Picture this — it’s 1994. PC gaming is really coming into its own, with huge games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Myst revolutionizing not only gaming on the PC, but the industry. Games were no longer seen as just a pastime for the kids sitting down to play Super Mario Brothers on their NES or Sonic the Hedgehog on their Genesis. Games like Doom were made explicitly with adults in mind; violent, gory, disturbing experiences that were played at the time by sitting down at a computer.
On September 23rd of that same year, a new adult-oriented revolutionary title was about to grace player’s libraries: LookingGlass Technologies’ cyberpunk horror action FPS title System Shock.
System Shock introduced several concepts that weren’t exactly novel by 1994 but were yet to be done as well as they were here. Set in the year 2072, System Shock follows a nameless hacker after they’re caught illegally attempting to access files to a massive privately owned space station known as the Citadel Station. Brought before the executive of the TriOptimum Corporation (the mega-corporation that owns Citadel Station), the hacker is told that all charges would be dropped if they can get into SHODAN — the Citadel’s AI — and hand control of the station over to the executive.
What follows is a horrific tale of human greed, the consequences of an unshackled and unregulated AI, and a wonderfully dingy view of the future. Many consider System Shock and its sequel to be legendary staples of gaming, and for good reason.
It’s been nearly 30 years since the original System Shock hit store shelves, and the good people down at Nightdive Studios have been working diligently on a remake. I was able to experience 30 minutes of this new System Shock at PAX West 2022, and it’s gearing up to be one of the best remakes ever made.
The story remains largely unchanged, with the iconic opening cutscene slightly tweaked to become more in line with modern storytelling modalities. The voice work and animation are top-notch, carefully toeing the line between something cheesy, like the masterpiece that is 1995’s Hackers, and something to be taken seriously, like Bladerunner. Agents that come to the hacker’s apartment to apprehend them are suitably intimidating, and the hacker even throws in a cheeky middle finger before being subdued. It’s wonderfully cyberpunk and anti-corporation, working well within the dismal universe of System Shock.
The graphics have gotten a massive overhaul as well. The original System Shock is similar to Doom in its graphical styling — environments rendered in pixelated 3D with NPCs and multiple player assets rendered instead as 2D pixelated sprites. Back in the early 90s, this was necessary to render as many assets as possible without overloading the very limited amount of computing power available for PCs. This gives the original System Shock a sort of aged charm, being a visual time capsule of what good graphics were 30 years ago.
The System Shock remake uses a modern-retro aesthetic with its textures, including plenty of visual pixels. The best way to describe this sort of art style is “the most beautiful and impressive PlayStation 1 game you can imagine.” That may sound like a knock on the visual presentation of the new System Shock, but it’s quite the opposite. The animations are excellent, and the sheer scope and size of the Citadel Station loom with breathtaking life. Talking to Larry Kuperman, a dev from Nightdive Studios, this was a very deliberate and specified choice. In his words, they chose the art style to “make the game look like what the players remember System Shock looking like, as opposed to what it actually does look like.”
While the original System Shock definitely has its place in gaming history and should always be remembered fondly, it is rough around the edges by today’s standards. Nightdive Studios did an incredible job actualizing their vision, as the remake truly looks like the penultimate version of what those Doom-esque pixelated shooters from the 90s could be, and it’s visually stunning.
This would all be wasted if the game didn’t play well, but I'm happy to report that Nightdive has gotten it right. System Shock plays like a slick modern shooter, with snappy controls, a well-implemented UI and inventory system, and plenty of what’s-that-around-the-corner? fear-inducing moments.
According to Larry, a few aspects of the original have been streamlined, like the magnitude of grenade types being narrowed down to one. Otherwise, everything that was loved from the original System Shock makes a return here. It’s notably difficult, with very little instruction and hand-holding, but this isn’t a detriment. Death is a teacher, not a punishment, as it clearly communicates what will work and what won’t. It gives the player the same sort of disorientation as the Hacker is feeling, and it makes the experience extremely immersive.
Nightdive Studios made the System Shock remake with a lot of love and respect for the original. It feels like a classic from the 90s, plucked from its time period, modernized and streamlined in every correct aspect. A lot of modern remakes feel like a reskin, or a soulless cash-grab made specifically to capitalize on the renaissance and nostalgia retro games have enjoyed over the last decade. The System Shock remake couldn’t be further from that reality, delivering instead the same feeling received when playing the original, which is a feat in itself.
While it doesn’t have a solid release date at the moment, the people at Nightdive Studios are hoping for a release sometime this winter. For now, you can access a demo of the game through Steam. I’ll be buying it on launch day, and dare I say, you should too!
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