System Shock Enhanced: Source Port Report

System Shock Enhanced: Source Port Report

Stand against SHODAN once more.
Source Port Report: System Shock Enhanced is now available on the Kex engine… and it’s good.

Non-linear and explorative games are a mortal weakness of mine. I’ve always had a deep love for games that encourage me to immerse myself head-first into danger-fraught digital worlds, overcoming their challenges and uncovering their many secrets. Today, we’ll be taking a few minutes to examine an old favorite of mine – 1994’s System Shock – as well as examine the brand new source port from Nightdive Studios. Does the game stand on its own after all this time, or does it trip over its own grandfatherly whiskers? Does the source port itself stack up? Well, let’s dig right into this System Shock Enhanced source port report. You can also find the video version of this report on the 2 Headed Hero YouTube channel. 

System Shock has gone through many iterations over the years since it was first released on an excessive amount of 3.5” floppy disks. For decades, the later 1996 DOS CD-ROM version was generally considered to be the game’s final word, if only for the fact that it included fully voiced lines from the game’s iconic antagonist: the corrupted rogue AI known as SHODAN.

The game begins with a brief cutscene explaining the player’s role as a down on his luck hacker that got caught with his fingers in the wrong company’s cookie jar. After cutting a deal for a new cybernetic implant in exchange for removing a new AI’s moral constraints, the hacker wakes in Saturn’s orbit, stepping out of Citadel Station’s healing chamber after a six month coma. And something… has gone horribly wrong.

I spent long afternoons with this particular version of System Shock on my parents’ old Acer 486, battling SHODAN as a tiny gamer-in-training, and while my time on Citadel Station was completely overshadowed when System Shock 2 was released a few years later, I always looked back fondly on the original game’s isolating atmosphere, claustrophobic interiors, complex interface, and environmental storytelling – even despite my uphill fights with its arcane control scheme and repeatedly getting lost in its spaghetti-dungeon map design.

All that changed when Nightdive Studios exhumed the game from its musty tomb, releasing an Enhanced Edition in 2015 that bumped up the game’s resolution and added some modern-day control features such as  -gasp! Mouselook! – allowing the game a chance to dip a toe into more modern audiences. Shortly on the heels of this release was a much more exciting announcement from Nightdive: a System Shock remake was now in development.

While the remake’s progress was initially hindered by feature creep and engine changes, Nightdive has since reported they are back on track and the new face of System Shock is now being slated for a 2020 release date. I was also pleasantly surprised that with a little bit of Google-fu and Steam console shenanigans, it’s still possible to play the promising pre-alpha Unity demo for gamers that want a small taste of what a remake could become.

As icing on the cake, Nightdive has also just released a full source port of System Shock Enhanced, using their own in-house Kex engine, to keep avid System Shock fans busy during the wait.

After all this time, I was concerned about the game’s ability to stand tall with its more refined progeny in the immersive sim category, and overall I must say that Nightdive’s source port makes an admirable effort to modernize the game. Borderless fullscreen, field of view options,  and a bevy of resolution options are now available, along with completely customizable controls and Steam Achievements. Last but not least, Nightdive has also added fan mod support. This means that in addition to any other fan mods out there, you can also play the superb campaign mod System Shock ReWired, which has already been updated to support the new source port, and stretch out the game’s value even further.

A simple toggle keybind allows the cursor to traverse the complex user interface or instantly snap to the center of the view.  While this does improve the gameplay significantly from its former Goldeneye-style floaty reticule shooting by allowing the player to run, gun, and strafe through Citadel Station’s corridors, items like grenades and medkits can still pose a challenge in the heat of the moment. The inventory management sometimes causes the player to frantically shuffle through long text menus in real time while cyborgs continue to blast away, making you feel like a sitting duck. This is somewhat mitigated with the use of extensive keybinding, but while bringing to mind an image of The Hacker frantically looking through bags and belts for another magazine or medpatch might be seen as immersive, most players will likely find the user interface to be a nuisance – no convenient radial menus are to be found here.

The original System Shock was developed in that strange gaming grey zone when this style of first person 3D movement was still in its infancy, and its prehistoric roots tend to poke through from time to time. The halls of Citadel Station are still just as disorienting and dark as they were at the game’s first release, so be prepared to spend some time wandering. Puzzle solutions can take place across multiple floors of the expansive station, requiring a large amount of backtracking. Other solutions are much less obvious, obtained by scrutinizing the various diaries of the dead Citadel Station staff with a watchful eye. Enemies also ambush without warning, spawn in constantly, and take somewhat inconsistent amounts of punishment. Old-school design is in full effect here, and System Shock doesn’t shy away from bloodying the player’s nose rather than holding their hand.

The game’s physics are also rather wonky, for lack of a better word. Movement controls feel a bit slippery, and The Hacker tends to slightly roll to a stop like a truck with bad brakes. Grenades and other thrown objects don’t always seem to go where you’d expect, and moving enemies retain a slight amount of momentum even after death. It’s not a huge issue, but it takes some getting used to.

On the flipside, there’s a lot that System Shock gets right. One thing that hasn’t changed in the game is the robust difficulty selection, which is one of the most customizable I’ve seen – even including present day releases. Starting a game allows you to choose the difficulty of enemies, puzzles, cyberspace, and even plot complexity on a four point scale. The survival horror aspects of the game truly shine as you uncover the fates of Citadel Station’s denizens, and SHODAN’s taunts, trick, and traps  give the game an even more gripping sense of tension. The game also has a fascinating approach to its soundtrack, which adapts to the player’s actions and situations by layering different themes with increasing levels of urgency depending on what’s happening onscreen.

The arsenal is simply staggering, with a bevy of ballistic and beam weapons hidden throughout the game’s mazelike corridors. Many of the weapons have multiple ammunition types that affect different enemies in different ways, and all of the beam weapons have power settings, allowing The Hacker to balance damage output with weapon heat and energy usage. There’s also a wide selection of grenades and explosives available, so players have a lot of freedom in their approaches to combat. Given the frequency of the fighting within System Shock, that’s a good thing.

Puzzles are scattered throughout Citadel Station. The simplest of these are keypad coded doors, but they often upscale in complexity – rewiring circuits or even navigating Cyberspace are common crucial elements. Hacking Cyberspace takes the form of a sort of flying shooter minigame that allows six degrees of movement, and rewards the player by providing additional clues or opening new paths in real space. The Cyberspace areas and items are all represented by wireframes or simple polygon shapes, which can be somewhat disorienting, but often the paths you can take are fairly linear and obvious.

The System Shock Enhanced source port is overall a good experience for gamers that love exploration, survival horror, and environmental storytelling, and Nightdive has done a pretty good job in making it more playable. Over my time spent with the source port, I only saw a couple clipping bugs where a camera was stuck in the geometry, and the game looks much better and runs much smoother than the original version.  I was once again sucked back into its cyberpunk tale within minutes of orienting myself, and before I knew it several hours had passed. I give System Shock Enhanced a vigorous nod of my noodle, and would definitely encourage immersive sim fans to check out this excellent version of one of the genre’s granddaddies.

You can purchase System Shock Enhanced, which includes the glorious source port update, from Steam – or DRM-free from GOG – for $9.99.

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Bawss Sawss, sauce aficionado, gamer, writer, music performer/composer, and one head of the 2 Headed Hero, can be reached on TwitterInstagram, or Facebook.
Rollinkunz, illustrator, gamer, writer, boardgame designer, and other half of the 2 Headed Hero, can also be reached on TwitterInstagram, or Facebook.


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