Almost five years ago, Looking Glass Technologies took the idea of the typical first person shooter, and implemented it into a futuristic role-playing style environment. The role-playing theme worked successfully in their past games Ultima Underworld I and II. And their futuristic version, System Shock, was just as successful. In fact, System Shock has been rated by certain publications as one of the greatest games of all time.
It was almost inevitable for a sequel to arrive, and now that sequel is here. And just like its predecessor, it is something to remember.
Taking place 30 years after the first game ended, another computer system goes wild. But instead of an orbiting space station [i.e. Citadel] all hell breaks loose on a newly christened spaceship. The UNN Von Braun is supposed to be the first spaceship capable of faster than light travel, and is currently on its maiden voyage, but somewhere along the way the computer’s AI, dubbed Xerxes, loses his mind. Almost everyone on board is killed, and the ship is left behind a ghost.
Attached to the Von Braun is the UNN Rickenbacker, and that is where the player comes in. As a member of the UNN, you must enter the Von Braun, and find out just what happened. However, before joining the Rickenbacker, you must decide on which military career you want. Marines specialize in heavy weapons operation, the Navy excels in the maintenance of the Von Braun’s electronics, and the newly developed OSA Black Ops group learns the ways of psionic attacks. Three tours of duty will take place as well, increasing some of your skills before the main mission.
During your trip, you are implanted with a cybernetic interface, and are placed in cryostasis. However, due to the attack on the Von Braun there is an error, and you have no knowledge of what happened for the past six months when you are thawed out. Therefore, you will need to consult datalogs left from the unfortunate victims, which is about everyone in the crew.
In addition, you will also experience mysterious ghost images of the crew, seems your cyberware can pick up on the energy of the recently dead, and find out just what they went through in their final moments. SS2 still uses the same control scheme that the first game had, but the new interface allows you to view more of the action than before. In addition, security cameras now have a more advanced role. Where before they only denied access to other floors, the cameras can now look at you, and if alerted, reinforcements will be called in.
When that happens, the game has that whole Metal Gear style experience where you have to be on alert until the time runs out, or if you can find a security access panel you can turn the alarm off.
Unlike other standard role playing games, level upgrades aren’t just earned, they have to be bought. Using cybernetic modules, upgrades are purchased from vending machines in four categories: stats, psi, weapons, and tech skills. Other vending machines are available to purchase ammunition and supplies, but they require another form of currency called nanites. Nanites are also used to pay for healing facilities, though bio-reconstruction devices — which are used in case of loss of life to reconstruct your character — are free once you find and activate them.
There are two things however that needs to be said about SS2 that prevents it from getting a perfect rating. One is the fact that the game can get pretty damn hard! Even on the easy level, it still can be quite a challenge and I hate to see what it would be like to play on the Impossible level. Monsters have the annoying characteristic of being able to respawn behind you, so you can never really get an area clear. A new downloadable patch lets the players control the respawn rate, so at least the folks at Looking Glass are not ignoring the cries of the constantly killed.
In addition, the game studders some even on high end systems. I am running a K6/2 450 with 128 MB of RAM and a 3dfx Voodoo3 2000 card, and even with this hardware, I noticed the hard drive accessing data. Now I expected this on a system with the minimum 32 MB of RAM, but not on 128! I hope that a patch comes out to fix this in the near future. Also, on tests with a Pentium III the game did not shudder, but it did tend to lock up between levels for some unknown reason.
But still, System Shock 2 has that certain visceral experience the first game had, and even with these two shortcomings, I see how it can still obtain a rating of 4 1/2 Gems. Just walking though the body-strewn hallways is a creepy experience and as you continue to play, you even begin to question the motives of the doctor who is guiding your progress through the ship via voice mail. [There is a huge spoiler I could give here, but I wont, other than to say that old friends make an appearance in this game.]
Now if you excuse me, I have to go shut Xerxes down.