In a different, arguably better world, System Shock would be among the most recognizable game franchises out there. Rather than financing spiritual successors like BioShock and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, perhaps publishers 2K Games and Square Enix would have fought for operational control of SHODAN. But that’s not the world we live in, and we shouldn’t worry ’bout the way things might have been. Instead, it’s better to appreciate what we have in front of us today: A lovingly crafted System Shock remake that pays enough deference to the past to earn its title; presenting just enough modernity to justify your time and attention regardless of your affinity for the 1994 original.
It’s admittedly a little trippy to see Citadel Station in this condition. Wide interlocking corridors built of purposefully blocky materials and sharp angles. An eerily familiar environment awash in a neon glow that subtly conceals the creeping digital death at the heart of the driving conflict. It has been a long time since I played the original System Shock, but perhaps it speaks to the power of this remake that it all feels comfortably familiar – a hidden security key here, a panicked voice log there; and of course “451” still opens the first locked door that you find.
We’re living through a video game remake renaissance right now. Whether it’s Naughty Dog peering through the technological looking glass with The Last of Us Part 1, Capcom driving survival horror innovation through reinventions of iconic Resident Evil games, EA attempting to terrorize a new generation of players with Dead Space, or Nightdive Studios trying to remind an industry of the pioneering nature of this early immersive sim. Video games that are foundational to the way that we play today are being given a second chance to create seismic impact, and that has to be appreciated.
As too does the restraint exhibited by Nightdive in this near-final iteration of the System Shock remake. The studio hasn’t been shy about its development journey, crowdfunding $1.3 million in 2016 only to effectively reboot the project two years later after the team diagnosed that it has deviated too far from the source material. Speaking with GamesRadar+, Nightdive Studios CEO Stephen Kick reflects on System Shock’s six-year journey, and the reason for its delayed release:
“After the Unity demo was released and our Kickstarter was successful, a number of our personnel were acquired, let’s say, by other studios – and that left us in a precarious position. We had to fill some roles that were foundational to what we were trying to achieve, and the team that came on after kind of had their own perspective on what it was we were trying to do.”
“Unfortunately, after a number of years and some feedback from our backers, we decided that really wasn’t the direction that: One, we had promised that we were going to go in; and two, wasn’t something that we could sustain. So that’s what led to the hiatus, so to speak. Which doesn’t mean it was canceled – obviously, we’re here now. But it put a lot of fear into not only our backers, but people who were anticipating the game.”
Back to the beginning
Player-powered gameplay was always the beating heart of System Shock. Its confluence of complex, interlocking systems, subtle storytelling metrics, and malleable artificial intelligence made it feel otherworldly – as if a malevolent force was restructuring a labyrinth one door away from you in real-time. Almost 20 years later, the influence System Shock had on the FPS and RPG genres has been stretched so far it’s almost imperceptible without careful consideration. And that leaves the System Shock remake suspended in a strange sort of (Cyber)space. It’s clearly a lovingly crafted recreation, one that feels fantastic to play, and is more approachable than ever before thanks to a fantastic new inventory system – it’s more than an Unreal Engine 4 rendered skin stapled tightly to decaying bones in a Surgery Machine.
But it doesn’t necessarily recreate the innovative nature of the original, and I wonder whether players fresh into this TriOptimum-engineered hellscape will better understand the legacy of System Shock from playing this remake. Then again, perhaps that’s an impossible task. One that Nightdive itself may have grappled with when debating whether to drastically rewrite the enemy AI, update animation trees, and improve the flexibility of these combat systems to be more in-line with modern standards, before scraping its progress for this more back-to-basics approach. Back to basics. That sounds so dismissive, doesn’t it? Perhaps ‘faithful’ would be more apt. Realistically, I can’t tell you whether you’re going to like the System Shock remake; but I can tell you that I am desperate to restart a haunting, isolating journey into the depths of Citadel Station later this year.