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Longtime readers may remember that one of the first posts I ever wrote for this blog was a History Lesson post about System Shock (back before I even had screenshots in my posts!). I played the 1994 game for the first time in 2010 or thereabouts, and it was a revelation. I was amazed that such an old game with such a clunky control scheme could be so immersive, eclipsing most games released before or since, and was shocked (har har) that it was not better known.
Well, it turns out I’m not the only one with such a high opinion of the game. Night Dive Studios recently acquired the rights to the franchise and made the original game available for purchase again — along with some (optional) modern improvements like the now-standard mouselook controls — in the form of System Shock Enhanced Edition. Now, they’ve decided to try their hands at a full-blown remake, with modernized graphics and all sorts of other tweaks and changes. They’ve taken to Kickstarter and are already funded with fifteen days to go at the time of writing, largely due to the strength of the pre-alpha demo.
Excited, I took said demo for a spin.
The demo is short, but demonstrates that the team are eager to provide a faithful recreation of Citadel Station, the setting that so impressed me in the original game. The graphics are fancy and modern, with reflections, clouds of smoke, lighting effects and more, but the locations are immediately recognizable. Others have remarked that the refurbished Citadel Station looks the way they remembered it looking rather than the way it actually looked, which is a cliche, but an appropriate one in this case. Moving through these rooms and corridors again was a joy, especially since the movement controls now conform to the standard mouselook method for navigating first-person games. Even though the demo only contains a few areas, with a handful of enemies and the occasional interaction with keypads or circuit boards, it does an admirable job of capturing the feeling of trepidatiously stepping out of the neurosurgery ward at the start of the original game. I don’t think the demo is long enough to give an entirely new player the same sense of place I felt playing the original System Shock, but I doubt that was the purpose; the demo is there to convince skeptical fans that the team is honoring the game’s legacy.
That’s a worthy goal, because I was troubled by talk of changes to the design. Rewritten dialog, alterations to the incredibly solid location design of the original game, the addition of a “role-playing” style skill upgrade system and a crafting system are all mentioned in the Kickstarter description as potential inclusions in the remake. Night Dive Studios motivate this in terms of incorporating the best aspects of System Shock 2 and Bioshock into their remake of System Shock.
I’m in the minority, but I was less impressed with Irrational Games‘ design in the well-loved System Shock 2 in 1999. Compared to Looking Glass‘ work in the original game, I thought much of the design and writing detracted from the sense of place, especially the skill system. This system lets players approach problems in different ways based on which skills they choose to improve, but it also means that any approach is viable as long as one focuses on it; the lowly pistol could take out nearly any adversary with the right ammunition and enough skill with pistols. In the original game, I was a hacker desperately trying to get out of a horrible situation, making use to whatever I could lay my hands on, and given a fighting chance due to my military grade neural interface and cybernetic modules. In the second game, I had to consciously plan which strategy I would take ahead of time, and obstacles felt artificial as a result. I worry that to incorporate these systems into the original System Shock is to miss what made that game so special in the first place. And don’t get me started on Bioshock; I didn’t like it at all.
The pre-alpha demo, however, mollifies my concerns to some degree. It feels right, and gives me confidence that the Night Dive team know how to make a faithful remake. I’m not the only one to raise concerns over the proposed additions, either, and the developers have reassured current and potential backers of their intentions. They claim that any new systems will not compromise the vision of the original game, and if there is enough demand they may even make them optional, providing a “classic mode” that strips them out. New writing will be done by Chris Avellone, a highly respected writer who has worked on legendary titles like Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, and the Icewind Dale series. Original SHODAN voice actor Terri Brosius will reprise her role in the remake, and the new actor taking the role of Rebecca Lansing in the demo delivers a faithful performance.
I’m also inclined to support Night Dive due to their other work restoring and updating classic games. In addition to wading through a legal quagmire to untangle the legal rights to the System Shock series — thus enabling the release of System Shock Enhanced Edition and System Shock 2 for digital distribution — they’ve also rescued Turok, Strife, and Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri, among others. I think they deserve a shot at designing a full remake. Even if they make changes I don’t like, they’ve already provided us with System Shock Enhanced Edition to preserve the original game as accurately as possible.
The demo is not without problems. Melee combat with the signature lead pipe is awkward, and the demo crashed persistently in certain areas, preventing me from exploring everything. But as a pre-alpha demo, such issues are to be expected. As an example of Night Dive’s intentions for the game, it succeeds, and it convinced me to support their Kickstarter campaign. If you’re interested, you can visit the campaign page to download the demo and give it a try yourself. Good luck, hacker.