System Shock (2023) PC Review


There have been a lot of remakes this year, haven’t there? We already had Dead Space and Resident Evil 4, but neither of them needed a remake. System Shock, on the other hand, desperately needed one. While the original 1994 release is an incredibly unique, innovative title, it’s so archaic that most modern players don’t even bother with it.

The System Shock remake completely rebuilds the game, offering a much more playable experience that is typically compelling in a way that few games are. But it’s still terribly dated and plays like it was released in 2004 instead of 1994. I invested a lot, but Nightdive should have made more quality-of-life changes to bring the game up to modern standards.

“True to the original, there’s nothing to track your objective or point you in the right direction in System Shock.”

System Shock is still the story of a hacker tasked with removing the ethical limiters from an AI called SHODAN in exchange for an expensive neural implant. Things go wrong, and six months later, you wake up from a coma on a space station where the AI is plotting to take over Earth. After the intro, the story is told entirely through occasional radio chatter and an enormous number of audio logs.

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True to the original, there’s nothing to track your objective or point you in the right direction in System Shock. You’ll need to follow the instructions given over the radio and deduce the rest from audio logs. Unless you accidentally miss one of those audio logs, at which point you’re going to need a guide.

That is to say, if you’re not the thorough, patient sort, you’re probably going to need to consult a guide for System Shock regardless. The Citadel Station, where the game takes place, is massive and swarming with sturdy, dangerous foes ranging from robots to mutants. You die very quickly, but you can respawn without penalty at any unlocked restoration chambers. You don’t actually have to turn these on, but on normal difficulty, the game can absolutely wreck you. Respawning only gives you half health anyway, and you’ll do a lot of extra walking if you use this a lot. Thankfully, you can quicksave as long as you’re out of combat, so this isn’t necessary, but it certainly helps.

Despite being a new game, System Shock’s combat feels stuck in the early 2000s. Enemies attack recklessly with no self-preservation, offering a minimal response to your attacks. Thus, combat often devolves into a DPS race unless you cautiously peek around corners. However, even with this caution, you risk being rapidly shot upon opening doors as you explore the game world.

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Enemies positioned above you can launch devastating attacks. “Why did I die?!” was a common exclamation during my playthrough of System Shock due to significant difficulty spikes. Certain bosses, equipped with shields and lethal powers, can defeat you with a few blows – a challenge far more demanding than any previous game.

You might think things are going well until you come to a section where you can’t respawn while radiation drains your life and energy. System Shock is a very hard game for all these reasons and more. The dated design choices only make things more complicated. Your inventory is quite limited, and I often found myself unable to pick up important items. You can use a freight elevator to store some items and call it up when you find the elevator spot on a floor, but the elevator is too small to hold much. System Shock‘s interface is also insanely small, which can make it difficult to see certain things, especially on the game’s map.

“System Shock is an immersive sim, so it excels in this area. I love exploring maps bit by bit, scavenging for supplies and equipment.”

Since you’re navigating many different floors to fulfill the game’s often convoluted objectives, you will be looking at the map an awful lot. But not only does the aforementioned UI size (which can’t be increased) make it harder to see than need be, but the map, much like so many other elements of the game, is also horribly dated. It tells you what floor you’re on and which of the floor’s quadrants is which, but it’s stingy with details and making out the tiny icons that populate it can be quite difficult, especially when there’s no legend to tell you what many of them even mean.

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All of these problems are compounded when it comes to improving your combat effectiveness. Once you’ve defeated the strong, shielded boss on the game’s executive level, there’s a considerable difficulty spike on the next floor, where you may find that your weapons are less effective. Weapons can only be upgraded by buying mods, adding another insanely cumbersome layer. For some crazy reason, you’ll almost never find any currency, so you’ll have to break everything down into scrap and drop it into recycling machines.

You’ll get more credits by dropping rarer items directly into the machine, but these take up so much inventory space that you’ll have to drop items, pick up the other ones, run to a recycling station, and then return to get your items. Once you’ve got enough credits, you’ll need to find a station that sells mod kits and buy one.

While the map is happy to tell you where to get mod kits, you’ll probably want to make a note of which weapon they’re for, as each station only sells a single mod, and the game certainly won’t tell you which weapon they’re for from the map. Suffice it to say that System Shock is happy to have you running around the station, taking lift after lift to get where you’re going. It can be a huge, confusing mess.

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Still, the game is mostly worth it. I love exploration-based games, especially when the rules are clear and mostly believable. System Shock is an immersive sim, so it excels in this area. I love exploring maps bit by bit, scavenging for supplies and equipment. You’ll find upgrades that increase your effectiveness in a variety of ways, including boots that let you run fast and levitate and shields that protect you from damage and radiation.

Your character has health and energy bars, the latter of which governs your abilities. But some weapons also use this energy if you don’t want to use your ammo. So many options are available to you, making the game extremely engrossing if you’re willing to put up with its many eccentricities.

“I do love this game, but the way it’s designed and put together makes loving it very hard.”

Graphically, the game is much easier on the eyes than the original. Everything is rendered in full 3D, as opposed to the 2.5D visuals of yesteryear. But that doesn’t mean it’s a particularly good-looking game. The textures are deliberately heavily pixelated, and the art direction sticks very close to the original, giving it a dated aesthetic that you may not like. Everything looks really old, especially for a remake.

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Then there’s the jank. The animations are unimpressive, with enemy corpses dropping in whenever you re-enter an area, often causing you to jerk around. When you enter one of the game’s extremely rare healing chambers, your character’s feet cut right through the bed you’re lying on. The way enemies fall after you kill them is also straight out of the early 00s. The biggest technical problem is that System Shock often freezes when you quickly load a save, which is simply maddening.

System Shock should have seen a lot more changes than have been made here. The game can be so dated that it’s painful, and the visuals and general presentation are far below modern standards. But there simply isn’t much else out there that offers this level of immersion and detail. I love this game, but the way it’s designed and put together makes it very hard to love. If you can put up with all the jank and problems, there’s a fantastic game here. But it takes patience and a willingness to put up with a lot of old design choices that should have been left behind in 1994.

Final Thoughts

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