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Another shock to the system


By D. Ian Hopper
CNN Interactive Technology Editor

September 24, 1999
Web posted at: 1:46 p.m. EDT (1746 GMT)

CNN -- Looking Glass Technologies has a way of taking a genre and turning it on its ear. Last year they released "Thief: The Dark Project," which had all the signs of a great first-person shooter, except that it wasn't a shooter at all. Looking Glass referred to it as a "first-person sneaker", since it stressed the need to stay quiet and out of sight. This was compounded by the fact that the hero, Garrett, was a feeble swordsman and was much better at sticking to the shadows.

Even before Thief, Looking Glass made "System Shock," a game popular with critics but only lukewarm with buyers. Its biggest fault was that it was too deep, merging RPG, action and adventure elements into a single experience. Nevertheless, it pushed the first-person genre into creating the sorts of immersive experiences that would later be found in games like Valve's "Half-Life."

Now, Looking Glass has returned with "System Shock 2." Rather than dumbing-down the sequel by removing elements, SS2 has even more depth, with a detailed storyline that plays out like a film as well as all the basics of first-person gaming goodness.

In the original "System Shock," your character battled against SHODAN, a computer with a huge God complex and completely out of control. Despite attempts to contain another such incident, SHODAN returns in SS2, along with a new race known as The Many (think a cross between Starcraft's Zerg and the Borg from Star Trek.) After an expedition to test a new faster-than-light ship, the explorers try to make contact with a planet. Everything after that is a blur, as the player's character wakes up amid the ruins of the ship, with the entire crew dead. This is also a convenient excuse to make the ship deserted and spooky, in which the game is a rousing success.

Unlike most first-person games in which character generation and development ends with how big the player's weapon is, SS2 goes to great lengths to give the character detail. First, the player chooses which service to join: Navy, Marines or OSA, a shadowy group that uses psionic powers. This provides the same built-in replayability that was evident in Sierra's Hero's Quest; after finishing the game, play two more times with the other services.

Before starting the game, the player gets to put his character through different tours of duty on other starships. While there's not much interaction here, the choices affect what skills are gained through the experience.

There are basic RPG-like statistics such as strength and dexterity that can influence many different actions, from how hard the player swings a wrench to how fast he can run. Then there are separate stats for specific skills like computer hacking, heavy weapons or maintenance. The player can increase his skills by finding or being given "cyber modules" and spending them at kiosks designed for the purpose. It may not be as elegant as gaining more skill through practical experience, but it does the job with the included excuse that the player has cybernetic devices stuck in his head, and a skill increase is as simple as a software upgrade.

This character management inserts a need for strategy into the game, as well as allows the player to mold his character to fit his playing style. As with most games of this kind, it's can be dangerous either to bulk up in one category while ignoring others, or being skilled in many things but expert in nothing.

A keen sense of strategy, as well as the old mantra of "save early, save often," is necessary in SS2. The game is quite difficult, perhaps too difficult for first-person neophytes. Ammunition is very scarce and the respawning monsters are all tough. The player can't afford to take any being lightly, not even the little energy-ball shooting monkeys.

Energy-ball shooting monkeys aren't the only adversaries, but they do look the best. The hybrids, zombie-like creatures wielding firearms or a melee weapon, have the same stilted and boxy look as the people in Thief. Granted, "System Shock 2" is based on the Thief engine, and zombies are pretty stilted, but these expressionless creatures could be rendered much better.

What brings them, and the rest of the haunting denizens of SS2, to life is the sounds and environment. The game music and effects are great, especially with a 3D sound card (SS2 supports Creative's Environmental Audio). The music plays up during combat, increasing the terror, and sounds ominous while traveling down a deserted corridor. The ships are built very well, with lots of environmental interactivity and "Half-Life"-like scripted sequences.

There were two nagging faults during my experience with SS2, but one has since been fixed. Out of the box, SS2 has no multiplayer capability. However, Looking Glass has released a patch that enables cooperative multiplayer gaming. The patch also includes a way to adjust variables so that the game is a little easier. Also, the process of hacking was tedious and simple. While a fundamental part of the game, computer hacking consisted of luck in pressing buttons randomly. If it wasn't going well, you could always start the attempt over again. While a failed hack results in destruction of the equipment or tripping the security alarm, that never occurred even once for me. Hacking should require some skill on the part of the player, perhaps similar to wiretapping in MicroProse's old game "Covert Action," where the player had to follow wire trails to figure out which switches to hit.

But even with those problems, "System Shock 2" succeeds in being deeper, scarier and more engrossing than the vaunted "Half-Life." While not as strong in the AI category, SS2 offers a little RPG, a little adventure, and a lot of action to make it a singular - and very satisfying - gaming experience.

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Looking Glass Studios' Home Page
Creative Labs' Environmental Audio
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