My first experience with this landmark piece of software was when I received the demo for it off the CD on the cover a gaming magazine. It was about 2pm or so on a Saturday afternoon. I didn't pull myself away from the 486 DX2 I owned until late night; like 10 or 11pm.
The demo only included one level, quite logically Level One. That was enough, trust me. I went out and bought the full version pretty much ASAP after that.
System Shock 1 is a 3D space adventure/RPG. I believe it uses the same "engine" from the Underworld games, though I could be wrong. It has true room over room 3D like the Underworlds and objects thrown into it generally behave as they would in the real world. Let me qualify "space adventure/RPG" a little.
It's set in space, yes, but on a space station. The game never leaves the confines of Citadel Station where you wake up from a medically induced coma. You see, you're a bad guy cracker that's been caught by the mega-company Trioptimum for a break-in on their network. As a deal, you compromise an AI known as SHODAN in exchange for a military grade implant in your head. A fair deal?
SHODAN thinks so. He/she/it has become self-aware and is enjoying every moment of it. Trouble is, SHODAN is enjoying things at the expense of us puny humans.
Keeping in character with a mad AI, SHODAN wants to rule the Universe. It's up you to thwart this dastardly ambition. You awake from your coma with virtually no idea of what has happened or what's going on. As you make your way around the clinical confines of the medical bay, you begin to understand that something horrible has happened.
For a game of 1994 vintage, the graphics are fairly crisp. Back then, you needed a high end system to play the game with all settings at maximum. Nowadays, a Pentium 2 300 could possibly be too fast for it. Regardless, the graphics are fitting to the world of Citadel Station; a place of steel and functionality. The game can be played at several difficulty settings, one imposes a time limit upon you which really sets things off to an urgent tone; another setting strips the game of plot settings and turns it into a sophisticated first person shooter.
If you play the game at recommended settings, it's going to take the average gamer 40-50 hours to complete. Like the Underworlds, the game is fairly non-linear and mostly event driven. It has it fair share of puzzles and tricks too, some of which will induce serious head-scratching.
Throughout the game are recorded emails and bulletins for you to read. Most of these fill you in on the events shortly before SHODAN went nuts, some give hints and clues to caches of weapons, or codes to doors etc. A lot of the emails poignantly portray the sense of doom that must've enveloped the station personnel as SHODAN went about its horrific business.
It's exceedingly creepy in places too. Cyborgs and mutants appear from around the corner, or SHODAN's disembodied voice interrupts your musing. I mentioned the Underworlds. It's a lot like UW1; it has 8 levels and you progress from level to level learning what's going on and the best ways to defeat SHODAN.
Along the way, you have a horde of cyborgs, droids and other nasties hunting you down. Security cameras keep you on your toes most of the time. There's few safe places to hide in this game. An amusing thing is the elevator music; it sounds very much like Manilow's Girl From Ipanema. To leave the stark techno soundtrack of the game and get that when you enter an elevator is a riot.
This game sold fairly well. Urban legend has it that it sold very poorly. It didn't. It just didn't sell anywhere near enough it should've for a game this revolutionary and engaging. Alas, Looking Glass, the developers, had problems like this with their games throughout their career. Bankruptcy claimed them a few years ago.
Like most games of this vintage, you'll have issues running it under modern OSes, at least with sound. This guide may help you. It worked for me, semi-sort of, but others have reported better luck with it. Or you can buy it from GOG where things are set up to play it out of the box.
- The hacker's guide to sin An irreverent look at SS1 (and SS2).
- System Shock 1 Hub From Through The Looking Glass. Huge fan site devoted to all things Looking Glass. Lots of Underworlds stuff here too.
- Main theme MIDI MIDI file for the main theme of this game. Totally techno and totally outer space.
Back to PC Game Essays page.