The first System Shock, released in 1994, tells the story of Citadel Station, a space station owned by the TriOptimum Corporation. Its functions were controlled by an artificial intelligence called SHODAN and the plot revolves around a hacker removing its ethical constraints in order to steal an experimental mutagenic virus. This unexpectedly results in SHODAN commandeering the station and either killing or mutating all of its inhabitants. In the end story, SHODAN is thought to have been destroyed, but upon ejection into space, part of her survives and crash lands on a planet named Tau Ceti 5 where she goes into hibernation.
System Shock 2 takes place forty-two years after these events and TriOptimum is now owned by the Russians who have built an experimental FTL (faster than light) ship call the Von Braun. Escorted by the UNN security ship Rickenbacker, which is able to "piggyback" the larger ship in order to take advantage of the FTL technology, the Von Braun embarks on its maiden voyage to explore a distant solar system. When a fragmented distress call is picked up from the distant Tau Ceti system, as a career officer of the UNN, you are assigned to the investigative team aboard the Von Braun. Due to a malfunction, you are awakened five months later from cryosleep to discover that something has gone horribly wrong.
The game starts with a tutorial segment at the point where you are just beginning your career with the UNN. At this junction, you are given a choice of specialization between three character builds, which will give you a head start on the particular skills suited to the path you choose. I picked the Navy build, but the other two are Marine and OSA agent. The differences between these are explained to you during the tutorial. From here, the game fast forwards you a number of years, narratively filling in how your career is progressing in your chosen field. Main gameplay starts after this period when you wake up aboard the Von Braun. As you explore, you will find logs that are recorded events of what happened aboard the ship while you were sleeping. However, find a safe place to check these or to use your inventory as you can't move in this mode and can be attacked.
System Shock 2 is a cross between a shooter and an RPG, but minus any dialogue options that will change the way the story plays out. You do, however, get to choose a class, decide on inventory items, weapons and on which skills to spend your earned cyber modules. On normal, there are enough of these to get decent upgrades in almost everything except perhaps all of the tier 5 levels. There are various stations throughout the ship where you can perform the upgrades as well as purchase some other items at vending machines. Like many RPGs, you will end up with too much stuff and not enough inventory space, but there are a few safe places where you can dump the extras and still have access to it.
Although the game is basically linear, you can revisit areas until the "point of no return". However, other than the quest reasons to go back, the only incentives to return might be to pick up anything you left behind or to go to the chem rooms for research purposes. Researching is a skill you can upgrade that will provide additional information about certain items and enemies and give you bonus damage. It requires using certain chemicals that are stored in different areas throughout the ship. Upon returning through areas you've cleared, enemies will re-spawn only in certain locations with a few places where you can get mobbed.
Although SS2 is a great game, no game is perfect and it could have been improved slightly with a few adjustments. It is quite hard on normal mode for the first half of the game, but upgrades then make it a bit too easy. I also found the enemies quite sparse in the later levels. Bearing in mind, however, that much could depend on your play-style and character build. Regardless, the assault rifle and the grenade launcher are a bit over-powered. There are also lazer and exotic weapons, which I didn't bother with on this run and therefore cannot really comment on their effectiveness. Armor comes in two types, Standard and Power, which has the best stats, but drains quite quickly. Recharging power equipment requires finding recharge stations or carrying power cells. I tried this for awhile, but found it more bother than it was worth and ditched it. You will also run into toxic areas, and although many advise that you don't need to carry the hazard suit, I found it pretty useful. However, it is a pain taking up so many inventory slots, which I constantly battled with. Eventually, you can purchase a particular Psi power to replace it if you choose. Changing Psi powers is also a bit of a pain as you can't really do it on the fly like weapons, but fortunately, you usually have time to equip these.
The graphics are actually still quite good looking for a game of this age, however, I personally did not care for the music, which sounded much like a broken record playing the same few bars over and over. I found it so distracting that I turned it off.
The game is very re-playable with two other character specializations, so you could try the powers, boosters and weapons that you didn't try the first time around. Oh, and btw, if you've got a thing about spiders, you're probably not going to like parts of this game.
I would place System Shock 2 right up there as one of the best games I've played and would highly recommend it. It's similarly themed to games like Bioshock and Dead Space, which is not surprising considering many of the same devs later worked on these. It's a very atmospheric and often creepy game that you can make all your own by experimenting with different classes, skills and both traditional and untraditional weapons. Finding the right build is what will determine how effective you are in coping with the variety of enemy AIs that are thrown at you.
I think we all love games that feature an heroic protagonist fighting against the evil baddies and that's a story that never grows old. System Shock 2 does many things right leaving a memorable and lasting impression. It has justifiably earned its high regard amongst gamers. I really wish I had time to replay this, but my library backlog calls.UPDATE Aug 2015: The original System Shock has now been released by Night Dive Studios in an enhanced edition. It's available on Gog and the Humble Bundle Store.
Irrational Games was an independent company formed by three developers from Looking Glass Studios. Ironically, the two companies found themselves working together as co-developers for the making of a new game that was to be similar to the first System Shock. At this point, no publisher had been signed, however their focus on following in the footsteps of a highly acclaimed game enticed Electronic Arts to sign on.
During early development, the game was called Junction Point, but EA, who held the rights to the System Shock franchise convinced them to make the game a System Shock sequel. Story changes were made to suit this new direction. Irrational Games attributes major development impact to the engine designed by Looking Glass for Thief: The Dark Project, although the engine itself was not finished at this time and posed problems of its own.
In Jan of 2006, Irrational Games was purchased by Take-Two Interactive and were instrumental in developing Bioshock, a game often referred to as System Shock 2's spiritual successor. In May of 2000, Looking Glass Studios went out of business due to a financial crisis related to their then publisher Eidos Interactive. Many of the employees were able to find work with other studios including Irrational Games.
Rights to the trademark and the game were caught up in legalities until, in 2012, Stephen Kick of Night Dive Studios secured the rights and formed a deal with Gog.com for an exclusive release that works on modern systems. Later, it was also released on Steam.