Trapped in a hell of his own making, a lone hacker battles his way through terrifying mutants and killer robots aboard a space station far from home to take down the monstrous artificial intelligence behind them: SHODAN, one of the best all time great gaming villains. In 1994, System Shock pioneered so many first-person shooter concepts that are proving fundamental today, while also paving the way for the entire immersive sim genre. Nightdive Studios has done a masterful job with this 2023 remake, updating an amazing game that has become difficult to play over the years with modern conveniences so that it will enjoy it for decades to come.
Nominally a shooter, System Shock is more about exploring the labyrinth that is TriOptimum Corporation’s Citadel space station than the combat that takes place within. Your hacker and his military neural implant are responsible for the significantly worsened situation here, having overridden the ethical constraints of the AI SHODAN. So of course SHODAN ripped everyone to pieces and put them back together into horrible cyborgs, created their own strain of a world-destroying mutagenic virus with freaky mutants, and now wants to export their god-like divinity to Earth. We love SHODAN for it because she’s just so deliciously annoying at it. Evil artificial intelligences can often be portrayed as cold, calculating supergeniuses – SHODAN is not. SHODAN is completely insane, delusional that she’s a god, and delightfully obsessed with herself and her often extremely bad plans.
System Shock Remake screenshots
If SHODAN’s body is the massive Citadel space station, then you’re a horrible little parasite killing it from the inside out. Finding out the extent of your plans and then foiling them is your job. System Shock is old school in the oldest school spirit, with levels that are deliberately designed mazes of interconnected corridors, rooms, and locked gates. Its basic design will last for thirty years, and even later it will be significantly updated visually. It offers you a space to explore that is inherently difficult to navigate and presents a very satisfying challenge to navigate. There’s no hand-holding in the main quest, no log of what you do next (although there’s now an optional difficulty setting to change that). So stopping SHODAN means actually exploring, listening to audio logs, and finding out what plans the now-deceased crew had hatched.
The awesome setting and awesome style as you poke around are fueled by 100% pure, uncut, space-based cyberpunk vibes. cyberware? We have this. Cool smart guns? We have that too. An evil corporation turned government? But of course. The overhauled graphics and effects are great, and I loved the semi-pixelated textures and blocky objects, which are probably best expressed in the power interface panels. The new music and sounds are also an excellent accompaniment. It all adds up to remind you that you’re still playing a game that’s 30 years old, but that this version has been brought forward in time to make it easier for you to see what makes it so special in the first place. You can even customize the UI color if phosphor green isn’t your thing.
In combat, this remake has probably changed the most.
As you’d expect, you’ll need to knock down, shoot, burn, and blow up some nasty monsters to escape Citadel. While the heart of System Shock is undoubtedly exploration, there’s still a lot of fighting to be done along the way. Some enemies require pure firefighting to take them down, while others instead require the exploitative stealth ambushes of a survival horror game. Brute force doesn’t always work, so you’ll often need to sneak around corners and through service shafts to take out enemies far tougher and more dangerous than you.
Combat is probably where this new System Shock differs most from the original game. Enemies used to be pretty slow and unintelligent, and the whole concept of what a first-person shooter even was wasn’t quite as solid as it is today. This meant that many of the coolest weapons on paper were difficult to use in practice, and enemies weren’t particularly good at fighting back. Most experienced players would just run at anything and rip it apart with the Laser Rapier, a type of electro-charged lightsaber, but that’s no longer such a viable option.
That doesn’t mean the Laser Rapier is weak now. Please note: The Laser Rapier is still great.
But other weapons are cool now too. I don’t think I ever did anything with a grenade other than kill myself in the original game, while this time I not only used it but got to fire it with a really cool grenade launcher. Other weapons like the Magnum and Assault Rifle also come into their own thanks to the more modern design sense, and for the first time I felt like System Shock was a true FPS. It’s a testament to how thorough and thoughtful this remake is that I had to keep checking to make sure certain weapons and moments were even in the original. The new stuff just feels completely natural.
The cyborgs, mutants, and robots that serve SHODAN have received even greater improvements. Gone are the sluggish movements of yesteryear, and there are enemies with the right AI who know how to maneuver out of the line of fire, duck behind obstacles, and charge in groups. The gruesomely gooey, stitched-together cyborgs are really the ones who benefit most from their visual upgrade, from sort of goofy movie Frankensteins to brainwashed surgical nightmares.
Boss fights that were once drawn-out encounters are now thrilling battles.
I also really appreciate the unique designs that went into the way each of these enemies fights and behaves. The working robots manipulated by the jury will pounce on you, as will the more mindless mutants, but most cyborgs will try to avoid you. The heavily armored enemies move relentlessly towards you, firing the entire time before ripping you to pieces in melee combat. Bosses that were once just boring encounters – like the malevolent Cortex Reavers, militarized weapon platforms powered by an unwilling human host – are now thrilling battles that require you to collect the right gear around the station to win, and probably not without dying a few times.
In the event of death, you will be resurrected in the closest medical chamber you have unlocked with gear and equipment intact. It’s a pleasant respawn mechanic that punishes without ever frustrating, and aims to encourage some really nice exploration. Charging through the levels can work, but it’s easier once you’ve found a way to revive yourself nearby if you accidentally step off a platform and fall to your death.
The best thing is to immerse yourself in another world for a while.
It’s a nice piece of older design that’s showing its age, which is good because the way you move around the station hasn’t changed. Your hacker’s movements can feel clumsy and slow at times, and he’s unable to perform some actions that have become a staple of modern games, such as sliding down ladders. I can forgive that, but I’m not sure if we’ve had to be forced to crouch to get onto objects yet – that’s old game wisdom best left to the past.
Speaking of the few things I didn’t like: Cyberspace. At certain points in System Shock you’ll find terminals that give you access to the station’s cyberspace mainframe, where reality is instead a “six degrees of freedom” sort of shooter with mediocre wireframe graphics. It’s debatable, but perhaps to his credit, the remake is very faithful to these sections by leaving them intact, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ve often been able to bore me to tears.
However, it’s extremely worth noting that the remake allows you to customize individual difficulty settings for four different game areas: combat, puzzles, cyberspace, and the main story missions. If you don’t like exploring blindly and digging through audio logs, the lowest mission difficulty will give you clearer instructions to follow. If, like me, you hate cyberspace, just turn down the difficulty and quickly flip through these parts. If you want a hardcore survival experience, you can crank up the combat and let Cortex Reavers completely immerse you. I did that and it prevailed.
However, I expect puzzles will be the most adjusted difficulty. The Pipe Dream-esque energy diversion mini-game is ubiquitous in System Shock, and in addition to finding a security access keycard, it involves opening many doors and activating locked sensitive equipment. I find these puzzles almost therapeutic. They ask you to step back, take your time, and calm your pulse after being chased around by two-faced zebra-gorilla mutants, for example. I also really like the rickety interface for plugging and unplugging power cords.