System Shock Remake Review

I’m Frantic, So Load Me Up

The original System Shock graced PCs in 1994 and was considered a cult classic amongst gamers. This monumental game paved the way for titles such as 2007’s BioShock and 2017’s Prey. However, there was no easy way to access it for the longest time, as it wasn’t on any download platform, and the license was surprisingly difficult to obtain. Until 2012, that is, when Nightdive Studios relicensed it and began to offer an enhanced edition of it and its sequel. Flash forward to 2023 when the studio released System Shock Remake on PC, before now porting it to consoles in 2024, where we come to this review of its PlayStation 5 release.

Players take on the role of a nameless hacker in 2072 who finds themselves in hot water after accessing files related to Citadel Station, owned by the nefarious TriOptimum Corporation. The hacker is taken to Citadel Station, where they meet Edward Diego, a TriOptimum executive. Edward Diego offers the hacker a proposition — that all charges will be dropped if they can destroy SHODAN, a sentient AI with access to an experimental mutagenic virus that could destroy the Earth’s population. To sweeten the deal, Edward also offers a valuable military-grade neural implant, though the installation places the hacker into a recuperative coma for six months. When the hacker awakens, it turns out that SHODAN has taken over the entire Citadel Station, with every robot reprogrammed to be hostile and every human either having been mutated, transformed into a cyborg, or killed. It is up to the hacker to shut Citadel Station down and destroy SHODAN once and for all.

System Shock is cyberpunk horror at its core, and it does a phenomenal job connecting both genres. Players unravel the mystery of how SHODAN commandeered Citadel Station and how she gained access to the experimental mutagenic virus. There’s also the mystery surrounding Edward Diego and his true intentions, which keeps players guessing as they work through each floor of the Citadel. Most of the story is told through audio logs and emails, with some information shared by SHODAN herself when she tries to block the player’s progress. There is also a lot of environmental storytelling from graffiti all over the walls to dismembered corpses, often leading to more questions than answers. SHODAN truly steals the show, as she is constantly egging our hacker protagonist on, calling them names, and pushing her agenda forward. It’s no wonder she is such a memorable villain, as her actions push her closer to godhood, with only a pathetic hacker standing in her way. The story and the world stay consistently interesting throughout the game’s twenty-hour run time.

Way to be a benevolent god, SHODAN…

As the hacker works their way through the floors of Citadel Station, there are tons of horrors thrown at them. To combat these enemies, the player must find cyber hardware to assist in their journey. There are not many RPG elements in System Shock, and what few there are come in the form of hardware upgrades, offering enhancements such as the ability to move faster, hover, or gain enhanced cybervision. All of the upgrades are missable if players do not fully explore each floor, but finding them is worth it given how helpful a lot of them are. Mapping out each floor becomes essential for progress, though the map itself can sometimes be difficult to interpret, even in 3D. Since the story is also non-linear, there is a lot of backtracking through floors as more information is uncovered.

Though backtracking is important, it can be frustrating. The game is often not direct with the player, and there is a large amount of missable information. Since important information is relayed via audio logs or emails, it’s important to comb every floor meticulously. The downside of this is how tedious the process of finding information is. Codes to unlock doors or operate reactors are not stored anywhere for the player to refer to and are randomly generated in every playthrough, meaning players will have to manually keep track of them. Worse, there is also no way to access any tutorial information, so if a player misses that information for whatever reason, there’s no way to refer back.

Since System Shock is a shooter, it’s important to note that precision and accuracy are real challenges with the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller. Given how often the player will be rushed by enemies, having precision shooting and dodging would be helpful, but the gunplay is very stiff and the reticle is quite small. Players also have to experiment with what ammo types work on which enemies until they find the targeting upgrade that provides said information, which leads to a lot of wasted ammo. Some weapons use cybernetic energy instead of bullets, which is at least far easier to replenish.

Hack the Citadel!

A unique element in System Shock comes in the form of a hacking mini-game. Players launch into cyberspace and participate in a 3D flight simulator wherein they must shoot viruses and other disruptive entities to destroy a core that will unlock new areas. As players make progress around Citadel Station, they are given new abilities to use in cyberspace, like a drill that can penetrate armored enemies, or turbo speed which allows for better dodge mobility. It’s a fun shooter wherein players must protect their data integrity or be kicked out of cyberspace. Every cyberspace terminal in the game is mandatory, and the difficulty increases with each one the player finds. Once players manage to successfully find the core in cyberspace, even dying due to loss of data integrity will not reset the progress made. A caveat that comes with playing this minigame, however, is that it is vertigo-inducing, and those prone to motion sickness should take extra care.

The overall UI and item management could have used extra care in this game. The interface when interacting with maps, implants, and items is clunky on PlayStation 5. It’s clear this game was originally developed for PC, where it would be easy to toggle implants on or off; meanwhile, console players must drag their cursor over to it and press X to ensure the implant is working. It’s also not easy to rotate items on the weapons panel, and items must be dragged to the panel manually to equip them, rather than just a simple click. On numerous occasions, items didn’t stay equipped in the weapons bar and would revert to the previous weapon. Swapping weapons mid-combat is also cumbersome as there’s no way to cycle to the next weapon in one’s arsenal with ease. Given how stiff the shooting already is using the controller, having a dedicated weapon toggle button would have been a big help.

It needs to be stressed to anyone picking up System Shock that this is a difficult game, regardless of what settings the player begins with. Easy is only easy in comparison to the other options and still offers a tough challenge, as players will still find themselves having to deal with multiple situations of respawned enemies or multiple hazards that can impede progress. As important as exploration is, the game is also not kind to those who wish to explore, as poking around different areas can often lead to more surprise enemies. It’s important to realize when playing System Shock that death is a normal occurrence, and that while one doesn’t lose progress made when killed, the formula of explore, die, lather, rinse, repeat can get frustrating and downright tiring. The game feels unbalanced even on the lower difficulties, and while it’s natural that the appeal would be directed at veterans of the series, it is completely unwelcoming to those with a lesser background who want a fun cyberpunk story to romp through.

Hasta la vista, baby.

Visually, Nightdive has done a great job of rendering this classic game in a more modern 3D shell. There’s excellent use of colour, and enemies look and feel more hideous — in the best possible way — than their 1994 counterparts. There is a lot of attention paid to detail in the environments: whether it’s blood splatter on the walls or displaced debris, Citadel Station looks lived in, and the visuals do a great job of enhancing the horror elements in the story, creating an uncomfortable and even claustrophobic experience. Where the visuals lack is as the player gets closer to an object, there is a lot of pixelization. From afar they are great, but when up close the lack of refinement becomes clear.

In terms of sound, there is not a lot of music, but what is there is quite good. Often, music is reserved for moments of intense stress or combat sequences, but having absolutely no ambient music during exploration feels like a missed opportunity. That being said, the voice acting is wonderful, as many of the actors in the audio logs come across as desperate and frightened by what has occurred at Citadel Station. The true standout, of course, is SHODAN, voiced by Terri Brosius. Brosius does a fantastic job of bringing this evil, monstrous computer AI to life, and having her voice follow the player throughout the game truly adds to the cat-and-mouse chase that she and the hacker are playing.

On one hand, I am happy I finally got the chance to play System Shock, but the experience I had was mixed overall. While the storytelling, world-building, and environments were interesting and engaging, its gunplay, awkward UI, and unbalanced difficulty make the game hard to recommend outside of those who have already experienced it before. This remake retains a lot of old-school design choices but dresses them up in a new 3D outer shell, meaning it’s still the same game from 1994, for better or worse. Those who love challenging gameplay and don’t mind some stiff gunplay will find a lot to like here, but for first-timers, this game is not newcomer-friendly, and you’re better off tracking down a copy of Prey or BioShock which do a better job of being more inviting story-driven shooter experiences.

Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.

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'Average' -- 3.0/5

Interesting cyberpunk-noir narrative

SHODAN is a compelling villain

Excellent voice acting

Awkward UI

Unbalanced challenge

You will die... a lot

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1 Response

  1. Stannis Stannis says:

    I can’t wait to play this game!

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