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System Shock 2 – The Exceptional Cyberpunk Precursor to BioShock

by Edgar Wulf
System Shock 2 - The Exceptional Cyberpunk Precursor to BioShock

By now, everyone’s heard of BioShock – the dieselpunk (a cyberpunk sub-genre) game which amassed numerous awards in 2007. It constantly pops up on “Best Games of All Time” lists and is widely considered as one of the best narrative-driven games ever made. However, not everyone might be aware that System Shock 2, released in 1999, was developed by the same studio, Irrational Games, and heavily influenced the ideas later fleshed out in BioShock.

Alien Eggs and MegaCorps in Space — Welcome to System Shock 2

Written by the prominent creative mastermind Ken Levine, System Shock 2 takes place 42 years after the events of the original game. This time around, you’re not an outlaw hacker but rather a rookie employee of the evil TriOptimum megacorp. After the events of System Shock, TriOptimum went bankrupt, but like every malevolent corporation, it managed to garner the financing necessary for restructuring. Initial segments take you through the recruitment process and introduce you to basic gameplay mechanics before sending you to the Von Braun starship.

The Von Braun was sent to investigate a distress signal from Tau Ceti V, a planet outside of the solar system. While there, the team discovered eggs of alien origin and subsequently brought them on board (what a great idea). Of course, the have eggs hatched, infected the crew and turned them into hostile alien species known as “The Many”. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? System Shock already drew similarities with Alien, but the sequel makes these similarities even more prominent.

System Shock 2 - The Exceptional Cyberpunk Precursor to BioShock

Wake Up, Another Rogue AI is In Charge of A Spaceship

As the new recruit, you wake up from cryo-sleep. Realizing that shit’s hit the fan, you must now work with Dr. Polito to deal with the situation. System Shock 2 begins very much like the original but with more emphasis on horror and suspense. Walls of empty hallways are covered in bullet marks and messages of desperation written in blood. Even worse, a corpse hanging from the ceiling indicates that someone just couldn’t bear the thought of becoming an alien.

There’s no stark contrast between music this time around. That said, the game is at its best when relying on ambient sounds to build up the atmosphere. It doesn’t throw enemies at you until you’ve explored a bit and acclimated to the surroundings. Instead, you’re exposed to flickering lights, distant screams, and nothing but endless space behind the illuminator glass.

Releasing five years after the original gave the developers ample time to take advantage of  technological developments. System Shock 2 looks more modern and makes a definite step up from the crude visuals of the first game. It’s more akin to something like Half-Life and Deus Ex, both of which released around the same time (1998 and 2000, respectively).

Once again, there’s a hostile Al – Xerxes – but for the most part, he’s not as involved or intimidating as Shodan. He addresses you on occasion and employs security cameras to ruin your momentum by sounding an alarm and revealing your whereabouts. But other than that, he assumes a passive background role. Hybrids born from the alien eggs, on the other hand, are a bigger threat. Extremely disfigured in appearance, similar to splicers in BioShock, they roam the halls of the ship and constantly mumble to themselves as if reciting an ominous dogma.

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System Shock 2 - The Exceptional Cyberpunk Precursor to BioShock

Pick Up All The Things to Upgrade Your Character

Switching between first-person exploration and combat modes is still central to the game. It’s tempting to pick up every item in hope that it might be useful down the line and there’s a lot to pick up. From weapons and ammunition, to bottles of booze which restore health, and even protective body armor. But inventory space is limited and not every item is equally as useful. Unfortunately, I ended up carrying potted plants and coffee mugs for too long before realizing their uselessness.

After a brief exploration, fighting is unavoidable and getting overwhelmed by Hybrids during combat often makes death swift, which incentivizes thoughtful usage of the game’s extensive upgrade system. System Shock 2 does have its shortcoming in this regard. On a few occasions, enemies just keep coming, forcing you to waste precious resources. Even if there’s a heavy bulkhead door locked behind you in the adjacent room, enemies might still find a way to spawn out of nowhere. It doesn’t occur often, but tends to be frustrating nonetheless.

Thankfully, you have a plethora of futuristic gadgets and abilities to use, many more so than before. Much like the hacker in the first game, your character is implanted with a cybernetic neural interface. Among many other things, like hacking, this interface provides you with a slot for equipping cybernetic implants which boost certain abilities while equipped. It also allows you to become a cyborg and take advantage of powerful PSI abilities – cryokinesis, telekinesis etc – a version of Plasmids from BioShock, by connecting a Psionic Amplifier straight into your wrist.

System Shock 2 - The Exceptional Cyberpunk Precursor to BioShock

Play System Shock 2 Your Way

There are many ways to play System Shock 2, and your play style takes shape early on based on some of the decisions you make. For example, you can choose to specialize in hacking and conventional firearms. It’s a good idea because nearly anything can be hacked, from doors and security crates to vending machines and computers. Standard firearms, like handguns and shotguns, are common and developing your prowess increases their damage output.

Hacking doors and security crates often leads to rare loot, making this skill crucial. As for security cameras, hacking those is only temporary and destroying them with a single well-aimed shot is far more effective. On the flip side, you can specialize in energy weapons and maintenance. Weapons jam, deteriorate in performance and break down eventually, so keeping them in a tip-top condition is a must. Most weapons also require a specific skill level to use; you won’t be able to even equip a grenade launcher if your heavy weapon’s mastery is too low.

Finally, OS upgrade machines are sparsely spread across the ship. These upgrades range from the ability to install an additional cybernetic implant to permanently increasing damage output or movement speed. But before you decide to act like a Terminator, bear in mind that upgrading anything requires cyber modules which are hard to come by. Some are rewarded upon progressing the story, while an even lesser amount are found in the environment. This scarcity motivates you to consider potential upgrades carefully and only specialize in a single area. It’s impossible to upgrade everything, which makes repeat playthroughs more appealing.

System Shock 2 - The Exceptional Cyberpunk Precursor to BioShock

Better Than System Shock But Not Quite BioShock

System Shock 2 is much easier to get into, largely thanks to the much more modern-looking visuals and tutorials. It combines an exceptional narrative and atmosphere with a rewarding progression system that keeps you experimenting. It’s a significant improvement over the original game in almost every regard. And the further you get, the more similarities with BioShock you notice. Many of its features, such as hacking, resuscitating Vita Chambers and even enemies are later elaborated upon in BioShock. In other words, System Shock 2 is the prototype, while BioShock is the more polished spiritual successor.

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