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Side Quests: System Shock (2023) Review

Brian Armstrong Posted:
Reviews Side Quests 0

I came late to the original System Shock after playing System Shock 2, a game that completely upended my understanding of what video games could be. With a blend of genres and some next-level cybernetic implant options, System Shock 2 felt like the sci-fi game I never knew I wanted. So going back in time to play the original System Shock, which I’d heard so many good things about by then, felt like a letdown. The second game improved upon everything in many ways, making it awkward at best to try to go back and play the original. But with System Shock completely remade by Nightdive Studios, the incredible world of Citadel Station is back and better than ever.

The remake is a faithful recreation of the original game, with updated graphics and gameplay mechanics that cater to the modern-day gamer. It’s not perfect, and in many ways feels stuck in time. But fans of sci-fi, cyberpunk, and space horror have plenty of reasons to be excited about this remake.

The game opens with a drone flying around a futuristic cyberpunk city before it finally slows and zooms in on you. You play as a hacker and immediately get caught in the act of… hacking. And while the security forces burst through your door and look ready to rough you up and lock you away forever, you’re given an opportunity to get your life back - at the expense of hacking Citadel Station’s Sentient Hyper-Optimised Data Access Network (SHODAN). In a plot that feels pulled from The Expanse and our world’s current foray into artificial intelligence, Citadel Station chief Edward Diego had you hack SHODAN to remove the ethical subroutines so he could manufacture and sell a mutagen virus on the black market. 

You wake up an unknown amount of time later aboard the Citadel Station with signs that something went wrong during your slumber. Alarms are blaring, you discover messages that talk of mutated humans murdering everyone on the ship, and you quickly discover that with its ethical subroutines removed, SHODAN has taken control of the station entirely. With humorous and terrifying quips that surely inspired the likes of GLaDOS, SHODAN makes it clear very early on that you are not welcome. You’ll have to attack the station’s network of cameras and power nodes to wear it down. 

System Shock Remake

There are puzzles aplenty to solve, including finding codes for doors, reconnecting wires to get power surging back the right way, and even entering a cyberspace network to unlock doors or access data. They range anywhere from incredibly simple to mind-numbingly difficult, although that probably depends on the player. I wouldn’t characterize myself as a strong puzzle solver, so I was banging my head on my desk more than you probably will. Still, there’s significant challenge here, and it’s not just a simple run ‘n gun romp through a space station. 

This is the definitive way to play System Shock now. The controls are smooth and intuitive (and thankfully much more modern), making the game more accessible than the original. The combat has also been improved, with a wider variety of weapons and enemies that keep the game engaging and challenging. 

System Shock Remake

One of the most welcome improvements is a modernized inventory system. In the original, inventory management was a tedious task that took away from the experience. In the remake, the inventory is cleaned up, and players can quickly swap weapons and items without having to pause the game. It feels a bit more like Half-Life than System Shock in that regard.

System Shock works on several gameplay levels. You can plow through the game in around 6-7 hours if you’re not the exploring type. But those that do will discover new and better weapons, hidden rooms filled with helpful gear and health supplies, and multiple ways to accomplish tasks. And speaking of health supplies, you’re going to need a lot. Ammo is sparse, and enemies hit hard. So make sure you grab anything and everything that will give you even one bar of health back. I died many times early on because I underestimated the strength of the early-game enemies. It’s unforgiving, but you learn as you go. 

While the puzzles are not overly complicated in most cases, if you approach this game as a typical shooter, you will likely find yourself frustrated. This is a game that leans into the beautifully terrifying nature of being stuck in space, so you won’t be able to solve all your problems with weapons. You’ll be doing some backtracking and facepalming your forehead when you finally see that one button you ran past 15 times without noticing. The pace of System Shock is slow, and you’re better off leaning into that. If you take the time to think through and solve the puzzles and explore the entire station, you’ll be rewarded by discovering some satisfying secrets and story elements. 

System Shock Remake

One aspect of the game that could be better is the combat. While it’s been updated to feel like combat from any modern shooter, your melee attacks feel lackluster and ineffective. And considering the lack of ammo onboard, you’ll want to use those melee attacks as much as possible. The dull thud of my pipe or wrench smacking into a mutant made me unsure if I was actually making contact. It’s hard to know exactly how close you need to be to the enemies, even with a tooltip that explains each weapon’s effective range. I found myself getting frustrated after dying to early-game enemies way too often and started cheesing them by running at them, swinging, backing up, rinsing, and repeating. 

The gunplay is quite good. Pistols have a visible impact on your enemies, energy weapons disable and knock back robots and electrical equipment, and shotguns completely blow away mutants who make the unfortunate mistake of jumping right out right in front of you. But again, ammo is hard to come by, so if you only rely on guns, you’ll be in trouble as you get deeper into the game. I wouldn’t want Nightdive Studios to change the limited nature of ammo, but when your only other option is a melee weapon that feels like more trouble than it's worth, it can be frustrating. 

The game is pretty to look at, but only if you don’t look too close. It’s hard not to notice the blocky textures on the station’s control panels and lumpy piles of blood and guts on the floor. I kept thinking to myself that it felt like I was playing a 2010 game. But considering it's a remake with more work on the System Shock franchise already in development, I’m willing to overlook this a little bit. I’m playing on PC using an Nvidia 2080 RTX graphics card, which is now around 5 years old, with graphic options all set to Ultra, and am easily able to surpass my monitor’s refresh rate of 144 Hz. I would imagine most PC gamers out there already have a machine that will run the game well. 

System Shock may not be for everyone, but if you played the original and enjoyed it, there is so much here to love. Seeing Citadel Station, SHODAN, and the ship’s enemies come to life like never before was a thrill for me. The updated and more modern visuals and gameplay are more accessible and engaging than ever. And while the combat could use some work, the good news is you can adjust the difficulty to make melee weapons more manageable.

The graphics won’t blow you away and it won’t be making too many “best graphics of the year” lists. But it’s a loving tribute and beautifully recreated edition of a much-beloved classic. There’s a lot to like in this remake, and if this is the building block for what’s to come in the franchise, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

Full Disclosure: This title was reviewed using a pre-release code provided by PR for this purpose. Reviewed on PC.

  • Beautiful remake of a beloved classic
  • Plays really well on keyboard and mouse
  • Achieving high frame rates should be easy
  • Satisfying, modern gunplay
  • Story unfolds in a natural, compelling way
  • Overall graphics feel very dated, including textures that can be distracting
  • Melee combat feels lackluster overall


Brian Armstrong