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The RPG Files: Hands-On with the System Shock Remake Demo

By Christopher Coke on June 30, 2016 | Columns | Comments

Hands-On with the System Shock Remake Demo

Good news, RPG fans! System Shock, one of the most legendary PC action RPGs is getting another shot at greatness with a modern reboot. This week, Night Dive Studios, launched their Kickstarter campaign to fund a complete remake of the game, complete with new assets, new voice over, a brand new score, and all of the polish modern gamers expect in their RPGs. Even better, it came with a free demo to see just what they have in mind. Read on to see what we think.

Before we get into the demo itself, which is quite short, it’s important to look at why the game is notorious enough to earn half a million dollars a single day after the campaign’s launch. If you were like me, the game’s 1994 launch passed you by as you sat glued to the TV watching the latest episode of The Animaniacs. How I wish I had been born a few years earlier, as the game proved to be nothing short of astounding.

To put the original System Shock into context, it launched on MS-DOS the year after the original DOOM, back when 3D environments were still incredibly novel. Having played the original DOOM two years later, I look back now and realize how sheltered I actually was. Where DOOM had you shoot enemies and gather power-ups, System Shock took things to the next level by providing players with a functional inventory, complete with useable weapons and items, audio logs and email entries, all within a fully explorable and lootable, ominous and creepy space station.

The game went on to become a hallmark of influence, rippling throughout both the shooter and roleplaying genres. Pulling from Wikipedia, major gaming outlets and developers credit the game with setting the stage for modern story-based action games as we know them. The first time I had personally heard of System Shock was in an interview with Ken Levine, lead designer on Bioshock, when he explained just how influential System Shock and its sequel were on his games. Warren Spector, the game’s producer, went on to do great work in other series, always carrying the accomplishments of the System Shock high in his mind.

Despite all of this, I came to System Shock’s Kickstarter a complete newbie. If you’d asked me, I would have told you was that it was science fiction and first-person. That’s it. I read the campaign, glossed over a few classic screenshots, and went into the demo with those fresh eyes.

The demo is necessarily threadbare and less than gorgeous in its pre-funded, pre-alpha state, but I was still struck by how modern it felt. We’ve all played Enhanced Editions and “remakes” of games that, despite a fresh coat of paint, don’t at all feel fit for modern gamers. System Shock doesn’t feel that way at all. In fact, if you didn’t tell me I was playing a remake, I would have easily believed I was playing a very early version of a brand new game.

System Shock is being reboot using the Unity Engine, allowing Night Dive to update assets with all the crispness and flair gamers have come to expect. That crispness isn’t present yet but it’s easy to see where they’re going. I’ve since gone back and looked at footage of the original game and, more important than texture quality, they’ve nailed the tone and atmosphere of the game’s early moments.

The game opens onboard a decimated Citadel Station. Upon finding a supply closet with a transmitter, you quickly receive a signal from a counter-terrorism agent informing you that the station has trained its mining laser on Earth and is priming to attack. It’s up to you to reach the crew member who may be able to shut it down.

The demo is short, probably only 15 minutes from start to finish, but those 15 minutes give you a good idea of what to expect. After entering the next room, what I can only describe as a trash can with arms does its level best to slap you to death. Assuming you beat it to death with your trusty lead pipe, you can hop into a special bio chamber to heal. Later, you you can visit a special pylon to zap the living hell out of yourself and recharge your batteries. The demo also gives you a small taste of the game’s mod system, allowing you to add temporary and permanent adjustments to your character.

As you explore, you can loot enemies (fun fact: those trash cans all have human arms inside) and interact with your environment.The demo requires a level of accuracy with the cursor I wasn’t used to. Using a keypad, for example, forces you to click on individual numbers rather than type them using a special interface.

More enemies get thrown at you as you go along, as well a SparqBeam firearm that fires electromagnetic pulses at enemies. Robot enemies, like the aforementioned trash can or creepy spider repair bots are particularly susceptible, but I may have used an entire energy bar before realizing that mutants could care less.

There is a definite sense that exploration will play an important role. Going off the beaten path earned me some extra med patches in one case and extra enemies in another. Small bits of feedback like “you can’t do anything here” or “tiled floor” when you click around the environment really make you feel like you should be exploring everything.

Light and dark also seem like they will be important. It was a relief to find a lightswitch in a darkened hallway when your only alternative is the creepy glow of sci-fi strip lighting or the evil eyes of imminent death.

The demo ends with a sweeping view of Saturn’s rings, outside the first viewport since awaking on Citadel Station. As a newcomer, this was the perfect way to end the experience. After spending those early moments in the cramped and threatening dark, the wide open expanse of space was at once majestic and even more isolating, somehow making the station feel more dangerous than even before.

Needless to say, this is a remake worth watching.

Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.