There are few games that left such a long-lasting impact on the games industry as System Shock. Even if you never played or heard about it, chances are you know about Deus Ex, Thief, Bioshock, Prey, and Deathloop, to name a few titles that were influenced by the 1994 classic. In the course of the 29 years since its release, System Shock continued to awe people with the structure and level of interactivity the world offers its players. Because of this, it’s fascinating to see how well the remake of a nearly 20-year-old game translates to a modern engine and sensibilities.
System Shock sees the player stepping into the cybernetic augments of a nameless Hacker. After crossing the TriOptimum Corporation in an attempt to steal some military-grade implants, the Hacker is apprehended and taken to Citadel Station. There, TriOp Vice President Edward Diego makes the Hacker an offer they can’t refuse: remove the ethic protocols of SHODAN, the AI managing Citadel Station, or never be seen again. Understandably, the Hacker accepts, and in his infinite benevolence Diego even gifts the Hacker with the military-grade implants they were trying to steal. (How kind.) Six months later, the Hacker awakens from their healing cryosleep only to discover that SHODAN took over Citadel Station and, believing herself a Goddess, either killed almost every remaining human or turned them into cyborgs .
There’s no way to talk about System Shock without talking about SHODAN. The rogue AI and her Citadel Station steel corridors are the true protagonists of the game. SHODAN’s original voice actor Terri Brosius reprises the role for the remake, and she does an amazing job. Brosius’ years of experience voicing SHODAN clearly show in this rendition, and the character serves as another reminder of the extent of System Shock’s influence. The rest of the voices have been recast, and they fit nicely with the game (even if I miss 1994 Edward Diego sounding like a wimpy little baby).
The System Shock remake is a nearly 1:1 mechanical adaptation of its source material, both to its benefit and its detriment. Citadel Station was, and remains, an interesting playground. The old and new station are nothing alike visually, yet the layout remains almost identical. While the scope and maze-like design of System Shock’s levels might feel limited when compared to its contemporaries, like the aforementioned Prey (2017), the maps are cleverly designed. Each level of Citadel Station has a clear purpose, both in the game and in the narrative. However, by recreating the layouts of each level so faithfully, there is a missed opportunity to make them more approachable. I would often find myself going through the audio logs I collected to figure out where to go next. Even knowing my objective, I would struggle with finding the exact area of the map I was supposed to go. I would have liked for some levels to have a bit more visual clarity.
Combat is strategic and fun, but it can feel clunky compared to other modern shooters. Every enemy encounter is tense and will have you carefully managing resources and planning ahead. The quicksave key saved me many headaches when it came to some of the scariest encounters, like Cortex Reavers, Gorilla Tigers, or a certain teleporting Cyborg. The game offers a variety of melee weapons, guns, and heavy weaponry, classified between normal and energy weapons. Because of the new inventory system being similar to that of System Shock 2, carrying only a few of them, upgrading them at certain map locations, and knowing when to switch for newer, better weapons will be key to someone’s success.
In my playthrough, I favored a combination of the Laser Rapier and the Berserk Combat Booster to make quick work of boss fights and some particularly tricky rooms. There are also few things cooler than arming yourself with a laser sword and turning a giant cyborg into mincemeat. Meanwhile, the Ion Pulse Rifle allowed me to strategically take down enemies as I explored each level, helping me save ammo and only using energy, which I was able to restore for free at certain locations. By the endgame I was using about five different weapons, and I had amassed a rather fearsome collection of ammo that helped me take down the multiple waves of dangerous enemies the game throws at you.
The game includes several separate difficulty settings that can be customized from level 1 to 3. Combat and puzzles can be made more or less challenging, and even the story elements can be removed completely. System Shock is a challenging game, but it is not difficult, thanks in part to the resurrection system and managing each floor’s security level. Every level in Station Citadel has its own cyborg conversion chamber that can be turned off, restoring it to a medbay that will resurrect players once health depletes. SHODAN will be able to nullify the effects of medbays often, so you will have to remain careful. Meanwhile, each floor’s security level influences enemy respawn rate, with each camera destroyed helping reduce it. Once security level reaches bellow a certain percentage, some rooms will open up. Most of these grant loot, but a few of them are required for progress.
Most of my difficulty with the game came from the control scheme. I played the game both with keyboard and mouse and a controller, and unfortunately found both very lackluster with the build I played. Using a keyboard and mouse made aiming easier, but the key bindings were very finicky, with each different function requiring a new different key. For example, I bound F as my all-purpose “interact” key, however this key only worked for that. To pick up items I would need to manually move them to my inventory, or bind a new key to “grab all.” The same happened for other key bindings. Controller didn’t have that problem. The X button would open context menus and would also serve as a “grab all.” However, with controller I was unable to scroll down emails, and while I mapped two buttons to lean around corners, leaning only worked on keyboard.
Unfortunately, my issues with the System Shock remake don’t end there. The font in the game is minuscule. While the game includes accessibility settings, there is no way to increase the font size, which can be very hard on the eyes. Thankfully there are only a few text-only lore files in the game, with most of them being voiced emails or logs. Of a different nature is my problem with the settings menu itself. Every time I booted up my game, all my settings would be reset to default, and I would have to manually change them all. And I mean all of them. I don’t know if this problem will be representative of the final release of the game, but it unfortunately remained a problem for me until the end. Another one that paired badly with the previous one was the map. Sometimes the map would glitch out and I would be unable to see my location. To solve it I had to restart the game entirely. This happened enough that I found myself restarting at least once or twice every play session. In a game that lasted around 25 hours, this was very jarring, and it stained an otherwise great experience.
The visuals are very solid, with Citadel Station rendered beautifully in 3D. If you look carefully, the textures of the game are rendered in an almost pixel-art style that I personally enjoyed a lot. While old fans might be divided about the new art direction, each level of the station has its own clear style and color scheme, making each area look distinct. The soundtrack of the remake is serviceable, but ultimately forgettable. It doesn’t have the same charm as the headbanging rock tunes from the original System Shock. I must give a special mention to the moody tracks that play in level 6 and 8, which reminded me a bit of tunes from Prey (2017).
Ultimately, the System Shock remake doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t need to. The original game already revolutionized the shooter and immersive sim genre back in 1994. Nightdive Studios’ take gives one of the most influential games ever made a fresh coat of paint, tweaking the formula and pacing subtly while adding some quality of live improvements. For those that were too intimidated by the original, this is a fantastic way of playing it. While the few, but substantial, differences might be divisive among returning fans, the System Shock remake does a great job of informing new players of why the game was so impressive in 1994 and proves that it remains impressive in 2023.