remain in the past or exist accordingly to expectations of modern times. As such, it’s a flawed and often frustrating experience that has some nostalgic value, but surely not a classic of our days.

Rise of the AI

After a successful Kickstarter, development on System Shock was less than smooth, even including a period where it was put on hold. With a few more delays added into the mix, the game is finally out there, to the delight of longtime fans who can’t wait to again get fooled by an AI with a god complex and annihilation intent.

As it turns out with remakes, expectations and reality often clash in not so agreeable ways. The revolutionary technical aspect of the original release isn’t a factor anymore, and past limitations must be taken into consideration when creating a game for current times. System Shock tries to find a middle ground that pleases everyone, but ultimately fails to deliver a consistent update that is beyond reproach.

The beginning of the adventure is brooding, as a drone flies through a futuristic metropolis and zooms in the apartment where you stand, revealing your failed hacking efforts as you are caught red-handed and transferred to a space station. Forced into a deal with a shady corporation that will trigger the catastrophic events, SHODAN goes rogue and turns the crew into an army of mutants, with her next target being Earth itself.

System Shock Review

A first-person looter shooter at heart sprinkled with some survival mechanics, System Shock throws you into a scenario where you are initially unaware of the scope of the circumstances. Your best bet is to explore each level of the space station and try to make sense of everything via audio logs, as you search the labyrinthine areas with no real goal in mind. This is a game without a clear mission structure and frustratingly so, as the hands-free approach isn’t the kind that makes for an enjoyable time – instead, you will often feel lost, confused, overwhelmed by the repeated search for a lever or an access card that doesn’t want to show up, no matter how many laps you make through the level.

The visual design doesn’t help either; it’s very hard to spot items you can interact with among the machinery and high-tech panels that make the buttons scale into the thousands per level, but obviously only a bunch of these are slightly different and functional. Spotting them is the hard part, as beyond the initial hints directing you at vital triggers, you are left alone in the dark, clutching at walls in the hope of finding a crucial one.

Loot is a major part of your adventures, but its significance is reduced. You can grab a diversity of items that serve no other purpose but to be vaporized first, then turned into credits later when you find the required station. This ends up being a chore, with an endless succession of picking up and discarding items, frequently checking for available inventory space, and resisting the temptation of grabbing another platter or mug. Finding the useful items among all the rubbish isn’t a great time to have.

Shock to the System

System Shock Review

Although there are some other issues to mention, not everything is bad about the System Shock remake. The feeling of claustrophobia is palpable, and exploring new levels for the first time is a good sensation, peeking at every corner to make sure that no cyborg or machine is waiting for you, discovering a new energy weapon or a shotgun to take out the corrupted crew and defenses. The map is useful but not quite the ultimate guide, as some paths aren’t exactly easy to interpret unless you are right there on the spot.

Jacking into a device and entering cyberspace is the other half of System Shock. Now free from the shackles known as limbs, we travel around these areas shooting and collecting items in pure Descent fashion, in what is a timeless vision of hacking a system.

The occasional puzzles will force you to take a break from the exploration and fighting, as you rearrange some plugs and connections to unlock doors. Nothing is truly explained to you, forcing some brainstorming as you figure out what is at the core of the puzzles.

Combat is a big part of this space station discovery, starting with a lead pipe that isn’t quite at the level of Gordon Freeman’s quasi-charismatic crowbar. The feeling of impact is tame, there’s not a great deal of feedback from your hits. Unfortunately, the same can be said about energy weapons and the shotgun, for example, lacking the punch that such arsenal should convey, resulting in middling gunplay.

System Shock Review Cyberspace

A rebellious and ruthless AI she may be, but SHODAN didn’t quite endow her hordes with the gift of intelligence. Enemies are ironically lacking in artificial intelligence, most of them simply moving towards you and trying to find a path for a clean hit, often failing miserably. You may even spot some odd behaviors, such as when a couple of cyborgs were attacking me; one of them threw a proximity mine a few steps ahead, something that sounded like a nice plan in case I wanted to get up close and personal. However, I hid and one of them decided to move forward, triggering said device and blowing both to pieces. Witnessing this, Earth may not be at much risk, after all.

System Shock also comes with some notorious bugs and poor quality of life choices that are hard to ignore. The most visible one is having dead enemies jiggling and twitching on the floor like it’s disco time, and often reloading a save results in seeing nearby corpses falling from the ceiling, an odd sight that is hard to get accustomed to. The inability to skip the game over and rebuild cutscenes is another head-scratching moment, as the ten or so seconds that it takes for you to regain control are excruciating.

Then there was one situation where I couldn’t use a medical station anymore because I was allegedly threatened – something that makes sense when there are enemies nearby, but that was not the case. Due to this unfortunate state, I couldn’t heal, jump into cyberspace, or save the game, so I was left to my own fortunes until I was finally killed and consequently freed from this invisible threat and its restrictions.

Garish Colors and Pixel Corridors

System Shock Review

The art style chosen for this System Shock remake is bound to be divisive. Granted, there wasn’t much to take inspiration from the original, as imagination often played a large role in games of old. The idea of a derelict space station remains, but the choice of going for a modern look mixed with some pixel sensibilities and rounded up by highly saturated colors won’t be to everyone’s taste.

In some regards, it does look outdated; as if the pixels that you spot when you look closely are not a design preference, but signs of a game from an older era. It’s not artsy enough to be fancy, and it’s not stylized enough to be intentionally retro and cohesive – it just sits awkwardly in the middle, sufficient, but no more than that.

The original System Shock was a classic but also a niche game that never achieved commercial success; this remake highlights the niche aspect but will forgo the classic label. It may entice players who want to see how this updated version looks and plays, and while there’s some considerable tension to be had while going down narrow and dim lit corridors, the fun of being lost in maze after maze wears out quickly, especially when you’re doing the umpteenth scan through the map looking for whatever card or switch you have missed. At this rate, SHODAN is likely going to conquer both Citadel Station and Earth, as frustrating her plans is precisely that – frustrating.

Score: 6/10


  • Some claustrophobic corridors that may give you an unnerving feeling
  • The occasional interesting puzzle


  • Absolutely frustrating when you can’t find what to do next
  • SHODAN should do something about that enemy AI
  • Visual style is an odd and uneven mix of past and present
  • A few noticeable bugs

System Shock review code was provided by the publisher. You can read MP1st’s review and scoring policy right here.

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