Go to Reviews.org US Edition
System Shock (remake) review
A faithful-to-a-fault recreation of a 1994 game that prioritises old-school purists over game-design advancements in the last 30 years.
Reviewed on an Nvidia GeForce RTX 4080-powered PC
I’m shocked to admit that my first “Shock” game was BioShock. And I absolutely adored it. Long before I was enraptured by Rapture, I discovered I wasn’t just a first-person shooter fan when Deus Ex broke my brain. Confronted with a simple locked door, I was blown away by my options: steal a keycard to open it, hack it with one of my abilities, or use an explosive to permanently open it albeit in a very loud way.
Later on in the game, when I had the choice to kill or spare a villainous character, I created an all-caps ‘BIG CHOICE HERE’ manual save, then played the game from the two possible choices, like some sort of fracturing of the multiverse. Needless to say, I was hooked. But I also regretted having never played BioShock developer’s precursor, System Shock 2 and, by extension, the original System Shock.
So I jumped at the opportunity to right that wrong with the long-gestation-but-finally-here System Shock remake. And the last word of that sentence is where the disclaimers already begin. Originally announced as System Shock Remastered, the System Shock Kickstarter page (from 2016) calls it “a complete remake of the genre defining classic from 1994”. Like the controversy with the PS5’s The Last of Us Part I, System Shock is technically a remake—in the very literal definition of “technically”: it’s being remade in a new engine—but, more importantly for the everyday understanding of the terms, it plays like a remaster.
For those unaware, remasters tend to only offer boosted eye candy for modern gaming platforms. Remakes, on the other hand, offer the pretty but also make gameplay changes and/or additions (just look at the 2023 remake of Dead Space). If you’re a fan of System Shock from 1994, the chances are good that you’re going to love the infinitely prettier version from 2023. But if you’re not a fan of the original game, you’re likely going to struggle with System Shock.
System Shock lets you tinker between four difficulty options: combat, mission, cyber and puzzles. By default, it’s toggled to the middle for all four options (normal), which is what I went with. I’d soon realise that was a mistake. Such is System Shock’s slavish devotion to the 1994 game that there is no handholding on normal mission difficulty. And by “handholding” I mean no mission objectives (markers or lists), no tutorials or reminders for critical gameplay elements, and none of those many quality-of-life features that respect the reality that gamers shouldn’t be expected to play with a notepad next to them.
Because that’s basically what you need to get through System Shock. The first impressions are great, mind you, from the gorgeous new-meets-old art design and immersive sound to the simple setup that bonds plight and protagonist. You play as a hacker who’s given an offer they can’t refuse, which means stripping the ethical parameters from a rather powerful AI. As you might imagine, that doesn’t go too well, and you wake up in the medical bay in the aftermath of an AI gone very, very rogue.
I’d read that System Shock wasn’t just an immersive sim but the immersive sim, which was a mistake of expectations on my part. It’s closer to survival horror, at least initially, with a healthy dose of inventory manage and seemingly finite resources. Bearing in mind that the game teaches you next to nothing, I slowly got to grips with the compelling loop of Citadel Station’s initial levels.
Basically, as you explore, you fill out a map, discover critical items and listen to audio logs not just to figure out what terrible things have happened but also to discover critical information. This includes main objectives. If you mistakenly only half listen to an audio log—erroneously believing it to be one of the many backstory or antagonist-taunting-you ones—it may be telling you what you need to do.
That wouldn’t be so bad if you could easily find relevant logs without having to scroll through screens of them. Worse is that you’re a hacker with access to augmented powers, the initial ones being simple inclusions like a minimap (good) and something to track your vitals (bad, given you have a fixed health meter in the top of the screen). In the future, there’s seemingly no digital notepad option to automatically create notes of critical items or something that at least lets the player do it in-game.
The result is that you start fervently paying attention to everything, but it ultimately amounts to having to remember too much. Then there’s the cut of other frustrations. While the art design is gorgeous, it’s all too easy to lose critical items sitting next to a plethora of junk. I lost track of the number of times I found key items while backtracking, completely stuck as to where I was supposed to go next.
Getting lost is a big part of System Shock, too. The map and minimap are a handy resource when you haven’t completely explored a level. Once that map starts to fill in, though, it becomes incredibly unhelpful. Sometimes it took me 30 seconds just to locate my player indicator on the map. Other times, I would run around in circles convinced I was heading the right way.
Then there’s the puzzles. I got stuck on the very first one, which was kind of like a more involved version of the hacking pipe puzzles from BioShock. After a breather, I figured it out. Fair enough; that one’s on me. Later on, I found a more intricate version of that puzzle format and haven’t been able to solve it after multiple attempts. It’s tricky to tell whether it’s bugged (there was one component that seems logically off), impossible to solve or whether there’s some item/upgrade I need to do it later because the default version doesn’t appear to work.
There’s another kind of puzzle that involves managing power levels. While I’ve solved multiple versions of this puzzle, I can’t tell you how. Every time I think I have the logic down pat, it doesn’t seem to solve the puzzle. Random clicking ensues and, at some inexplicable point, the puzzle is solved.
The combat isn’t particularly inspired either. AI is typically quite mindless, which is fine when it comes to zombie-like mutants but less convincing when you’re fighting cyborgs or robotic threats. There’s an underlying system of different weapons and ammo types being more effective against particular foes. But I didn’t find a way to track ammo outside of reading text and manually tracking it inside my inventory. Similarly, switching ammo types doesn’t always have an obvious tell for what ammunition you’ve loaded, meaning it’s easy to waste rounds because you didn’t keep track of what mode the weapon is in.
While the shotgun is a great equaliser against many different enemy types, melee combat feels clunky. And with dwindling resources, it feels necessary to hang onto an inventory-hogging melee weapon in case you run out of rounds. Sometimes you’ll die and be terrifyingly turned into a cyborg. With those stations disabled, respawning is unlimited albeit tempered by the reality that baddies are seemingly perpetually respawning, too. Couple this with the reality that sometimes you’re spawned outside of the level you died on, and trekking back can become a life-draining pain.
That actually encapsulates the core issue I have with System Shock on normal difficulty. I’ll get engaged in a gameplay loop intention of exploring Citadel Station only for some time-wasting system to get in my way. That might be okay for players with the patience to sink hours into each level. But for me, my gameplay sessions went from lengthy hours-long stretches to increasingly shrinking periods of minimal engagement before peaking frustration.
If I’d been able to change the difficulty, I would have. But you can’t. The solution then becomes sacrificing the sunk-time fallacy of my frustrated play-through to start again in something that’s hopefully kinder. Maybe I’ll do that someday. Or maybe I’ll continue to play in short bursts to see if I can make it through the game without continually losing my cool. For now, though, all I can do is recommend that first-time players start on easy difficulty (at least for missions) to have a better chance of finishing the game.
So I played a couple more hours of System Shock after writing my review. I bit the bullet and lowered the mission and puzzle difficulty to easy (gamer pride be damned). While the puzzles are noticeably easier, the game still doesn’t teach you their logic on easy. Worse is the reality that easy mission difficulty didn’t appear to change anything, despite the promise of waypoints. Scan as I might, I couldn’t find waypoints on my HUD or on the map. When I started clicking on filters on the map to hide and show items, I encountered a bug that removed every possible marker from the main map, including my player icon. Hopefully the lack of mission objectives and that particular map bug can be ironed out for launch or shortly after. Otherwise, based on my experience, there’s no difference between playing on normal or easy mission difficulty.