Saturday, March 22, 2008

System Shock 2 (1999)

System Shock 2 is highly regarded as one of the greatest PC games of all time and for valid reasons. It is a hybrid of FPS and RPG elements, set on a somewhat non-linear space station, with an engrossing story, deep gameplay, and an all-around high degree of polish.

Here, I am going to do an analysis of what I think could be improved in this game.

Audio Logs
Once again, the audio logs from the first System Shock return. These are little items that you can find on the ground and listen to for various bits of story info, and sometimes vital information needed to progress the game. The game fixes one problem of the last game by deciding to include all the vital information in a NOTES tab, which is nice, meaning I don't have to sift through countless amounts of exposition in order to find the code to unlock this door.
However, there are still two main problems with the audio logs.
1) To serve as a story device - they don't really work. The logs provide bits and pieces of a larger coherent story, and each level you enter is like another chapter, with the logs being paragraphs of that chapter scattered throughout the level you're in. If you pick up the logs out of order, or don't listen to them intently due to fighting several monsters simultaneously, you don't pick up the full expositional benefit of the backstory.
2) There is a serious problem with picking up audio logs while trying to fight bad guys. Nobody wants to listen to people jabbering about their life story while the said player is fighting several mutants, dysfunctional androids, bio-mechanical mech-warriors, and aliens. It's just totally impracticable.

Level Design
Once again the levels are non-linear in this game. I don't have a problem with this--that is, when it's done right. I do have a problem with this when I am presented with two equal paths, I have no map to guide me, and one leads down the dark road to the end, while the other is a short dead end with much needed supplies, and I don't know which way to go.
This wasn't so much of a problem during the main space ship, seeing as how you could easily backtrack and had a map to guide you, but it was a HUGE problem during the end sections, where you had no map, and one wrong turn meant you may have missed a vital section of the game.
I think the correct way to fix this would be to tell the player either:
"All these paths are equal, and they all go the same way or loop back together, so have fun choosing!" (which is basically what the game executed in the space station, but didn't say it)
(OR) slap a dead-end sign on each wrong way so we know which way to go first. I don't want to be second-guessing myself every turn I make. (which would have helped in the end sections, ALOT)

RPG Elements
There are many ways role playing games let the player level up. One would be the way of KOTOR, where you level up after experience, and get several points to spend on new powers. Another would be in Final Fantasy, where the game automatically assigns points at each level up. Another would be in Quest for Glory, where by preforming tasks such as fighting, you unconsciously get better at them.
In System Shock, it's a little different. There are no levels, but you do receive points in order to level up different attributes of your character. However, these points are few and far between, but they can be spent on whatever the player sees fit at any time he can find an upgrade station.
This works for the most part, but I have one main gripe with it.
Using this system, the player can easily unbalance his character on one path if he sees fit, and never encounter any of the other skills of the game such as hacking, or psi-powers. Games like KoTOR let you choose your class and let you predominate it by about 2/3 of your points, letting you barely grasp the other sections of the game. In System Shock, you might never choose those other sections of the game and thus, you never know what you missed. I would've liked it if certain points could only be used on Psi Powers for example, so I wouldn't have to choose between getting force pull and upgrading my hacking skill. Then I would at least get a taste of the other aspects of the game, even if I don't get to go down that road.

Degree of Difficulty (and other nonsense)
System Shock 2--unlike its predecessor--comes with an in-game tutorial that takes about 30 minutes to complete. This is all well and fine, except for the fact that after the game starts, throughout the first level the game dumps paragraphs after paragraphs of more text information that you need to know in order to figure out what you are doing and how to play the game. I don't want to walk around each corner and then read another page of text explaining the game mechanics. It's boring!
The difficulty curve is once again somewhat odd. The first parts of the game are immediately challenging, where every swing of the wrench and every damage point taken is carefully observed. Then once you get more powerful weapons like LAZER SWORDZ the game becomes much easier until you run into the final stages where health, ammo, and energy is limited. So, I saved up tons of supplies for the final boss fight(s) which to my surprise, ended easily and quickly, with me still carrying truckloads of leftover supplies. I was then rewarded with a short cut-scene telling me I somehow won the game.
Which brings me to another nuisance I encountered in the game: the game lets you carry around "implants" which slowly drain energy (it's like health, but another meter). This is directly linked to the problem of having a limited inventory, since when one of my implants ran out (after about 10 minutes), I lost 3 inventory slots, and my much needed supplies with it. This made me play as if I was on a timer the whole time, as I had to hurry to complete each objective otherwise I would lose inventory items due to my implants failing.
I actually like restricted inventory screens when it's reasonable (see Resident Evil 4), but when my inventory capacity runs on a timer, and there are countless objects around that would double my inventory if I could pick them up (and I wanted to), the restricted inventory just becomes a nuisance.

In conclusion, System Shock 2 is once again a really, really, complex game. It's probably impossible to access all the gameplay functions in one run, since the game limits you to your class choice and then some. Because of this, you won't be able to acquire all the skills, or pick up all the weapons you find, or use everything you researched throughout the course of the game.
Still, despite its problems, System Shock 2 is a great game, and ultimately worthy of being called a "classic."

System Shock 2:

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