I have to admire the exactness with which Nightdive Studios has recreated 1994's System Shock in a more modern FPS framing. But I also can't help but feel that, nearly 30 years later, it could have let a little bit of 2023 in. Visual upgrades aside, this new interpretation follows the original so exactly that I was able to use an original game door code from memory (not the 451 one, the one after), and much of the text and dialogue is word-for-word what went before. And, while that might sound impressively accurate, it does mean that although the visual jank of the 1990's style flat sprite fake 3D and terrible controls have been replaced with a nice chunky neon sci-fi FPS refit, the three-decade-old design jank of obtuse objective signposting and minimal guidance remains.
Developer: Nightdive Studios
Publisher: Nightdive Studios
Platform(s): PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
Release date: May 30, 2023
The overall plot, just like the original, is that you're trapped on a space station which has been overrun by an insane AI called Shodan planning to wipe out humanity. Everyone's dead and the only things left are a scattering of mutants and cyborgs all hell bent on stopping you and protecting Shodan's world ending schemes. Which is where you come in as a hacker - the only one left able to do anything about humanity's impending annihilation.
Saving humanity mainly involves exploring the station, fighting enemies and picking up logs, emails or voice messages to learn what happened and what you can do to avert disaster. Just like the original game, you never really get an objective here in a recognisable way. Instead you find a wealth of emails, notes and audio diaries, and piece it all together.
When it works it can be a real galaxy brain moment - one email might mention a thing you need but can't reach, another might mention someone has a way to reach it, and then another might casually mention where to find them. For example, right at the start you'll find several messages about how someone called Nathan D'Arcy can help prevent Shodan firing a Mining laser at Earth. Eventually you'll find a mail that explains you need to get an isotope from another level to charge a shield generator, find and use a safety override code, turn on the shields and then fire the laser to destroy it.
As per my last email
For the first maybe four to five hours that's all you have to go on, and while it might sound simple enough, this is a complex and layered game. It's packed with sub-objectives and detours as you search for key cards, additional info, gear and so on. Nothing's tracked and there's rarely any acknowledgement you're on the right path which can make the uncertainty of endless backtracking worse. Out of tens of emails one might mention 'doing x' but you'll have to work out how, and deal with any number of unmentioned obstacles that rear up along the way. Miss a note or detail in what could eventually be upwards of 100+ emails, and you can be lost for hours trying to work out what you've skipped over. I've ended up with pages of handwritten notes in real life, codes and scribbled checklists to try make sense of it all.
I have enjoyed the detective work when it does work, but for every lightbulb moment where you find or realise what you need, you can just as easily be cut adrift. Often, much of the forward momentum comes from simply exhausting all other options. The map is similarly unhelpful. It displays a dense network of corridors and multiple levels in thin, brutally utilitarian lines. There's no labelling beyond things like north, south, delta, gamma, and that sort of thing, so simply getting from point A to B can sometimes be a task in itself. If you need to find a specific room it's often a case of wandering the halls until you chance upon it. Found a key? Try all the doors again in case it opens one… Limited resources and respawning enemies don't help either as you trawl multiple floors looking for a missed clue/room/opportunity.
I get that this is exactly how the original game was because I've played it, but I don't entirely understand why you would update the visuals and controls to present standards without adding a few other modern concessions, like maybe a little objective tracking or a more clearly labelled map. I can forgive the original game because it's 30 years old but I was hoping a new interpretation would improve on what went before rather than repeat it. It wouldn't even need to change that much - just give me an evidence board like Outer Wilds or Shadow of Doubt to log everything, over my personal chicken scratch of notes and question marks. In many ways I feel like I'm criticising an old game for being old, but this is a brand new 2023 release. Obviously I don't want giant glowing arrows on the screen and numbers popping off enemies as I shoot them, but it feels weird to have a remake that doesn't really remake anything.
Even the combat still feels quite old-school, despite modern controls. There's no real nuance to the gunplay, you just sort of peek out from a corner and shoot, usually taking a hit or two in the process. There's no flow to it, and, against tougher enemies especially, you can really feel the lack of finesse as you furiously backpedal, firing wildly or use the AI's occasional reluctance to go through doors to gain an advantage.
The whole thing ends up being a mixed bag. I enjoyed some elements of exploration and investigation, with the overall retro sci-fi feel of the space station having a great vibe (although the almost child's toy chunkiness of enemies lands less well). But I feel conflicted by the fact that almost everything that lets it down stems from the original game, copied exactly and failing scrutiny under a modern lens. It leaves this feeling more like a Remaster+ than a remake. That might in part be due to my expectation of a modern reinterpretation over a straight replication, so temper your own expectations accordingly. Because of that, I'm almost inclined to recommend Nightdive's own Enhanced Edition of the original over this, as a fairer representation of the original game's intention and ideas. Okay it's old and clunky but what it does makes far more sense in the context of being the original, old, and clunky, rather than a completely new game built from the ground up thirty years later.