In 1994, Warren Spector, Doug Church, and their company, Looking Glass, sought to create something different. In a market swarmed with first-person shooters that emphasized high-speed combat and quick reaction times, they created System Shock. This was a gaming revelation. It emphasized patient gameplay, as well as creative solutions to open-ended problems. This would give birth to a genre known as immersive sims. I encourage you to read a previous piece of mine covering the history of the genre as a whole. But finally, after almost thirty years, the remake of the original System Shock is finally here.
Recently, a company named Nightdive Studios released an official remake of the first System Shock. Nightdive was known for releasing polished versions of previous System Shock games. They allowed the games to run on modern hardware with modern controls. Their remake was funded entirely on Kickstarter, alongside a sequel.
System Shock 3 would’ve been developed by series veteran Warren Spector. But the game went defunct, ending up in permanent development hell. Fans of the series were concerned that the System Shock Remake would follow the same fate. The game was finally released on May 30th, 2023.
Modern Immersive Sims
Immersive sims are now a permanent fixture of modern gaming. Dishonored, Deus Ex, Prey, and other entries in the genre are games that are still beloved to this day. Prey itself is even designed as a spiritual successor to System Shock. Through these games, I became introduced to the world of immersive sims. So even though I never played the original franchise, I know the genre it birthed inside out.
Immersive sims are known for giving players freedom in how they play. You are given free rein in how you adapt to enemies in combat. The genre has evolved through sequels, indie games like Disco Elysium and Weird West, and seemingly unrelated titles like The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. So how does the System Shock Remake stay true to the original game while updating it for modern audiences?
A Faithful Rebirth
The Remake of System Shock is an incredibly faithful recreation of the original 1994 release. All the environments of the first System Shock were renovated for modern hardware. Take the Research Labs, for instance. In the original game, the floor was a stark contrast to the previous medical floor. The floor was made of bright red colors rather than being the cool blue color scheme that the rest of the station had adopted. This, too, stays true to the original game.
So much is brought back for the Remake, from the weapons to the level design to even some of the early codes and mechanics of the original. This both works to its benefit and its detriment. Let’s start with how keeping the Remake faithful to the original game works in its favor.
The player is given several tools to take on the many robots and mutants of Citadel Stations. The gameplay of System Shock takes more inspiration from modern first-person shooters, updating the original’s gunplay to stay in tune with current standards. The player initially has access to a simple blunt weapon in the form of a pipe and a wrench. As you traverse the many floors of Citadel Station, you get access to a pistol, a magnum, a shotgun, and later an assault rifle and railgun. The player can also acquire a laser rapier that can rip enemies in half with just a few swipes.
However, all of this power comes at a cost. Ammo is constantly in short supply. There could be minutes at a time when you have no combat capability whatsoever. Even the energy weapons like the aforementioned laser rapier, and the pistol-like Sparq Gun, run on power. Power, like mana in other games, is a limited resource that is regained through battery stations or mobile batteries you can pick up. This means that each combat scenario can leave the player feeling either confident or riddled with anxiety.
The game’s design makes matters such as respawning complicated yet thrilling. Each floor has a cyborg conversion pod that is made to serve the antagonist’s needs. It is up to the player to disarm the conversion and instead repurpose it as a respawn station. This is a fantastic way to justify a video game norm as deeply ingrained as respawning. However, when the conditions are right, this system can completely break the entire game. But we’ll get to that.
The narrative of System Shock has influenced beloved games like Portal, Bioshock, and the aforementioned Prey. The franchise’s story is still beloved and adored even to this day. You can really tell that Nightdive has the same reverence for the game’s narrative. The remake hasn’t altered any of the game’s major beats in any way, shape, or form. You still take the form of a hacker. As the hacker, you bite off more than you can chew by trying to steal from mega-corporation, Trioptimum. Eventually, you’re captured by the company’s private police force.
The player is sent to Citadel Station. Edward Diego is the station’s vice president, and he requests your help to remove all the ethical constraints of the AI-in-charge, SHODAN. In return, Diego will not just give the hacker his freedom but also give him military-grade cyber hardware. After you complete the mission, you are knocked out cold and wake up months later to an almost abandoned Citadel Station. You are greeted by counter-terrorist agent Rebecca Lansing, who tells you that SHODAN has gone rogue and is pointing the station’s mining laser directly at Earth. And so you set off to stop SHODAN.
This one mission is the driving force of the entire game, taking you from one corner of the station to the next. You start by trying to disarm the mining laser; then, you stop SHODAN’s attempts at making a virus capable of decimating mankind. From there, you set the station to explode and defeat SHODAN one last time in the game’s cyberspace.
SHODAN is one of the most iconic villains in gaming history. Voiced by Terri Brosius, The idea of a female AI turned rogue in a similar way to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL 9000 was a relatively unheard-of idea at the time. Of course, this idea would eventually give way to GLaDOS in the Portal series. Thankfully, SHODAN has remained relatively unchanged. She is as much of an arrogant menace as she was in the original release, constantly harassing you with verbal torment from beginning to end.
SHODAN is a compelling villain in that her motivations are deeply unsympathetic. She doesn’t have a grand desire to avenge some injustice that was dealt to her years ago. At no point does she have anything akin to a tragic backstory. She just sees herself as an almighty goddess that deserves to remake the universe in her own image, subjugating and exterminating all that don’t follow her grand design. While the player is completely silent, it’s fun to think of yourself as the hacker and realize that all your frustrations against SHODAN’s many contingency plans and ambushes are the same as the Hacker.
Art and Sound Direction
One of the other more recognizable parts of the original System Shock is the game’s art and sound direction. The aforementioned levels are awash with a mix of cold purples and blues and some warm reds and yellows. Later in the game, you can even encounter many environments covered in nature and foliage. I played the game entirely on the Steam Deck, and even with the slightly limited hardware, the environments looked stunning. Nothing ground-breaking, but memorable enough compared to other triple-A games.
Another beloved part of the original game was the music. The soundtrack is composed by Greg LoPiccolo and Tim Ries and is made up of synthetic and high-pitched MIDIs. While the soundtrack doesn’t fit the story’s dark tone at times, it’s certainly memorable and has stuck in my head since I first listened to it. For example, there is music for the Medical Wing of Citadel Station. Compared to other starting areas of sci-fi horror games, namely Dead Space, the Medical theme is energetic and rife with guitar riffs and bassy drum beats.
In comparison, the soundtrack of the Remake is…okay. Composed by Jonathan Peros, the game relies on far more ambient pieces. While they work better for the game’s tone than the original release, it’s certainly not as memorable. I sometimes forgot about the game’s music, which felt like a disservice compared to other horror games and other immersive sims. Thankfully, there are still moments where the music changes to match the many different combat scenarios, including one for the Medical Wing. But the track ended just as I was getting immersed. Once more, I was left only with the ambiance.
The game’s voice acting, however, has been completely redone. The original System Shock‘s voices were all delivered by people around the Looking Glass office. While Terri Brosius was hired because of her relation to her bandmate Greg LoPiccolo, other voice actors and their more dry deliveries often took players out of the experience. Now the voices are delivered by actual actors, and it goes a long way toward making the experience more impactful. But of course, SHODAN is still voiced by Terri Brosius, a perfect decision that adds to how faithful the remake is.
Into the Labyrinth
However, as mentioned previously, the Remake’s faithful recreation of the original systems at times works to its detriment. I heard stories of how the game was more structured like a Metroidvania than an immersive sim, but I never took that seriously. Immersive sims are known for giving explorative freedom to the player. There is no way for the player to be soft-locked, regardless of what tools they have or don’t have on them. But this game is far more nefarious in its level design. Robots and mutants fill every inch of the cramped hallways and floors. The lack of ammo or any clear waypoint doesn’t exactly help the player feel any less lost.
As the game progressed, I grew more comfortable with the way the game handled its level design and enemy placement. That said, I imagine newcomers to the series and the genre won’t be as comfortable with the philosophy.
The game does begin with a sort of difficulty modifier, where you can set the combat, cyberspace, puzzle, and level difficulty however you want. You can make it incredibly easy, slightly difficult, or damn near impossible. I liked this feature; it allows for more player accessibility. However, this becomes a bit infuriating when you realize you can’t change the difficulty as you’re playing through the game. This, too, is faithful to the original, but this introduces a broader problem about remakes as a whole.
The System Shock remake is a truly faithful love letter to the original release. But as a game, and for a first-time playthrough, it takes some effort to get into fully. Take the Cyberspace segments, for example. In the original, they were a shoot-em-up descent into an almost matrix-like world, complete with an entirely separate control scheme. Compared to the original game, the remake looked far more digestible. But like the original game, the cyberspace segments are disorienting at best and nauseating at worse. It’s hard to tell where you need to go and how to traverse the cramped spaces. This would be fine if these sections were sparce, but at least one cyberspace segment per level exists. Even the final boss is entirely in cyberspace!
The puzzles remind me a lot of the infamous Bioshock pipe puzzles. There are wire puzzles that require filling a certain amount of energy and puzzles that require you to divert energy from point A to point B. Each puzzle grinds the entire experience of exploring Citadel Station to a halt. Plus, there’s the aforementioned brutal level design that sometimes made me want to slam my head into a wall.
The Idea of a Remake
This, in itself, is perfectly faithful to the original release. And a point will undoubtedly come up in response to these comments: if the game is faithful to the original, then the game’s difficulty is as designed and, therefore, not a problem. But this goes into the broader question of what a remake should be. With the advent of remakes for Dead Space, Resident Evil 4, and Final Fantasy VII, a remake has grown to involve not just bringing the game to modern hardware but also making it more accessible to modern audiences.
Because at the end of the day, the one question that plagued me throughout my entire playthrough was this: Why would anyone play this game over the many modern immersive sims and Metroidvanias? Why would they choose to play a remake of a thirty-year-old game when they can play something like Bioshock or Prey? Games that control better, feel better, and are ultimately far more accessible. And the unfortunate truth is that there is nothing to keep you coming back to this game when you can instead play one of the many franchises that the original System Shock inspired.
A Glitch in the Matrix
As much as I’d like to talk about the endgame for the Remake and how the last few levels of the game come together in a beautifully climactic ending, I must talk about a unique experience I had with this title. Remember how the respawn tubes worked? Well, about three/quarters of the game, just as I was beginning to make more progress in the Executive wing, I ended up dying to a few stray cyborgs. This didn’t phase me too much: dying a lot is part of the experience in immersive sims and System Shock. Dying allows the player to reset and try a different approach to a certain combat encounter or puzzle.
As I was dying, however, the player character suddenly reloaded his gun as if nothing had happened. So I woke up back in the respawn container, ready to leave and get revenge against the robot that killed me.
But I couldn’t leave the room. I tried clipping through the wall, turning the game off and on, but nothing changed. “No worries”, I thought. “I can just reset to a previous save.” But as I went to check the saves, I had a catastrophic realization: the game autosaves when you respawn.
In theory, this is a convenient feature. However, unlike most games that have two separate tabs for a “Quick-Save” versus an “Auto-Save”, this didn’t. As such, the save where I had soft-locked became my default save. Thus 8.8 hours of progress went firmly in the trash can. Worse still, there was no way to easily recover the progress I had made because of how each playthrough randomizes the passcodes. The game had entirely broken.
There were other glitches too. There were a few moments when I clipped through elevators. Moments when enemies disappeared and reappeared at random points. In fact, in researching the glitch I encountered, I noticed a few more game-breaking bugs that other players had noticed.
Does this ultimately ruin the game for me? Not really, no. But it did detract from the experience just a bit. As a whole, I was bummed out and a bit defeated that a game that I had so much fun with came to such an anti-climactic end.
The Conclusion (System Shock Remake)
I had many issues with the experience of System Shock. From game-breaking bugs to intimidating level design and mechanics, this game was a lot for me to swallow at times. But I still ultimately enjoyed the System Shock remake. Even when the game was kicking my teeth in, I found myself desperate to come back and play more.
I enjoyed learning the ins and outs of each level and how each weapon behaved. Even the many puzzles seemed to become easier with time. As I traversed Citadel Station, I was reminded of why I enjoyed immersive sims in the first place. It was thrilling to explore such an unfamiliar and ultimately alien environment. I would love to give the title another shot when the time comes.
However, I still hesitate to recommend this game to anyone who isn’t a die-hard System Shock or Immersive Sim fan. The game design can come across as incredibly jarring. Players who go in expecting a game like Dishonored, Bioshock, or Deus Ex, will end up thoroughly unprepared for what the game has to offer.
Try the demo for the remake, available on Steam, if you’re curious about how the gameplay works. That way, you can see if you find comfort within the many sprawling hallways of Citadel Station.
But as a whole, the System Shock remake is a great revamp of the original classic. Give this game a shot if you’re a fan of immersive sims. If you’re a fan of System Shock as a whole and are curious to see the game that birthed titles like Bioshock and Prey, then this remake is the definitive way to see an old classic come back to life. The game is currently available on Steam for $40 and will be coming soon to consoles.