System Shock remake review – it’s AI-right

System Shock remake review – it’s AI-right
Finlay Cattanach Updated on by

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The 2023 remake of System Shock is an experience that shows its nineties roots, while walking a fine balance with contemporary game design. Through the lens of both the past and present, System Shock portrays a fascinating dystopian future of grit and spectacle, all within a unique identity. This is the first fresh breath this franchise has seen in quite some time, and the original, while a cult classic, never quite reached the prestigious heights of some other games in the same era.

The opening moments introduce us to a world more recognisable than ever in the modern, saturated market of cyberpunk and corporate dystopia stories. Earth is an interplanetary species, and capitalism has achieved its logical extreme of an all consuming mega-corporate juggernaut, in this instance called TriOptimum.

System Shock review: Player looks out a window at a shot of the space station.

The camera, from the perspective of a flying vehicle or drone, drifts with calculated laziness through an ecumenopolis of brutalist steel and blinking neon. Even under the light of a distant sunset, there’s an unmistakable air of restlessness.

There’s a gorgeous use of high-fidelity pixel art, straddling the line between the ’90s origins of the series and modern games, which is perfect for the setting. This comes back in full form with visual level design too – from the rustic industrial corridors of the Reactor level to the indulgent opulence of Executive to the unblinking lights and cold mechanised steel of The Bridge, every area of the game feels unique but connected.

Design extends beyond the graphical components though – environmental storytelling is apparent in even this initial instance of gameplay. A small apartment, strewn with mess, gives an immediate impression of our character as someone with little tact, and even less drive. This is juxtaposed by the laptop sitting on the kitchen counter, quietly breaking through firewalls to steal designs for military-grade cybernetic implants. After breaking in and promptly being arrested while giving an officer the middle finger, we’re whisked off to the centrepiece of the game, and TriOptimum’s crown jewel, Citadel Station.

System Shock review: Player reads a three-digit code from the terminal in the library archive.

I highlight this all to bring forward the first major point in System Shock’s favour – the aesthetic. Throughout this game, the design, tone and atmosphere remain completely on-point. There’s a distinct setting here, and the developers have channeled it into a fascinating world you’ll be compelled to know more about.

The game from here has a fairly straightforward story. You’ll make a deal with the head of the Citadel to remove the ethical subroutines of SHODAN, the AI super-intelligence running the place, in exchange for the implants you were stealing. The rest of the game is all about taking down SHODAN – simple in theory, but as you’ll quickly discover, not quite so easy to execute.

The first level does an excellent job of setting up the rest of the game, introducing you to plenty of the mechanics you’ll encounter, but there are a number of different highlights. Puzzles are particularly strong, especially in the first level. Junction boxes are very intuitive, but assistance is nowhere to be seen unless you spend a logic core, which is a rare consumable that will automatically solve a puzzle for you.

System Shock review: Player looks up at the hexagonal glass roof of a Grove district.

Worldbuilding is primarily done via audio logs, which are recordings from various characters around the station. Some of these are connected, while others are standalone for some background information. A huge plus is the quality of the voice acting in these recordings – it’s atmospheric and sets the scene perfectly, as the characters in question either discover something unsettling or verbalise their final moments. While audio logs aren’t always the best way to tell a story, it works in System Shock because of how the game is paced – and it’s miles better than having written text logs you must pause and read.

Exploration is vital throughout System Shock, which is especially notable in the Storage level. Supplies are limited, and objectives aren’t always clear, so you must wander the corridors as you figure out where to go next. This also supports the credits system nicely, as you can vaporise junk you find around every level and recycle the scrap into money. This can be used at vending machines for ammunition, consumables, and even weapon upgrades.

Speaking of ammunition and weapon upgrades, the combat system is your standard first-person shooter fare, but what it does emphasise is tactical thinking. You’ll receive a whole arsenal of guns, explosives, and consumables throughout the game. There are two specific boss fights on the Executive and Flight Deck levels that highlight the importance of utilising all the tools at your disposal to create advantages where there were none before, and it’s an interesting iteration on System Shock’s love of problem solving.

System Shock review: Player looks down across the hanger bays on the Flight Deck.

Perhaps the most unique mechanic in the System Shock remake is Cyberspace. By entering what’s essentially a VR headset for cyborgs, you’ll jump into an otherworld made of black squared walls lit by pulsating patterns of dynamic neon colour. Just imagine a ’90s developer picturing the concept for a Cyberspace world, slap on modern graphical and art improvements, and chances are you’ll be imagining a perfect recreation of this interpretation.

While in here, you’ll fly around the 3D space, blasting enemy combatants to pieces in order to reach Death Star 2 style reactor cores. Blow the cores, escape, and you’ll unlock crucial in-game actions, like extending a bridge, taking down a forcefield, or clearing radiation from a room. It’s innovative and unique, but it does start to become tiresome by the end of the game.

Perhaps System Shock’s biggest issue is a lack of clarity on objectives. The game pivots toward pushing players to rely on their intuition, but it goes overboard, with one example being the envirosuit upgrade. Later in the game, you’re going to need this upgrade in order to progress through a story-critical area. The issue is that you have no way of knowing this until you reach that point in the game. Sure, there are a couple of audio logs that mention its existence, but herein it becomes obvious that System Shock operates on an unspoken rule: exploration is mandatory.

System Shock review: Enemies swarm the player in Cyberspace.

This adds another dimension to the puzzle solving aspects of the game, encouraging players to think and play proactively, but it’s frustrating when you can easily go hours without realising seemingly optional paths are actually expected to be traversed. It also holds back the game’s accessibility. Without a clearer idea for players to know where to go, what they should be doing on a given level, or even what order they should explore levels in, the game’s pacing begins to stagnate, losing its rhythm in more than one place and doubtlessly frustrating a great number of people.

System Shock also fails to jump on the opportunities it creates throughout the whole experience, but most evident at the final boss fight – of course, there are spoilers here, so skip down a couple of paragraphs if you don’t want to read about the final boss mechanics.

Once you’ve powered up the override protocols, you’ll hop into your very last Cyberspace encounter. Immediately this takes a different approach – you’re no longer flying through cyberspace, you’re in an avatar of your own body, moving around on your feet and wielding a digitised gun. The switch up is a welcome change, but unfortunately, nothing else about the fight is welcome. SHODAN gives a quick monologue before appearing as a kind of digital vase with tentacles. Why exactly this design choice was made, rather than the intimidating digital face which had confronted us through the whole game, is unclear.

More egregious though is the lack of actual fight. You’ll go from one platform to another, defeating some digital foes on each, and shoot your weapon into the central mass that is SHODAN, with absolutely no resistance. Not only is it unclear what precisely you’re doing unless you’ve rigorously kept on top of every single important audio file, but, combined with a complete absence of music, it’s enormously underwhelming. This feels like a classic case of time constraints compromising creative vision, and it’s such a shame to see the final moments of the game land on such a flat note.

System Shock review: Player aims their weapon towards SHODAN during the final confrontation.

System Shock presents a fascinating world, brought from its vision in the ’90s into the modern era. Tone, atmosphere and aesthetic fire on all cylinders. But in a search for intuitive, problem-solving gameplay, System Shock neglects the most barebones guidance for objectives and locations throughout much of the experience, playing like an open-world game within a confined, predominantly linear space. This unfortunately synergises with the pitfalls of its mechanics, primarily inconsistent level design, limited soundtrack, and obscure narrative.

This game is going to generate a lot of frustration for those who stick with it to the very end. Whether persevering or not is worth it is another question entirely, and your mileage may vary, but one thing’s for sure; if the issues can be rectified, the System Shock 2 remake will be something very, very special.

System Shock review: Player stands inside central command for the Research level, surrounded by incubation tubes for mutatns.


Though held back from greatness by gameplay flaws and performance issues, System Shock still presents a fascinating world and interesting story that'll be more than worth the effort for dedicated players.
7 Consistently excellent tone and atmosphere Engaging puzzle solving and tactical combat Severe lack of clarity on objectives and story Poor performance optimisation Lacklustre final boss fight