SHODAN is the best villain ever put into a video game. That alone wouldn't sound like much in proving it's a great game, given it just implies a tight narrative but nothing about how it plays, yet this is actually a huge deal because I'm talking about her in a gameplay sense. Looking Glass' design philosophy was always to simulate the balance between a player making active choices, and the game master responding adequately in tabletop games. SHODAN is a living representation of Citadel Station, and a pure evil game master on top of that, as the bridge between the concept and execution of this "simulated game master" idea bringing it into more literal territory with a computer trying to kill you. Everything that goes after you in the game and every trap that befalls you is SHODAN. She sometimes unfairly sweeps the rug from under you, locking you in game over scenarios or opening up monster closets, but this combined with her voicework only adds to realize her in a way no other villain has ever achieved. Each step you take in Citadel Station is a fight against SHODAN herself as she's always finding ways to one-up you. Standard action-adventure game progression is flipped on its head as you don't know what to predict and must carefully observe clues, manage resources and take notes to get further while expecting the worst, stooping into straight up dungeon crawler territory more with each level. This tense crawling approach to a usually speedy genre is what separated System Shock at first from contemporaries, but you could really argue this is just an extremely abstract form of adding in more "realistic" mechanics; it adds a lot of believability ducking behind cover as you desperately fiddle with the user interface to reload or consider opting for the specific position on the screen you'll throw a grenade from, just imagine a few animations instead of a user interface being fiddled with and it suddenly clicks. System Shock juggled tons of concepts modern games still struggle with relatively effortlessly; from the precision in combat only VR games seem to have given a shot, to genuinely tactical and intimidating firefights while exploring an immersive environment. It may seem sloppy at first, but taken as a whole, it's extremely elegant.
The thing barring most people from enjoying this genuinely amazing game is that the user interface and controls are too clunky and dated... or are they? Really, I think it's just the visuals that date this game. We live in a post-Cruelty Squad post-Receiver world, it's not like these unorthodox approaches are out of place now, they're usually just prettied up... or slathered in shit in the case of Cruelty Squad. Either way, if those games can be enjoyed for what they are now, what's stopping someone from enjoying System Shock today too?
Reviewed on Jun 03, 2023