Nightdive Studios effectively exists because of the System Shock games. Its CEO, Stephen Kick, co-founded the company in 2013 because he couldn’t find a legal way to play System Shock 2. Now, Nightdive is best-known for its rereleases of great dead ’90s games, like Powerslave, SiN, and Forsaken.
At the same time, System Shock is one of the great all-time examples of a game that’s been completely overshadowed by its sequel. 1994’s System Shock is basically a science-fiction dungeon crawler, made by some of the same people who created Ultima Underworld II, while System Shock 2 is one of the foundation stones for Western action games. If you go back and play SS ’94 side by side with SS2, it’s difficult to believe they have any connection at all.
As a result, Nightdive’s forthcoming remake of System Shock has a feel like it’s bringing a lot of things full circle. It updates System Shock into the same kind of open-ended first-person action/exploration game that System Shock 2 popularized, while also bringing Nightdive back to the series that started its run.
I had the chance to play Nightdive’s System Shock for about half an hour on the Penny Arcade Expo’s show floor, with Nightdive’s Larry Kuperman as my tour guide. According to Kuperman, System Shock ’22 is a mix of new and old design, where it’s been made deliberately difficult, but its UI and other mechanics are up to 2022’s standards.
In short, it’s the plot and environment of System Shock, with the freeform exploration and horrific atmosphere of System Shock 2, all built in the Unreal Engine for a modern audience.
You play System Shock as a nameless, silent hacker in 2072, who comes out of a healing coma aboard a space station to discover he’s one of the only people left aboard. Almost everyone else is hostile and/or dead, as are the station’s retinue of drones. Worse, it’s sort of your character’s fault, as your last job before the coma was an illicit hack that disabled the station’s AI’s ethical restrictions, and now she wants to kill Earth.
The System Shock demo on the PAX show floor had a heavy focus on combat and exploration, throwing the player right into the deep end. I was put up against maintenance droids for the most part, and it wasn’t that hard to find a pistol, but the demo was deliberately programmed with a couple of hard gates according to Kuperman.
One area was patrolled by what might’ve been a weaponized surgical droid that almost cut me in half with a laser, and which shrugged off most of the firepower I’d been able to collect up to that point. I’d been feeling pretty good about my arsenal up to that point, but one encounter with that droid and I was limping into the vents with barely more than my life.
System Shock‘s Citadel Station has been remade from the ground up, and once again, it feels like a sort of halfway point. The environments are full of the sorts of blocky textures that you’d expect out of a late-’90s game, but animated smoothly with full dynamic lighting.
It actually reminded me of Alien: Isolation, with its deliberately retro computer systems and CRT monitors, but on a more metatextual level. It’s the result of a team using modern software to recreate a dark ’90s cyberpunk story, with the same theorized level of technology.
Citadel Station has all the audio logs, random notes, secret doors, and hackable locks you’d expect it would, but with a certain freakish atmosphere that’s more in line with SS2. System Shock ’94 was a gory game, but it almost seems silly at times, with cartoonish skulls and Doom-quality piles of corpses scattered throughout the halls.
System Shock ’22, on the other hand, starts you off in a medical station filled with people who’re in the middle of being force-converted into combat cyborgs, in a process that clearly wasn’t voluntary or well-practiced. It’s really leaning into SHODAN’s newfound sadism in a way that the original System Shock wasn’t equipped at the time to convey.
There is a certain element to System Shock ’22 that feels like it’s chasing its own tail. You don’t often see a remake like this, which totally overhauls an old game to bring it more in line with a sequel’s innovations.
There’s a chance that this might end up bringing System Shock into greater focus, in its own right and as the origin story for one of video games’ great all-time villains, but there’s just as good a chance that System Shock ’22 will end up feeling like a bizarre cover version of SS2, without bringing as many of the original’s ideas to the table as it should’ve. We’re in some uncharted territory here.
Either way, I’m looking forward to the chance to sit down with the full version later this year.