System Shock, then and now.

The Spoony One | Nov 3 2009 | 

DOSBox is some amazing stuff. The last time I tried to get the old Origin games to run was back in the Win95 days, and that was a jump that pretty much guaranteed you wouldn’t easily be running any of your old DOS games for a while. You had to dual-boot to DOS, and that wasn’t easy because most modern hardware wouldn’t work properly.

But anyway, I’ve been unwinding a bit with my old copy of System Shock. It’s been around ten years since I’ve seriously given it a try, maybe more since I pretty much played System Shock 2 to death, even going so far as modding it and playing nightmarish multiplayer variants. I’ve been making some notes as I’ve been playing, so here’s what I’ve noticed so far:

* The graphics, when turned up to its maximum 640×480 resolution, are still pretty damn impressive when you consider when the game was made. The levels all have a distinct, lived-in look, and generally avoids the samey gray corridors that a lot of sci-fi movies and games have problems with.

* The levels are also refreshingly non-linear in design, with lots of opportunities to explore nooks and crannies of the station that sometimes pay off, sometimes don’t.

* The sound design can be pretty frustrating, though. Even more than I remember. Nothing makes footfall sounds, moans, or anything. If anything, the only sound you hear is a robotic shriek moments before your enemies open fire. You could argue that it fits with the horror aesthetic that you hear nothing until it’s chewing on your torso, but it seems unlikely that you can’t hear huge security robots thunking down the corridors, or enormous clawed mutants bumping into furniture. Ballistic and melee hits lack “punch” and seem distant; there’s no sense that getting hit hurts.

* The controls are again surprisingly innovative for the time, with full control over your posture (any combination of leaning to the side, ducking, or laying prone), but aside from crawling through ducts there’s not much use to the feature. Your reticle accuracy is perfect (in fact, I think there may be some aim assisting going on) so it’s not like kneeling helps your aim or makes you harder to hit. The lack of mouselook, though, means you have to turn using arrow keys and aim with the mouse. This has the effect of making you feel like you’re wheeling around in a tank instead of controlling a person.

* The interface is incredibly intrusive, filling about 75% of the screen with junk that obscures the main view. Even when you switch to the (superior) fullscreen mode, the various HUD elements tend to fill the screen and stay there until dismissed. It can block your view and aim against smaller enemies, and make it annoying to pick up items from the ground.

* The much-maligned cyberspace hacking segments, despite some flaws, still feel like they’re appropriate and necessary in the context of the story. The graphics are primitive, but effective aside from the annoying wireframe maze that makes depth hard to perceive. I think here, once again, the sound design falls apart and ruins a feeling of immersion. Proximity and depth, or at least simple left-right spatial awareness would have been greatly improved with better sound design. Combat lacks presence and impact, and it’s hard to tell if you’re being shot at or even hit until you’ve already died.

* Tranq weapons are useless, unless I’m missing something. Okay, so you’ve stunned the monster, but it’s still there. The tranq will wear off, and if you want to kill it, the first real hit snaps it out of its torpor.

* Mutants sure do love their soda. They all carry a can.