System Shock Remake Demo fuses modern design with a retro FPS/RPG package

Nobody was expecting to see a PC demo for System Shock Remake this week, least of all me. Ever since the project was announced nearly seven years ago, I’ve been waiting to revisit Citadel Station and its malevolent AI. After spending a few hours on the first level, I’m certainly impressed but curious about some of the choices and focal points.

If you played and loved the original, this demo and probably the full game is almost certainly worth your while. You can slip 0451 into the medical storage compartment like it’s 1994 all over again, but this time with modern resolutions and frame rates and with far more comfortable controls, even a gamepad. They can blast and whistle at enemies, but they’re no longer Wolfenstein-era 2D sprites. And of course you can play the game on Steam, GOG or Epic instead of having to find an old CD-ROM.

There are some new perks, like a completely overhauled UI with better shortcuts for secondary items like grenades and stim patches. But the beats of the story, the puzzles and enemies and traps, the very essence of the innovative, whimsical gameplay is still there. You can still spend far too much time meticulously organizing your inventory and collecting junk for junk credits while seemingly in the midst of a humanity-threatening crisis.

For context and disclosure, I played the original extensively during the time Looking Glass still existed. Getting it to work on my dad’s Gateway office computer was a big part of my computer education. I backed Nightdives Kickstarter for the game in 2016 when it was expected in late 2017. All to say: I’m a pretty soft target.

So I enjoyed seeing familiar faces: the scruffy mutants, the Picard-as-Borg-esque cyborg drones, the trash can-looking bots flapping their arms at you. But I also noticed a few things that made me wonder if the finished product needed more repairs. The melee combat feels just as stiff and non-kinetic as it did in the mid-1990s, which isn’t a good thing. Enemies constantly reappearing in areas you’ve already visited might make some narrative sense, but it’s a mechanic I may have left behind.

There’s far less mouse movement in a full-screen HUD than in the original, but still more fiddling than I’d expect in a modern game. The gamepad controls seemed incomplete in this demo, but basically working. It’s still much more of a mouse and keyboard game.

Enlarge / Some things look fresh and new, others have a sort of retro pixel effect.

night diving studios

Most intriguing are the graphics. I wasn’t expecting a modern AAA shooter, but I did notice the rough pixelated edges of some objects and textures. I’m playing on a budget-oriented Nvidia RTX 3050, but even with every graphics setting set to High or Ultra and the resolution set to 4K, it looked about the same. At the same time, the game literally hummed along with maximum graphics at around 70 frames per second. I asked Nightdive about it through the marketing team. Were the slightly grainy textures a design choice to evoke the original? A consideration for gamers who may not have a top-notch GPU? The type of work outside of AAA development? Some or all of them?

I’ve heard it was “a conscious design choice”. Knowing this, I played a little more and the graphics, taken as a sort of knowing retrospective, melted in my head a little more. With thousands more pixels to work with than Looking Glass, Nightdive has given the first layer more color and a lot more shadow and light, but not an excess of detail. Her spirit is still said to be filling in some of the blanks about how this space station worked, how people lived, and what it was like when things went horribly wrong. How the team handled the bright colors and organic materials of later levels remains to be seen.

It feels like old times to hear this AI describe their plans for our species.

System Shock is definitely more than a remaster as it features all-new elements and improvements.

Almost 30 years later, a room full of dismembered bodies looks much more alive.

Have you been waiting for a game that brings you slot-specific inventory management in the classic RPG style again? your time has come

Some of the puzzles have been reworked, and some of them kept your author in suspense for more than 5 minutes.

The stakes of your survival in their modern, gritty detail.

It’s easier to talk about the sound: it’s a huge improvement. The soundtrack, ambient sounds, and creepy-yet-pathetic utterances from involuntary cyborgs are better and fit the atmosphere better. Hearing a cyborg chase after me after a first look and whisper “Nothing…nothing…nothing” was beautiful and spooky. Now a survival horror, the voice memos left by the dead made their mark, albeit a little less dramatic than I remember.

The Long Road by Looking Glass

The full story behind this new version of System Shock begins more than a decade ago. They are a Guatemalan rainstorm, a Michigan insurance company and a French developer with mysterious access to long-forgotten source code. Five years ago, the Kickstarted project started by these events spiraled out of control and there was a reboot of the reboot. Because of this, this fully playable first level and a seemingly fixed release date of March 2023, arriving during Steam’s Next Fest demo week, caught many of those who followed it off guard. (There was also a System Shock 3 that launched at Looking Glass veteran Warren Spector’s OtherSide Entertainment in 2015, but that died in 2019.)

System Shock is a major precursor to immersive sims, the breed of first-person shooter/RPG games with dynamic settings, interesting player choices, and control over more than where you point your crosshairs. His studio, Looking Glass, never made it big, but his ideas and collaborators shaped many aspects of gaming. Without System Shock and Looking Glass, there probably wouldn’t be a Deus Ex, BioShock, Dishonored, Gone Home, or even Rock Band.

What Nightdive is offering is a remake, not a reboot or a remaster (or some restrained improvement they already offer). If Nightdive pulls through, Looking Glass’ ideas and narrative should come through more clearly. The mechanics, graphics, and systems of System Shock as a game you can play in 2023 won’t feel new to most people, mostly because of the game’s own sequels and descendants. But the sense of dread of being just slightly overwhelmed and undermanned, of having a rogue AI really working against you, should be more accessible in this game than in the original. That’s the brand I want to see in this game.

We’ll have more to say when the full game is available. Given how far this remake has come, a month or so seems like a reasonable wait. (Xbox, PlayStation, Mac, and Linux versions of System Shock are also listed as coming soon.)