System Shock review: Old mechanical magic made new again

System Shock review: Old mechanical magic made new again
Images via Nightdive Studios

Written by 

Kiera Mills


29th May 2023 13:00

System Shock is the remake of the original 1994 cult classic, where you play as a silent protagonist hacker, caught on a job, and forced to shut down the sinister AI SHODAN in exchange for your freedom.

The catch is that SHODAN is much more powerful than it may first seem, and in System Shock you must battle your way through a space station blocked with threats before you can take them on.

With updated controls and visuals, the team at Nightdive Studios have managed to make the game feel intuitive as is expected of games of this generation but have kept the nostalgic retro feel of the original.

Enemies are unique and pose plenty of challenge, in service of the shady corporation TriOptimum, but you'll have to deal with some repetitive puzzles to get to the game's finer moments.

GGRecon Verdict

Exploring the dissonance between man and machine is not a new theme, but 29 years on from the original System Shock manages to offer a story that's fresh and engaging, nonetheless.

  • If you fancy picking up the game for yourself, check out our guide to the System Shock PC requirements and see if your PC can handle the game.

Something wicked this way codes

System Shock enemies
Click to enlarge

With AI the talk of the town, it's nice to have a reminder of just how unsettling the idea of can be. 

As fan service goes, this is up there. After all, SHODAN is the real star of System Shock. The demonic AI almost seems reasonable at first, but as you create a path of destruction along the space mining rig, Citadel Station, it becomes increasingly unhinged, glitched and downright nightmarish. For returning fans of the franchise, you'll notice that SHODAN is the original voice actor, Terri Brosius.

As is common with most Sci-fi pop culture titles, the story revolves around humans being humans, willing to give up their freedom to machines like a LinkedIn grifter extolling the virtues of AI art. In an almost inevitable scenario, the AI SHODAN becomes self-aware and hell-bent on their 'perfect' vision of the human race.

This mostly involves experimentation, fusing the dead crewmates of the rig with machines and puppeteering them. Wishing to gain more control, SHODAN inevitably sets its lens on Earth.

As an unwilling recruit of tech conglomerate, TriOptimum, you must use your hacking prowess to shut the AI down. This mostly involves exploring each floor of the station and shutting down various protocols.

Houston, we have a puzzle

System Shock Cyberspace puzzle
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If you're not defending yourself against the traps and enemies set in your path, you'll be working on the various puzzles in System Shock.

These puzzles can be challenging at first and are usually either junction box puzzles where you need to connect power sources to a grid or Cyberspace puzzles in which you enter Cyberspace and fight within the machine, combating computer viruses to unlock new areas of the ship.

The Cyberspace sequences are compelling at first, with the cuboid visuals and neon lighting feeling like a retro arcade. Unfortunately, once you complete a Cyberspace sequence once, it can quickly become repetitive.

The level design is complex and at times confusing. Each level is a different floor of the ship, and each floor is large enough to contain many winding corridors and offshoots which can leave you slightly disorientated if, like me, you have a terrible sense of direction.

Coupled with this, you'll receive quest goals through transmissions from surviving crew members or through messages left behind from the dead. As such, knowing where you need to go next can be difficult to determine sometimes.

System Shock does not hold your hand or offer a quest log to track, instead, you must rely on your wits to get you through the game. Whilst this can be frustrating at times, it's also refreshing in a way. We now live in a time where games can go on for 3+ hours and it still be a tutorial.

System Shock is representative of a time when gamers had to think about their next moves and were rewarded for doing so, and that translates fairly well all those years later but many may baulk at the lack of hand-holding.

Caught between a rock and a hard mode

System Shock rifle
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Don’t let the challenging nature put you off System Shock, the game has three levels of difficulty for all key areas of the game. These are, puzzles, combat, cyber (this determines the difficulty of the Cyberspace puzzles) and mission. Increasing the mission difficulty increases the stakes of the game. You will have a time limit to stop SHODAN and you will die permanently if you haven’t activated the medical bay on each level.

You can adjust these and mix and match them, meaning you could have combat set to three, but puzzles set to one if you're looking for more of a shooter experience.

The modularity of this is a great idea and can drastically change your gameplay compared to others.

There is also a level of replayability through this, particularly for those wishing to speed-run the game upon completion.

Beauty is only monitor deep

System Shock enemies
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System Shock is full of oddball enemies, the mutated crewmates look akin to ghouls and the various machinery on the ship is delightfully deadly. The game feels quirky in the best kind of way. In fact, the deadliest enemy on the ship, besides SHODAN, is a Roomba vacuum that explodes on impact.

Beyond the enemies, System Shock straddles that fine line of updating the graphics without updating them too much. That is to say, the game feels and looks like a retro game, but isn’t as dated as the original now is.

The station is made up of square tiles and bright lights, but when you look outside, outer space is stunning.

Nightdive Studios have done a stellar job of updating the look and feel of the original, without omitting any of the magic that made it so successful.

The Verdict

System Shock citadel station
Click to enlarge

Although it can take some time to sink its hooks in, System Shock it is a fun, challenging, and occasionally spooky experience that's worth putting time into.

Solving puzzles and piecing together where to go next feels rewarding and enemies can be as challenging as you feel comfortable with, and SHODAN is an eccentric antagonist, that flits between horror and comedy with ease.

Exploring the dissonance between man and machine is not a new theme, but 29 years on from the original System Shock manages to offer a story that's fresh and engaging, nonetheless.


Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.

Kiera is a former GGRecon Guides Writer.

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