The System Shock Demo Is Cyberpunk Horror Hype (And I Love It)

System Shock is the granddaddy of immersive sims, a game nearly thirty years old by now, known by every hardcore gamer but experienced by an increasing minority; after all, we’re being babied by gamer-friendly systems and few of us have the appreciation for the rough’n’tumble design principles of yesteryear, right? Right!

The demo of the remake has convinced me that developer Nightdive Studios knows how to set a tense atmosphere, one that had my pulse quickening every time some nightmarish space-zombie or robot jumped me from a nook or cranny I’d failed to spot. Cautious, afraid, I’d move on with the greatest care–and just when I thought I’d wisened up to the game’s tricks and calmed down, the System Shock remake would get me. The graphics may not be mind-blowing photo-realism but they don’t need to be; they are brilliant at setting out the tone this game has to establish to be faithful to the original. System Shock is firmly in cyberpunk horror territory, where it should be: a mysterious virus has ravaged the space station you awaken on, turning the staff into zombies; but that’s far from where the unshackled AI SHODAN’s ambitions end.

My closest point of reference to System Shock has to be something like Arkane Studios’ 2016 title Prey; in many ways,  Arkane has been the torchbearer of the interactive sim genre over the last decade, although of course a studio like Deux Ex: Human Revolution’s developer Eidos Montreal is to be celebrated in almost equal measure. At any rate, if this is as faithful a remake as it seems to be, I can see how some of what Prey did was very much inspired by this classic–the protagonist’s apartment in this demo, for example, struck me with its similarities to the apartment in which Prey’s opening takes place.

But the design principles in Prey are much different, more modern, than those that define System Shock. While updated, I could feel a very different logic underlying System Shock than the one that brings Prey to life. A comparative study between the two would be a joy to work on. To return to the point, the difference in design philosophies was ironed into my mind when I was stuck down an irradiated zone for a solid three minutes, incapable of finding my way back because the force field I used to get down would not go up. The solution? I had to flip a switch. Only, I’m so used to have developers use blaring white or red paint to indicate what’s interactable and what isn’t, that I didn’t even think of it while I scrambled around, dying of radiation poisoning. I felt so supremely stupid when I realised my oversight – and that might be a good thing, because it highlights the System Shock remake as a game that will ask you to think. In fact, I know it is. A remake of System Shock wouldn’t be true to the original if it didn’t.

The world is full with interactable items – some of them useless, some of them fascinating, many of them inducing a slow-moving sense of dread. I’ve heard of SHODAN but to get my first glimpses of her in this remake–my hairs stood on ends. I can’t wait to experience one of the best written AIs for myself, to measure wits, and lose sleep over. Yeah, I was a little spooked after this first delve into the game.

This remake should be out in March, marking whatever date it pops up on as a very exciting time for me. I played the demo for close to two hours and I didn’t even manage to wrap up the first zone; it kept me up until after two in the morning. If that’s anything to judge the finished remake by, this is going to be a chunky game. I hope to the gods this one is successful – the immersive sim genre has long been in decline but if any genre deserves a renaissance and many, many titles, it’s this one. I think I’ll be buying System Shock on release, even if I’m not sure how long it’ll be before I give this game the time of day – the sad realities of being a grad student.

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