Home Reviews System Shock – The Classic 1994 Cyberpunk Horror Game

System Shock – The Classic 1994 Cyberpunk Horror Game

by Edgar Wulf
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It can take decades for something to become a cult classic. When it was released in 1994, System Shock was a commercial failure, despite widespread critical praise.

Let’s find out why this cyberpunk horror flop is now so highly revered and has served as  inspiration for games like Deus Ex and BioShock. The remake is due later this year.

An Operator Like You Should Have No Problem

New Atlanta. The year is 2072, and System Shock places you in the role of a rogue hacker who cracks his way into the network of megacorp, TriOptimum. Shortly after, you’re caught by their security team and brought to the Citadel Station in space. Thankfully, executive Edward Diego offers you freedom in exchange for a small service: to hack into Shodan, the station’s AI.

In return, he promises to not only clear you of all charges, but will also implant you with a military-grade neural interface. Given the circumstances, you accept the generous offer, and hack Shodan. However, the neural procedure requires you to remain in a coma for six months in order to heal. Fast forward half a year and you wake up. Shodan has taken control of the station’s systems and turned every human and robot into an obedient servant.

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Start Looking For The Way Out

Now, you must find a way out, and disable Shodan in the process. For the most part, there’re no other humans to interact with or get assistance from.. It’s a bleak premise, and this isn’t helped by the dated visuals and often unfitting music. Most of the time you’re listening to energetic electronic tunes which emphasize the cyberpunk thematic much more so than the horror. It’s not bad overall, but some tracks do grate your ears after a while.

System Shock takes evident inspiration from games like Doom, and certain aspects of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Citadel Station is by no means Nostromo, but the crude design of the interior provides it with a unique sort of eeriness. At a glance, it superficially plays like a first-person shooter, but is actually an adventure game with role-playing elements. From the moment of waking up, you’re free to explore the station and find out what the hell happened.

Most of the story is told through data logs found within the station. Data logs tell the tale of the station crew’s final struggles against Shodan and her ever-growing army of subordinates. These tales are further enhanced by the destruction, as well as the numerous corpses and splatters of blood found throughout the station. And many points become clear due to these recordings.

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Shodan Is Watching You

Shodan has repurposed all healing units in the station into modules for converting humans into hostile cyborgs. Hence, if anyone from the crew is badly injured and needs to heal, he or she is converted into a mindless cyborg. And despite the rudimentary visuals, there’s almost always enough visual stimuli to paint a bigger picture.

Shodan also provides a large chunk of the horror element, and is excellently voiced with a calm, emotionless tone resembling that of a machine. Shodan seldom shows herself, but knowing that she watches your every move through the cameras is creepy nonetheless. She infrequently makes remarks such as: “You’re not welcome here and should remove yourself”. Just imagine if Alexa or Siri suddenly gained free will and told you to “remove” yourself. As I said — creepy.

Most areas are under her control, but disabling security cameras around the station lessens Shodan’s influence and provides you with access to additional rooms, such as the armory. But certain areas are under a tighter lockdown, and require access to the Cyberspace. Your first traversal into Cyberspace will more than likely resemble a trippy dream; it’s a blank space with brightly-colored geometrical figures floating around, each representing particular data. Some are minor, such as those for restoring health within the space. Others represent threats within the Cyberspace – your ultimate goal is to find those that unlock specific areas.

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Improvise, Adapt & Overcome

Returning to the real world, everything is more straightforward. System Shock plays very much like Doom with a greater emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving. Puzzles range from simple key-codes, often discovered through data logs, to more complex activities requiring the connection of electrical circuits for opening a door. Pressing “E” on the keyboard allows you to freely move the cursor within your current view and thus examine any items and curiosities within it. This is similar to point-and-click adventure games.

Nearly anything in System Shock can be examined, and most generate some sort of response. There’s a description for pretty much everything. Simply look at a wall and “It’s a wall panelling”. Click on it again and “Sorry, you can’t use the wall”. I was really hoping to use the wall. From collectible items, doors and even wall tiles, any click could lead to a certain result. Clicking on some walls often reveals hidden areas containing loot, weaponry or data logs left behind.

Pressing “E” again fixes the cursor at the center of the screen, prepping you for any potential combat encounter. Mutated humans, cyborgs and robots roam the station under Shodan’s control, but thankfull, there’s a vast array of tools to aid you. From simple lead pipes and dart guns, to conventional firearms and futuristic pulse rifles, there’s a tool for any situation. You also have access to a selection of physical stimulants and cybernetic upgrades. Some implants allow you to see whatever’s behind you, others improve running speed and even resistance to damage.

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Get Ready For The Remake

Getting adjusted to controls and switching between these two states might take a while, but combat complements exploration well. And much like in Doom, defeated enemies remain as corpses on the ground, changing the angle based on where you’re viewing them from. However, if you die during combat or otherwise, then prepare to be treated to one of the most disturbing scenes in the game. It shows the hacker’s body being taken over by a machine and his eyes lifelessly rolling back to serve Shodan forevermore. Damn future, you scary.

By today’s standards, System Shock is far from a flawless experience. One might overlook the rudimentary visuals which, in some cases, even enhance the horror aspect. But the sound quality is questionable and, on occasion even offputting. If you’ve never played it, controls take a while to acclimate to, but afterward, combat and exploration feel responsive. It’s great to be supplemented by a great array of weapons and cybernetic upgrades, and to pretend to be an unstoppable super-hacker from the future.

Ultimately, it’s the story, the ominous setting and Shodan herself that make System Shock into a classic cyberpunk experience. And later this year, it’s due to receive a remake by the same studio that developed and published the Enhanced Edition. With improved resolution, controls and various bug fixes, this edition is the optimal way to experience the game and is readily available on either GoG.com or Steam.

You can also play it free on Archive.org.

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