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Classics: System Shock An elegant shooter with a big twist

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System Shock

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DEVELOPER: Looking Glass Technologies, Inc.
PUBLISHER: Electronic Arts Inc., ORIGIN Systems, Inc.
ALTERNATIVE RELEASES: CD (enhanced graphics engine, textures and movies; added audio to crew logs)
RELATED GAMES: System Shock 2


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The first System Shock (successful sequel released in 1999) is an astonishing and innovative composition of adventure, basic RPG, and first-person-perspective shooter elements - sadly underestimated due to the overwhelming hype accompanying ID Software's release of technically inferior DOOM in the late 1993.
If you have ever experienced the gameplay of Deus Ex (developed by Ion Storm and released in 2000) you will be surprised how much of that gameplay was based on the System Shock series, reasons of which will be explained later on.

Let's start with the most important element - the plot:

It is year 2026. Of the largest corporations on Earth, Tri-Optimum, completes the long-term construction of Citadel. This first mining space station in human history is equipped with a massive mining laser and due to it's own size and complexity - with a set of ground-breaking technologies never applied before. One of these is the revolutionary computer system with an artificial intelligence pattern: SHODAN (Sentient Hyper-Optimised Data Access Network), which replaces the need for a number of technical staff that would otherwise demand living space beyond the available conditions, even on such an enormous structure. On 2nd January 2027 the AI circuits are implemented into the main on-board computer network in the goal of taking over the majority of basic and automatic space station's functions.

You are an experienced and well respected individual in the computer hacking scene. The news of the first AI in history being created and successfully implemented arises your personal need to examine the AI's code so much, that on 7th April you attempt to hack your way through the Tri-Optimum network. Unfortunately for you, you are caught. The Corporation's security personnel arrests you a few seconds after your first glance at SHODAN's code.

While you are detained Edward Diego, the Tri-Optimum's vice-president, contacts you personally. He proposes an offer: if you hack SHODAN again and remove it's ethical constraints you will be rewarded with, apart from getting your account cleaned, a military-grade neural-enhancement interface that will enable you to enhance your brain's capabilities through installation of external electronic expansions and will allow direct connection to any computer network supporting it - a device that even most of the Corporation's scientists can only dream of.

You agree without hesitation. With A-class security access to Tri-Optimum network you succeed in your task. To maintain the whole affair confidential the neural interface implantation takes place at the Citadel space station. Then you are put to a six-month recuperation sleep. Meanwhile certain difficulties arise at the station...

9 September: Reports of aberrant behaviour with the computer network on-board Citadel station accumulate. The computer system administrator files a request to replace the SHODAN security system.
10 September: The computer system administrator is transferred off-station and the replacement order is rescinded.
26 September: An experiment in the biolabs involving a viral mutation agent displays unfortunate side effects. Flawed control software appears to be at fault. The science computer system is scheduled to go down for inspection.
27 September: Researchers, complaining of a strange illness, are found to be contaminated with the experimental virus mutagen.
30 September: Maintenance is flooded with repair orders for defective robots and systems station-wide. Technicians cannot explain the speed loss in computer systems.
2 October: Security detains crewmembers as the number of violent incidents aboard the station begins to rise. Psychological evaluations report mental derangement in the mutagen-contaminated researchers.
6 October: Other crew members complain of an inexplicable illness. The mutagen-contaminated researchers are listed in critical condition. Medical imposes quarantine measures.
7 October: Mutagen-contaminated experimenters are missing. Five medical staffers are found mutilated. Security reports that the armoury has been ransacked.
9 October: A riot erupts in Research. Some members of the crew barricade themselves in a laboratory. TriOptimum sends a military transport. Reports are hushed to prevent public embarrassment.
10 October: The transport is shot and destroyed by station defences due to a bizarre software malfunction. No shuttles are allowed to enter or leave the flight deck pending software diagnostics and hardware inspections.
13 October: SHODAN announces its intention to control all life aboard the station. Communications from Citadel are cut off.
1 November: A brief transmission IS received from survivors aboard the station, describing a massacre by SHODAN-controlled robot forces, and warning of danger to Earth populations.
People who broadcasted that last message are probably dead now. The Tri-Optimum Terrorism Division is already aware of you and that you will wake up in a few days, being their only way of explaining the bizarre events. The Corporation understands that your presence on-board the station is illegal and is investigating the matter. However, not being a registered crew-member actually saved your life, as SHODAN is not aware of your presence or capabilities... for the time being.

As you can see this piece is far from any other "save the world" crap. There is even more in the game's manual which I honestly advice to find and read before launching the actual game. The science-fiction world and the plot we witness is evidently cyberpunk-influenced, and quickly evolving throughout the game. Spiced by horror elements, it creates the unforgettable dark and heavy atmosphere surpassed only by the game's own sequel.

How does it look like? Marvellous. The first thing that should be noted is that the game first appeared in 1994 as a floppy disk edition - even then it's fully three-dimensional engine and space over which the player could act was truly revolutionary. Soon after, as a natural step during these years' CD-ROM popularisation, a CD version of the game was launched and the perfect became even more beautiful. Where the FDD edition gave us 256-colour graphics with a maximum of 320x200 resolution, sporting 64x64 textures - the update enchanted everyone with resolutions up to 640x480, 128x128 textures, enhanced geometry and shadow casting. All video-clips were recreated in SVGA standard, all game bugs repaired, basic VR helmet support added, and last but not least - the crew logs found throughout Citadel got themselves full digitised audio recordings which added a new level of drama to the gameplay. All this however, not without a cost as the CD edition demanded whole 8MB of RAM as opposed to 4MB for the previous release (both version were bundled on the CD however).

The world the player acts in is not separated into a number of continuous, linear "levels" where starting the next usually meant reaching the end of the previous one - as other games at those times got used to. Here, gameplay is obstructed only by in-game plot-mechanics. The player explores a vast space station and only it's walls, corridors, or more likely closed doors and traps,or simply lack of proper equipment or ammunition will hold further progress into yet unsurveyed areas. In fact it is necessary to come back to some locations later in the game as access to some rooms or specific objects might not be possible while some SHODAN systems are not first disabled or before a puzzle is solved elsewhere on the station. Citadel itself consists of ten decks plus four grooves - external leisure hubs. It doesn't sound impressive but the first contact with the ingenious level-design almost instantly blows any doubts away. There are no repeating patterns in the corridor layouts to be found. Each deck, or even separated areas on certain decks, bear their own graphical style. Each square meter is carefully designed so the exploration of the station as a structure is a lot of fun in itself. The addition of detailed automap with the possibility of creating player's described markers cannot be underestimated in such a complicated and realistic environment.

Although the action is witnessed from a familiar first-person perspective, the gameplay features a number of major differences to the shooters genre commonly known in 1994. For example - the stance really matters. There is a separate window in the interface devised specifically for control over character's posture, enabling free body positioning in the given space. This, for the first time, gave the gameplay a new depth: now it is possible to silently tread through a corridor unnoticed and it is noticeably harder for the enemy to shoot or even spot the player if he is leaning from behind a corner. It is even harder if he is crouching at the same time. In fact there are some areas, like service shafts or robot storage facilities, to which access is possible only after some intense manoeuvring and several, quite a novelty in itself, jumps.

A very interesting addition are the basic RPG elements, in the form of characters' capabilities evolution and equipment handling. Throughout the whole game Hacker finds various items: medkits, batteries, tools, syringes with (various) drugs, mines, bombs etc. Unlike what could be seen before it is possible to store those for future use at the player's whim. Beyond that, the main protagonist is able to retrieve a number of electronic enhancements for his neural interface which, when switched on, temporarily expand some particular physical abilities of his, or add some handy, defensive or otherwise, mechanisms. All this of course at the price of valuable energy stored within Hacker's own body, an additional stat to control aside from simple and well known health bar. This gets even more spicy if you remember that energy weapons are taking their power supply from the same source.

Another new and realistic element added, is that the player is only able to carry six weapons at the same time, six toys from an enormous arsenal available. From bladed weapons, through all kinds of projectile weaponry including some serious rocket-launchers, ending on aforementioned energy fed ray guns like laser or plasma carbines, each of those having several types of ammo or different modes of fire. Rest assured that Tri-Optimum science division had it's share of experiments not only in the biology field. Be smart however as, unlike before, each weapon is best used against some particular type of target.

It should be noted that whatever RPG elements have been incorporated into the game, there is still only one way of getting the enemies disposed of and it is by shooting them. It is still not the type of game that would give the player the possibility of using elements of environment to trap or destroy his targets, or enable him to evade the fight altogether with choosing an alternative path. Of course, such solutions are yet to be witnessed only in the future game productions, so it could have not been summed up as a disappointment when the game was released.

Still System Shock is one of the first games, if not THE first, to sport a fully three-dimensional terrain. The game does not employ a simple trick where the world is just vertically differentiated - here, if a player sees a gang-way he can not only go over it but under it as well. Sounds trivial but this single breakthrough allowed for most of the innovations described above.

Unfortunately, unlike the beautiful environment the enemies and any items within are just two-dimensional sprites. Although designed well with lots of detail, when compared to the high-resolution surroundings they look quite odd. Still with the unbelievable amount of various enemy types one cannot get bored even if they all look a little plain, especially if we consider the time that will pass before the introduction of the first three-dimensional enemy models.

Mostly curious is the introduction of a "secondary world". Not without a reason the main character is a hacker and so some of the tasks and puzzles can be solved only by connecting to the on-board cybernetic network through any of the neural data sockets found on each level. This cyberspace has been also well thought out. It is a wireframe representation of some abstract rooms and passages symbolising the memory space of the on-board computer with items in the form of different geometrical shapes symbolising various pieces of data. You can find door codes, unlocking mechanisms, Tri-Optimum messages and hints, and the crew's notes. Those and the crew's personal logs, usually found with their bodies, create the axis of the plot. Of course the cyberspace is also the home of SHODAN so heavy resistance is to be expected. Not only will the AI send his minions to neutralise the player in the digital world, but it will be constantly trying to track the hacker down and when it finally reaches him, he will get kicked-out with his brain fried. Of course, there are some countermeasures. Some programs to be found inside the network, and in many versions, allow the player to defend himself of the guarding dogs, break the ICE encryptions at some of the other programs, or finally launch some proxies that would mislead the ever-watching SHODAN.

The audio department remains in the 1st league as well. The music, although in simple MIDI format, is very rich and perfectly suited for the particular deck, as every major area has it's own tune. Also, as it is common for the games of the science-fiction genre, mostly electronic instruments are used. The sounds are of high quality, original but still believable, what only adds to the cold and dark atmosphere player is subjected to.

The interface used is relatively complex, what is not surprising considering the amount of information available to the player. Some of the more important elements, like stance-control, health bar, energy bar, or buttons responsible for launching and displaying the status of neural implants are available right at the top and the sides of the screen. However there is much more. To give the player an efficient way of controlling all the new and advanced features of his character - two separate multi-function displays are used at the bottom corners of the screen. Each of them can display a number of predefined sets of information such as an automap, detailed information about any weapon, item we have, or any other special object in the game's world. Data about a weapon or an item in the Hacker's possession is usually displayed along with some usage options, i.e. the aforementioned weapon firing-mode control. Of course there is an additional panel, located between the smaller displays, that is designed for managing the inventory and any information the Hacker has gathered like e-mails, logs or notes, and as other panels this one can also be switched-off. Everything is swiftly controlled though mouse but the keyboard comes really handy when it comes to efficient character control. Even with all this, one will find it the best way to control such type of game only after a moment spent on familiarising with such an interface.

The game is unusually configurable as well. Difficulty of combat in the "real" world, combat in cyberspace, complexity of locks to crack, and even the depth of the plot. All this and more can be set up. Some of the inner game elements are randomly chosen when a new gameplay is started.

Empty, dark corridors, flashing lights, signs of battle here and there, mutilated bodies, sometimes blood on the shiny metal walls... It is never known what lies beyond the next turn... Only the logs you find depict the incredible horror that happened on that station. And what can still happen. Among the distant howls and electronic hum...

Summarizing: Very innovative for it's times. Many unique and high-quality elements melted together creating an unforgettable experience.

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I agree, the game was ahead of its time. I still hope for the day when someone can successfully port it and even System Shock 2 into more modern game engines.People had started, but most total conversion mods fail due to lack of time and manpower on the part of the modders.It's sad that Hollywood can remake movies over and over, yet we can't get remakes of these classic games :rolleyes:

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