Another week, another remake in 2023. It’s certainly been an interesting year for bringing back our favourites.
As such, the competition is fierce this year. Look at how good Dead Space was and Resident Evil 4. But there is an argument to be made that neither game really needed that level of treatment right now.
Dead Space plays very much like it did back in 2017. From Isaac’s stamps to the use of the Plasma Cutter to sever limbs. The original doesn’t even look that bad by today’s standards. And prior to this years’ awesome remake, Resident Evil 4 recently got ported to Switch and Meta Quest, following a spate of HD re-releases on other formats.
While I am very glad both remakes exist, I think it’s fairer to say a game like System Shock, which has a very relevant story to tell, an intriguing world to explore, sinister antagonist at your heel and smart ideas that haven’t really been explored for a while is more overdue.
Back in the later 80s/early 90s, while DOOM and ID Software were dominating the shooter part of the genre, there were a series of first-person adventures that tried to do things a bit differently. Games like Ultima Underworld, Lands of Lore and a little game called System Shock.
They had the familiar tropes where you still used weapons, but rather than run around, kill everything and get a key card, there were further layers to unpack, like an inventory management system, parties of characters, and more of a narrative focus.
System Shock took things another step further, though, by adding an additional reality into the game, which definitely had Lawnmower Man vibes, which leaned a little bit into the likes of Descent and Mechwarrior.
Basically, this was a game well ahead of its time. And it became something of a cult classic and even spawned a sequel, though it never achieved the level of notoriety of others in the genre.
Cue 2023 and a reboot of this sci-fi adventure. It’s been such a long time coming but here’s the best part – Nightdive Studios have not only kept it authentic, bringing us right back to where we left off with the game with a suitable retro aesthetic – they’ve even brought back back the original voice actor of SHODAN – they’ve also modernised it and made it even more involved and interesting.
Let’s put it this way, taking a game like System Shock and implementing a modern-day style is tough. But Nightdive have not only achieved it, they’ve given us one of the better remakes we’ve seen in recent years.
The style has this focus on vibrant neon lighting, enemies with a pixellated exterior, weapons with a suitable sci-fi vibe and a ton of things to pick up and collect, some worthwhile, some borderline pointless.
As you move through the games tight corridors, not sure what you’re about to bump into, you’ll have to keep one eye on your health and bullets, as this game is hardcore. It’s about survival and taking it slowly, otherwise you’ll plunge headfirst into a trap or get picked off by snipers.
Because it’s not just the mindless enemies roving around you’ll have to worry about, but the biggest, most intimidating of them all – SHODAN. This antagonist is as brutally brilliant as she’s ever been, gatekeeping floors, enhancing security, belittling you for every bit of progress you make. This might be the most intimidating, most enjoyable opponent we’ve pitted ourselves against in years. And fans will be pleased to know, she’s not changed a single bit.
That’s why this game has been crying out for and desperate for a remake because the source material is more relevant today than it’s ever been. You’re fighting an entire space station and not just its denizens and rogue robots, but the entire system is fighting against you by removing bridges from underneath you while you’re running across, and locking you in rooms filled with enemies and environmental hazards or blocking your access in some other way.
It’s just brilliant, and is helped by a supporting cast of dead crewmates – very similar to Prey – who have audio logs that give you hints and tips on how to make progress. Sometimes they’ll provide combinations to a locked door, or tell you the way to go. Even give you clues about how to progress through each floor and unlock the next.
See, SHODAN is spying on you through security cameras and is using nodes to block access to certain key areas. You need to destroy the hidden cameras on each floor to reduce the security threat to nothing before you can progress. You can also enter the AI itself, navigating a mini virtual reality-like maze where you glide around, shooting at defensive bots, and eventually unlock new areas in the game.
But jumping back a bit, this game is hardcore and its difficulty spike might be a bit of a sticking point for some, even on the lowest difficulties. System Shock was never an easy game to get into and this pays homage to that in every which way. Your inventory slots are limited, ammo is scarce and enemies can snipe at you from areas you’re not immediately able to reach or swing wildly at you right in your face.
Combat is definitely an intense affair throughout. Guns definitely hit hard but if you’re relying on a wrench mid-game … don’t. As such, stealth can be your friend here and there’s plenty of hatches, corridors, and vents you can sneak through to avoid the onslaughts. Although, of course, there’s going to be times where you have to get your hands dirty.
This is where the remake shines as much of the combat in the original game felt ropey, with enemies stunted and weapon effectiveness limited. Before, it felt like you might use one or two weapons, whereas now your entire arsenal is at play and beneficial.
Unfortunately, the game does have some performance issues with stuttering and screen tearing at times. Also, as it is a faithful recreation of a classic game, you’ll find yourself retreading a lot of familiar ground as you gradually open up the floor, so backtracking is definitely prevalent. And as mentioned, the difficulty curve is sharp, so you’ll go from 0 to 100 pretty quickly and have to try and navigate your own way around without the game giving to much away.
I also found the default use of the controller and overall button mapping to be a bit unintuitive with the right stick slowly wading through the inventory, using a drag and drop feature. I imagine this will improve when the game eventually comes to consoles, but for now it definitely feels a bit rough.
For me, many of the things mentioned above aren’t issues, though I know they will be for others. I grew up with the originals and have played a lot of the classics. This is a massive upgrade and is a great example of how a remake can not only introduce a game to new audiences but actually improve the overall product by using smarter, more balanced and refined systems.
I know many people have been calling out for a Prey 2 as they loved Arkane’s take on the franchise a few years back. This isn’t that, but it’s close and it may just scratch an itch for players who’ve been wanting a new sci-fi horror to sink their teeth into. For others, this is a moment we’ve waited years for. A chance for more people to see this game for what it is and appreciate what it has to offer. This is System Shock at its brutal, brilliant best.
System Shock is a great example of a remake done right. This betters the original release with improved combat, visuals, handling and writing, while maintaining the key source material, making sure SHODAN is as sinister as ever, that you never know what to find around every corner, and every inch of the environment is used to the full. Some performance problems and configurations restrict this a bit, and the difficulty will definitely be off-putting for others, even on the lowest settings, but this is every bit the game we hoped it would be, and a reminder of just how good and ahead of its time the original really was.
+ Tense, atmospheric setting with a wonderful retro aesthetic
+ Good story-telling and effective use of the environment to keep things well-placed and balanced
+ Combat and gameplay flow is brilliant.
+ SHODAN is still one of gaming’s greatest antagonists
– Some performance problems hold the game back
– Difficulty and limited handholding might be offputting for some players
System Shock is out now on PC. Coming soon to consoles.
Code Kindly Provided by Plaion and Prime Matter for review purposes
Played on PC