It’s been 14 years since System Shock 2 redefined a genre on PC and caused terror in the minds of gamers. With the gracious help of GOG.com, I was finally able to secure a copy that could run on my modern PC and operating system and, for the first time, experience the beloved classic. As I discovered soon into my first playthrough of the game, modern games have truly spoiled both my expectations regarding the amount of provided in-game assistance as well as the complexity involved with solving puzzles.
System Shock 2 places players in the role of a lone soldier that is tasked with investigating and battling the source of an alien infection that has turned the crew of the Von Braun spacecraft into killer psychopaths. With a combination of first-person shooter and role-playing elements, players decide how to tackle the game’s obstacles by choosing which weapons to use and skills to upgrade. Skill choices range from hacking to psionic powers, and there are numerous ways to accomplish objectives. As well, System Shock 2 is well known for its array of horror elements in both the narrative and gameplay that continually break down the player's sanity.
After completing the game’s training and introduction levels, I felt prepared and confident enough to tackle the classic PC game without using any online help. Soon after my first encounters and later deaths at the hands of mutant killer monkeys, I acted out of both desperation and frustration and resorted to online walkthroughs. Modern game assistance including fast travel, bread crumb trails, and waypoint markers are such of a norm that when various objectives in System Shock 2 asked me to read the game’s map and wade through mazes of corridors I usually ended up lost in a few minutes.
Navigation in the game requires the use of an individual’s memory for remembering the layout and structure of levels. Instead of paying attention to a rotating waypoint marker, I instead focused on memorizing landmarks in levels such as vending machines, computer terminals, and wall signs. I can’t remember the last time since an in-game map was actually required for plotting a route versus acting as a mere fast travel decoration. The more-or-less functional, non-interactive, map ultimately served as my essential tool for navigation in the game, other than running away from enemies and getting lost.
Along with the bare-bones map, in what feels like every other minute in the game is spent using the in-game PDA that stores objectives, audio logs, and notes in addition to a wide range of other uses, from managing the inventory screen to skills. Audio logs in other games often function as collectible, filler-lore, while in System Shock 2 they often contain necessary codes for unlocking doors, hints about solving puzzles, or tips to avoiding potential dangers. I’ve been completely spoiled by most modern games in which progression through levels simply required killing any enemy or destroying any obstacle that stood between the player and the next section. Unfortunately, few modern first-person shooters, even the few with infused role-playing elements, don't require much thought or analysis on the player’s part.
When puzzles did arise in levels, I felt compelled each time to resort to an online walkthrough because it was such a major contrast from other recent games. There’s a missing element in modern games that classics such as System Shock 2 wears as a badge of honor: that of complexity. With the rising popularity of mobile and casual gaming realms, it’s not difficult to see the near extinction of complex gameplay mechanics in favor of style over substance. As I begin to experience more of the classic games that are being re-released, I’m torn between the non-thinking time spent with modern games and the manual-required mentality of the classics.
Either as a result of playing modern games or simply growing up in the age of the internet and instant gratification, I felt utterly spoiled and lost when experiencing firsthand the lack of in-game assistance and complexity of puzzles in the beloved classic of System Shock 2. Games speak a great many truths about the generation in which they were created, from the pain that gamers endured for completion to the maniacal design philosophy of developers. System Shock 2 has provided me with a surprising realization of of just how spoiled and entitled I’ve become with the modern generation of games. With this realization in mind, I must now ask myself: to fast travel or not to fast travel?