I’m planning to play through all the games in both of the Shock series this year; I had a quite good time replaying System Shock, but I’d never played System Shock 2, which seems to get talked about rather more. (E.g. I’ve seen comments claiming that BioShock is in many ways an inferior remake of System Shock 2.) So I was really looking forward to playing it; of course, I didn’t expect it to be as smooth an experience as BioShock, given its age, but I did fine with System Shock, which is even older.
As it turns out, I most emphatically did not do fine with System Shock 2. Not that I regret having given it a try, but I’m glad I gave up after going through the first two levels: it simply wasn’t working for me. Which is too bad, because it meant that I didn’t get to really experience the SS2 version of Shodan, or the lure of The Many, but trying to finish it would have driven me crazy.
I didn’t realize quite how much of a kitchen sink game System Shock 2 is: it’s got significantly more going on than either its predecessor or successor. There’s a skill tree that’s initially presented as a class system but where you quickly learn that you can cross classes; there’s a psi system; weapons degrade; inventory turns out to be even more pressured than its predecessor but with a (hidden to me until I stumbled across it in a FAQ, though maybe I missed something) way to expand it slightly by leveling up; there’s this chemical thing for unlocking buffs; and probably more variables that I missed completely. And all of that is on top of its predecessor’s FPS-combined-with-role-playing-inventory gameplay and its story told through environment, audio logs, and orders through loudspeakers. (With hallucinations added into the mix this time!)
So way too much stuff to be a focused game. Which is fine: I wouldn’t want all games to be that way, but I’m all for art that turns an ungainly collection of concepts into something unexpectedly magnificent. The thing is, though, I need to be able to actually play it without driving myself crazy.
I started off on easy (as I do in games like this), and I selected the psi path. I figured I’d be able to freeze enemies with the power of my mind, and I’d be able to whack them to death with a lead pipe. And, indeed, the lead pipe was there, as expected; what wasn’t expected was that the lead pipe was much less effective than in either System Shock or BioShock. That might not be a big deal, since I could freeze my enemies, except that freezing enemies took up psi power which didn’t autorenew and whose ammo is a more limited resource than ammo for standard weapons. And, when I was encountering enemies at the start, I couldn’t (if I’m remembering correctly) even fire standard weapons, because I would have needed to spend some experience at the start to level that up, and I’d spent the experience on other stuff.
So, basically, it felt like I was being set up for failure right from the beginning by making what seemed to me (what still seems to me in the abstract) to have been a perfectly plausible set of choices in my initial powers. Maybe I’m missing something there; certainly if I were better at playing FPSes on PCs then I would be better at dancing around enemies. (Though I get the feeling that the controls in this game are a lot clunkier than in normal FPSes; I missed when swinging with the pipe a lot more than I’m used to.)
Having said that: this being a Shock game, dying wasn’t actually so bad. There were vita chambers to revive you, or saving and loading was fast enough, too. So I was optimistic that I’d start enjoying it more as I made it through the first deck: I leveled up so I could shoot guns, and it really wasn’t that annoying by the end. I wasn’t actually enjoying it too much, and I was actively offput by having to shoot squeaking monkeys, but still: serviceable enough, I felt like I was starting to get control of the game a bit and get past my loss aversion.
And then the next level started off by putting me in a radiation area: no getting comfortable here, and not just being uncomfortable because of narrative and general spookiness, uncomfortable instead because I’m going to feel like I’m always about to die even if I’m playing at easy. But it wasn’t too long before I unlocked the next vita-chamber, so I could relax again.
Except I couldn’t. One big difference from its predecessor is that System Shock 2 splits each deck into multiple sections, and vita chambers in one section don’t work in another. So I ended up having to go through a part with a new, significantly tougher robot enemy and where I couldn’t freely respawn. This meant that, instead of a grind of running through levels, killing some stuff, dying, and getting revived, and making a bit more progress (though not as much as I would like because some enemies respawned as well), I instead was reloading save games all the time and looking on nervously as what seemed like a very generous number of health packs disappeared surprisingly quickly.
I made it through that deck, started the next one, and decided that I just didn’t want to deal with the game any more. So I stopped.
Not what I wanted out of a game. There’s probably interesting narrative there, but it wasn’t letting me get to it. There’s probably interesting systems there, too, but that wasn’t what I was in the mood for, and the game wasn’t structured in a way to let me play with those systems. (Our May VGHVI Symposium was FTL: I died all the time in that one, too, but that game was set up to let me learn the systems by running another experiment every hour, so I never had the frustration of feeling that my initial build had set me up for failure, or of wanting to reload because otherwise I wasn’t sure if I’d get to the next bit of narrative.)
On to BioShock next. Maybe I’ll try that one on normal instead of easy: there is something that I would enjoy in the systems of these games, and that game showed that it understood what I was asking for when I did play in easy, so maybe it would also be more understanding if I express willingness to grapple with those systems? We’ll see…
This post has not been revised since publication.