by Mark Aragona
No classic science fiction video game list is complete without one of the most ambitious titles of the 90s: System Shock 2. A sequel to the 1994 hit, SS2 is a deft merging of cyberpunk and horror that also merges two seemingly disparate styles of gaming: role-playing and first-person shooter. Not only is it considered a gaming classic, it’s a precursor to an entire host of first-person shooter games and was considered way ahead of its time.
The story begins in 2114, more than 40 years since the events of the first System Shock. You play as a soldier of the United National Nominate and crewmember of the spaceship Rickenbacker. Your mission: escort the experimental FTL spaceship Von Braun on its maiden voyage. True to its RPG roots, SS2 gives you the choice of enlisting in the marines, the navy, or the psychic-powered OSA. This choice merely lets you choose your specialization, but afterwards you can mix and match your skills and abilities as you see fit.
Your mission starts out quiet and uneventful, until your ship answers a distress call from nearby Tau Ceti V. Instead of bringing back colonists, the would-be rescuers return with a nest of strange eggs—never a good idea. Before long, both the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker fall to a psionic, flesh-feeding parasitic race known as the Many.
You are woken from your cryosleep by the voice of Dr. Janice Polito, who orders you to make your way to Deck 4 on the Von Braun. On the road you encounter a host of horrifying creatures: mutated crewmembers begging to be put out of their misery, murderous security bots, escaped psychic monkeys(!), worm-like parasites, chittering alien spiders, and many other malformed monstrosities. And lest we forget, there are ghosts too.
But the game’s greatest surprise is the return of a former nemesis: SHODAN, the rogue AI from the first System Shock. SHODAN has a bone to pick with the Many, as they turn out to be her wayward creations intent on surpassing her.
System Shock 2’s villains are its story’s most valuable assets. The Many is a chilling alien adversary. True, it’s a mass of science fiction tropes: parasitic nature, mutagenic capabilities, psychic powers, etc. But the game takes things a step further by giving the Many a voice—several, actually, as the alien hive-mind speaks with a host of hypnotic voices that take turns being enticing, threatening, and downright terrifying. The game’s genius is that it makes your adversary seemingly omnipresent, either through biomass seeping the metal walls of the ship, or through invasive psychic messages and hallucinations. It’s always there, watching whatever you do.
Your only ally is also your adversary. SHODAN’s choppy synthetic voice orders you around like an electronic dominatrix, bribing you with enhancements to your cybernetic implants and threatening you with extinction if you subvert her will. And even then, you can’t help feeling that she has an ulterior motive for helping you survive at all.
The gameplay involves not just surviving each level of the ship but also improving your character’s skills. Your abilities include light and heavy weapons, melee, hacking, repair, and psychic powers. Though you may favor one build over the other, you need a good mix if you want to survive. Ammo is scarce and weapons degrade each time you use them, so you have to choose your engagements carefully. Sometimes it pays just to batter your enemy with a wrench (which never breaks) or simply run away.
SS2 isn’t perfect. The weapon degradation system will cause countless moments of panic as your gun breaks down just as you’re facing a charging monstrosity. It’s also entirely possible to abuse certain psionic powers. Nevertheless, System Shock 2 provides a solid gaming experience as you creep through the corridors of a starship, keeping one eye out for your foe’s mutated creations while keeping another on your ammo and health bar.
On one hand, an alien invasion, on the other, renegade AI. In between them is you, your guns, and your wits. System Shock 2 is not just a great mix of science fiction tropes—it’s an exhilirating and terrifying experience.