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System Shock Demo Hands-on Preview

System Shock

The System Shock remake by Nightdive Studios has had a very rocky development cycle since it was originally Kickstarted to the tune of $1.3 million back in July 2016.

The game has been delayed multiple times, and was even put on hold before development was completely reevaluated at one point. It’s obvious that remaking such a beloved cult hit has proven difficult for Nightdive, but based on my time with the demo, I can say that they are at least on the right track now.

For the unaware, System Shock is a cyberpunk survival horror game with RPG elements. You play as a hacker that has been arrested for trying to access files regarding Citadel Station, a secretive space station owned by the TriOptimum Corporation.

A TriOptimum exec comes to you with a bargain: All charges will be dropped if you hack into SHODAN, Citadel Station’s AI, and remove her ethical constraints. The exec also promises you an extremely valuable military grade neural implant as icing on the cake.

System Shock

You awaken on Citadel Station six months later following a healing coma for your neural implants. As it turns out, reprogramming SHODAN was a bad idea. She has now completely taken over Citadel Station with an army of mutants and cyborg assassins created from the corpses of the station’s occupants.

Your immediate goal is simply to survive, and hopefully find a way to deactivate SHODAN before she is able to use the station’s mining laser as an improvised orbital cannon.

System Shock has always been a series praised for its atmosphere and storytelling, and in that regard the remake looks like it will do the original game justice. Citadel Station looks absolutely great in HD.

I’m happy that the devs retained the original’s clunky, retro-futuristic aesthetic instead of trying to “modernize” the in-game technology like some franchises. I’m looking at you, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.

System Shock

The graphics themselves seem to have fans a little divided. The world’s textures look pretty blurry and pixelated when up close in what I assume is an attempt to make the game look like its a ’90s shooter with HD resolutions. I think it looks nice, but I can see where some people are coming from.

The core mechanics are pretty faithful to the original game. System Shock is first and foremost a survival horror game about resource management and scavenging for items in every single nook and cranny of Citadel Station. The remake features an old school, grid-based inventory for those who enjoy playing inventory Tetris.

The demo includes the entirety of the medical deck, the first level of the game. There are tons of secret areas to find, many of which involve reducing the deck’s security level to access. To do so, you need to destroy cameras and processing units as you find them. This lower’s SHODAN’s control over the deck, but in turn makes enemies appear more frequently as you explore.

As a survival horror game, combat can be pretty deadly if you aren’t careful. While the basic mutants are easy enough to dispatch, cyborgs can take a bit more punishment, and carry some powerful ranged weapons that can deal quite a bit of damage if you don’t dispatch them quickly enough.

System Shock

The weapon you’ll probably be using the most is the Minipistol, a basic handgun that carries 12 rounds. Ammo for it is moderately plentiful, and it can be very effective with proper aim. The SparqBeam is the only energy weapon in the demo. This means that it uses your character’s energy meter instead of actual ammo. To regenerate energy you’ll need to visit power stations located throughout the map.

There is also a mag-pulse gun in the demo that is a perfect example of how System Shock emphasizes exploration and resource management. The gun is in a room located off the beaten path, so its easy to miss. It’s ammo is also very rare in the first level, meaning that you’ll want to conserve it for the occasional roaming cyborg assassin, which are the deadliest enemies in the demo.

While the System Shock remake shows a lot of promise, there is certainly plenty of room for improvement. There are some aspects of the controls that could use a little work. The most obvious is the way grenades are handled.

System Shock

Grenades work as a hotkey, where pressing the key they are assigned to both primes and throws the grenade in a single animation. This, combined with their wonky physics, can make throwing them a tad awkward. I would prefer it if the grenades worked like other weapons, where you hold them and then click the fire key to use them.

Speaking of which, the physics are definitely on the janky side. Enemies ragdoll in pretty uncanny ways, and it’s possible for them to land on top of items in the environment, which makes picking up said item awkward.

Performance can be a problem at times. The game regularly drops to about 40 FPS or so on my machine, for seemingly no reason at all. One of the most annoying aspects of the demo is probably the lack of an actual save feature. You find a medical bay that can “respawn” you towards the end of the demo, but until then death means you have to start the demo over again.

Bad performance and some awkward controls and mechanics here and there are to be expected from a pre-alpha demo, so I won’t knock the game there. However, the one thing I do kind of worry about is the voice acting. The game’s story is told through voice transmissions and optional audio logs you can find scattered throughout the level. The voice acting in most of the audio logs is…not so great.

System Shock

Characters are talking about the grim situation they are facing in completely monotone voices that sound like some random person off the street awkwardly reading lines from a script they have never seen before. The only really good voice acting so far is SHODAN herself, due in no small part because the original actress returned to reprise her role.

This is pretty concerning from a story-driven game. Some of the audio logs have shockingly poor voice acting. Unless these are placeholders recorded by the devs themselves, then I imagine that they won’t change before release, and that worries me.

Even still, I’m pretty optimistic about the System Shock remake. The developers have the overall tone and atmosphere right so far, and the game looks like it will be pretty faithful to the original. If you want to play the demo yourself, you can find it on GOG and Steam.

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Frank Streva

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Niche Gamer’s resident indie expert. Digs through the Steam new releases so you don’t have to. Massive fan of miniature and board games as well.