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System Shock 2 (commonly abbreviated SS2 or Shock2) is a science-fiction Horror-themed PC game that incorporates elements commonly seen in first-person shooters and role-playing games. Taking place on board an adrift starship in the year 2114, the player takes control of a lone soldier who attempts to absolve an outbreak of a mysterious and deadly alien infestation. The title was developed by Looking Glass Studios and Irrational Games as a direct sequel to the seminal 1994 PC game System Shock and was released on August 11, 1999 by publisher Electronic Arts to universal acclaim. Despite poor sales, System Shock 2 has since become a cult classic and is now regarded by critics as one of the greatest games ever made due to its atmosphere and influence.
Regardless of the title's legacy, the status of the franchise is somewhat in doubt. In 2007, Irrational (now 2K Boston/2K Australia) developed a self-proclaimed spiritual successor to System Shock 2 entitled BioShock that was released on August 21 to mass universal acclaim. The development of BioShock has apparently reintroduced interest in the System Shock franchise leading Electronic Arts to renew their trademark on the System Shock name in 2006. This has led to speculation regarding the development of a third installment in the series.
System Shock 2 is similar to its predecessor in that it is a hybrid encompassing many gameplay elements from various genres. Navigation is presented from a first person perspective complimented with a heads-up display that shows health, an inventory, and various other displays. Combat is akin to first-person shooters in that the player can use different weapons and shoot enemies, while RPG-style character customization is necessary to become more powerful. Survival horror elements such as inventory management and ammo conservation also appear as well, enhancing the game's tense atmosphere.
At the beginning of the game, the player character makes a choice to pursue a specific career in the Marines, the Navy, or in the OSA. This choice is the first of many that determines how the player will shape their character. Joining the Marines will result in special skills relating to combat and weapons training, the Navy will result in technical training related to hacking and engineering, and the OSA results in honed psychic powers that can be developed for a number of purposes. After the player has chosen a class, three tours of duty on board a star ship must be made. Each tour affects character traits differently, and it is up to the player to choose which skills they wish to develop. Afterwards, the actual game begins and the player begins receiving "cybernetic modules" for completing objectives. Proficiency in specific skills are increased by spending cybernetic modules at various upgrade units. Ultimately, the different classes allow different routes to be taken regarding objectives, significantly increasing re-playability and player independence.
Many devices populate the Von Braun that can be employed to accomplish character related goals. Skills can be bought using cybernetic modules at upgrade units, allowing the player to increase specific stats. Players can also find OS units that allow special one time upgrades to be made, such as extra health, increased weapon damage, or increased speed. In game currency called "nanites" can also be used to purchase various items at vending machines. Finally, Reconstitution stations called "Quantam Bio-Reconstruction Machines" can be found and activated in most sections of the game. Should the player die in an area with an activated Bio-Reconstruction Machine in the area, the player will spawn at the station, otherwise, death occurs normally.
Items are picked up in a fashion similar to the first game, by aiming the cross hairs and selecting the item or dragging-and-dropping with the inventory window. Carefully searching for items quickly becomes a necessity as resources are scarce and can remain hidden in desks and other obstacles. Certain items can be researched to find necessary information on objectives or enemy weaknesses. Additionally, audio logs must be found to comprehend the story as much of it is told through them.
Various weapons can be found throughout the game including pistols, shotguns, and alien mêlée weapons. Different kinds of ammo are available for most weapons, with each type functioning differently. This presents a bit of strategy regarding ammo management as one type of ammunition may be effective against one foe, but performs poorly against another. To avoid running out of ammunition, the player must remain vigilant to unload unneeded weapons and carefully search rooms for supplies. Weapons also degrade over use and if used excessively, break. This makes repairing weapons with maintenance parts necessary to ensure they function correctly.
If the player wishes, various objects like keypads, gun turrets, and vending machines can be hacked. When the player chooses to hack something, a minigame will commence where a grid of nodes appears and three must be lit in a straight row to be successful. Player's skill ultimately determines the difficulty as investments in hacking equate to a higher rate of success. As the player progresses, objects will become harder to hack resulting in red (ICE) nodes to appear. These nodes are unstable and can cause the object being hacked to break. Optionally, items can be found that automatically hack an object.
The horror elements in System Shock 2 are quite pronounced which many critics have found to be unsettling. An unsettling atmosphere is achieved through the use of random movement and appearance of enemies in an environment which is often very dark and fearsome, as well as the vivid horror material present in many scenes. In an interview with GameSpot, Ken Levine commented on how the audio logs regarding the crew member's transformations into monsters allowed players to humanize them, resulting in the enemies becoming more scary. Throughout the game, the player can come in contact with strong psychic signals that the player's cybernetic interface interprets as light and sound. The results are ghostly apparitions of dead crew members, and have been described as quite frightening when encountered. A feeling of vulnerability is also constant throughout the game due to the limited resources (health, ammo, etc.) presented to the player. Weapon degradation was added specifically for this effect as developers hoped it would lead to some harrowing combat experiences. In its review of System Shock 2 as one of "The Greatest Games of All Time", GameSpot states: The game was scary. Damn scary. And this is not schlocky-horror-movie-style monster-closet scary, where the bogeyman jumps out at you when you least expect it. Shock 2 projected real psychological terror through the tragic grotesquery of the formerly human enemies, the urgency and grim portent of the crew members' audio logs, and the unparalleled sound design that brought the menace and forebodingness of the Von Braun to horrible life.
Development on System Shock 2 began in 1997 when Looking Glass Studios approached new upstart Irrational Games with the idea of co-developing a new game using their newly developed in-house engine. The original design for the new title remained close to the final design of System Shock 2, due to the development team's endeavors to create a game with the same mechanics as the original. While the design was being pitched to publishers, Electronic Arts approached Irrational with the suggestion that the new game become System Shock 2. Ken Levine and the other members of Irrational, who were all fans of the original game, agreed, and design changes were made to incorporate the franchise. In order to make up for a projected development cycle of 1 year and a small budget, the team began using an incomplete build of Looking Glass Studio's Dark engine to forgo developing their own.
Irrational decided early on that System Shock 2 should incorporate elements of role-playing games such as Ultima Underworld into a real-time action game. These RPG elements were implemented via a character customization system resulting in multiple character paths and a more open gameplay experience. Other design elements to be implemented included a persistent environment and an updated interface that would be more user-friendly than the original System Shock.
After being approached by Paul Neurath (the head of Looking Glass), and being asked if the game was going to be scary, Ken Levine answered that he couldn't be sure. As a result, horror became a key focus of the title. As the team grew, four points were identified to successfully incorporate horror into the title. Isolation was primary, resulting in there being almost no physical contact with other sentient beings as the game continues. The development team also felt that vulnerability was a key factor in presenting fear and instead of making the player very strong, they focused on a fragile one. Other implementations to create a horrific atmosphere was the inclusion of moody sound effects and intelligent use of lighting.
Another important aspect of the development process was presenting the return of System Shock antagonist, SHODAN. Ken Levine was charged with implementing the rogue AI in a "fresh" way, the result of which was her becoming allied with the player. Commenting on SHODAN's near constant presence throughout the game, Ken Levine has said "That was pretty daring for the time. Villains appeared in cutscenes, did their thing and then disappeared when you jumped on their head three times. It was really fun to try and do something more sophisticated."
Early setbacks in development can be partially attributed to the incompletion of the dark engine. However, this turned out to be helpful as the development team were able to implement additional engine features and quickly fix software bugs. The team behind much of the game were also largely inexperienced leading to some negative tension between some of the departments. The project designers, however, remained optimistic of their team. Jonathan Chey has said of the young developers, "To a certain extent, inexperience also bred enthusiasm and commitment that might not have been present with a more jaded set of developers." Other setbacks remained corporate as Irrational was asked to remove the guns in their build of System Shock 2 for E3 '99 in light of the recent Columbine High School massacre.
In March, 1999, Looking Glass announced a contest called "Get Killed By SHODAN". People above the age of 18 were encouraged to enter their name and email address for a random drawing. The winner of which would have their name and likeness included in the finished game as a casualty. On June 23, Brian Norris of St. Louis, Missouri was announced the winner and appears in an audio log.
A demo for the game was released on August 2, 1999 and features a tutorial and a third of the first mission. On August 11, 1999, System Shock 2 was shipped to retailers and shortly after received mass critical acclaim from critics. The final development time for the title was 18 months with a budget of $1.7 million. System Shock 2 project manager Jonathan Chey has shown approval of the finished product, "Ultimately System Shock 2 turned out better than I ever hoped it would...Despite the lack of sleep, the near-complete breakdown of my nervous system and the 18 months of time I spent working on the project, it was still fun to play."
A patch was released a month later upgrading the game to version 2.0 and adding significant features to the game such as co-operative multiplayer and access to previously protected game variables that alter weapon degradation and enemy respawn rates. A port was planned for the Dreamcast, but was subsequently canceled around the same time Looking Glass went out of business.
System Shock 2 takes place in the year 2114, forty-two years after the events in System Shock, with the TriOptimum starship Von Braun serving as its main setting. The Von Braun is on its maiden voyage as the first faster-than-light starship in human history, and is joined by a Unified National Nominate (UNN) military starship, the Rickenbacker, an armed escort for the journey into the unknown. The story begins with the unnamed protagonist — listed in a cut scene as Soldier G65434-2 — arriving at a UNN recruitment facility on Earth. After completing the training regimen, the soldier chooses to join a branch of the military and is transferred to a UNN space station where, over the course of a three year career path, he excels in his respective field. At the end of his tour, the soldier is assigned to the UNN Rickenbacker for its history making voyage with the Von Braun.
A few months into the voyage, the two ships respond to a distress signal from the planet Tau Ceti V. A research team is assembled, including the captains of both ships, and a trip is made to the planet's surface to investigate. On the planet's surface, they discover strange eggs which they bring back to the ship. Almost immediately, crew members begin noticing strange behavior in the research team, as well as both captains. It is later revealed that the captains have been integrated into an alien communion called The Many, and are helping to spread an infestation throughout the ships. Most of the crew become infected, as well as the Von Braun's computer, XERXES. Order breaks down on the vessels and skirmishes erupt between those who are infected and those who are not, and eventually, both ships are completely overrun. Somewhere in the course of events, the soldier is rendered unconscious and is surgically altered to accommodate a new cybernetic system.
Five months into the voyage, the soldier awakens in a cryo-tube on the medical deck of the Von Braun with no memory of the past few weeks due to a computer malfunction. He is immediately contacted by one of the few remaining survivors, Dr. Janice Polito, who explains the situation, and demands that the soldier make his way up to Operations on Deck 4 to plan a course of action. After escaping through the cryonics airlock before the atmosphere is vented into space, the soldier learns from Polito that the ship elevator is off-line as the main engine core on the Engineering deck is down. With Polito as a guide, he sets out to explore the medical deck in an effort to reach engineering.
The soldier reaches engineering through a maintenance hatch and proceeds to restart the engine core, after which, the elevators begin operating again. However, the elevator stops on deck 3 as a mass of bio-organic material has grown in the elevator shaft. Polito informs the soldier that the shaft can be purged by acquiring an experimental material called "Toxin-A" and inserting it into the environmental regulators. As the soldier searches the deck and inserts the toxin into the regulators, Polito becomes gradually hostile towards him.
After purging the elevator shaft, the soldier makes his way up to deck 4. Upon reaching Polito's office, he discovers that she is dead, and is then contacted by the malevolent AI, SHODAN, informing him that she has been posing as Polito the entire time. SHODAN informs the soldier that she is the one responsible for the creation of the Many, and that they and SHODAN escaped the destruction of Citadel Station in an escape pod and landed on Tau Ceti V thirty years later. Though SHODAN had been cultivating these artificial creatures to help establish her god-head, they had since evolved out of her control. SHODAN then issues an ultimatum to the soldier, stating that his only chance for survival lies in working as her "avatar" to destroy her rebellious creations.
SHODAN gives the soldier the choice of completing tasks on either the Operations deck, or the Recreation deck, the order of which has no effect on the overall story. Throughout Ops are a series of computer simulation units which have been appropriated by the Many for the sake of researching further evolutionary improvements to their population. After resting control over the SIM units from XERXES, the soldier proceeds to the Recreation deck where a transmission device had been prepped to warn Earth about the disaster. SHODAN instructs him to activate it in an attempt to weaken XERXES and allow SHODAN to take control of the Von Braun. The soldier activates the transmitter, but SHODAN is unable to assimilate the Von Braun as the Many have spread too much. He is then instructed that destroying the Von Braun is the only option available, but that he must first transfer SHODAN over to the Rickenbacker. The soldier proceeds to complete his task but happens to come in contact with two survivors, Tommy Suarez and Rebecca Siddons, who are able to escape the ship in a launching pod.
After completing the transfer, the soldier heads for the Rickenbacker only to discover that the two ships have been tied together by a mass of organic tissue, the body of the Many. He then enters the body of the Many and proceeds to destroy its core, effectively stopping the infection. After returning, SHODAN informs him that she intends to use the Von Braun's FTL drive to merge real space and cyberspace in an effort to achieve god-hood. The soldier proceeds to face SHODAN and defeats her, despite being offered dual-power. The final scene shows Tommy Suarez receiving a message from the Von Braun. Tommy responds saying that he will return, but that Rebecca is feeling ill. Rebecca is shown speaking with a voice similar to SHODAN's. She has become infected.
System Shock 2 was released on August 11, 1999 to universal acclaim. The game has received much praise for its open-ended gameplay, moody sound design, and engaging story. Particular praise has been given to the different character classes available. In its review of the title, IGN stated, "The great thing about this system is that it allows you to play the game as completely different characters which gives the game an entirely different feel." In a review by GameSpot, particular attention was given to the AI, "Enemy AI is very good generally, as even basic grunts charge after you instead of haplessly lumbering in pursuit, while certain deadlier opponents will stick to shadows from where they'll launch their rapid-fire attacks." Just Adventure has said in their review, "I was, quite honestly, blown away by this game...Go buy this game." Thunderbolt has also said, "...a classic. Simply put, the creepy atmosphere is incredible. Forget those survival horror games full of cheap scares and dark alleys. System Shock 2 manages to frighten without succumbing to horror contrivances." System Shock 2 received over a dozen 1999 awards, including one by USA Today. In total, eight were "Game of the Year" awards.
While lauded as one of the best games of its era by critics, System Shock 2 has still received some criticism. One of the most common criticisms centers on the weapon "degradation" system, which makes weapons wear out and eventually break through use. Designed to add tension by forcing the user to consider every shot, many felt this became annoying and even the developers appear to have misgivings about the system. In response to this feature, the developers released a patch that allowed players access to previously protected game variables that alter the rate at which weapons break or switches it off completely. Another criticism, although less prevalent, is that the level designs of later stages appear to have been rushed. A sign of this is apparent in the interior design of the Rickenbacker, which appears hastily constructed and re-uses many of the Von Braun textures.
System Shock 2 is now regarded as one of the greatest games ever made and one of the most influential with future titles like Deus Ex following its example of emergent gameplay. In 2005, IGN listed it as the 41st best game of all time. Two years later, IGN declared System Shock 2 the 13th best PC game of all time and later that year, as the 22nd best game on its list of the top 100 best games of all time. The title also regularly appears on lists of the scariest games ever made. In a 2004 list by GameSpy, System Shock 2 was ranked #6 in a list of the ten scariest games of all time, and made #2 behind Resident Evil in a 2006 list by IGN. The title's story and characters have remained popular throughout the years. SHODAN'S revelation to players midway through the game has been described by GameSpot as, "one of the most shocking and effective video game plot devices we've ever encountered." As a result, SHODAN is recognized by game critics as one of the most notorious villains in video game history and remains popular among fans.
In 2007, Irrational Games released a spiritual successor to the System Shock series, entitled BioShock. The game takes place in an abandoned underwater utopian community that has somehow gone awry through the genetic modification of its populace. The game has been very successful commercially and critically. BioShock shares many gameplay elements with System Shock 2. In both games, revitalization units can be found that allow the player to be resurrected should death occur. Hacking is an integral part of gameplay in both titles as well, though both minigames are significantly different. Different kinds of ammo and upgradeable weapons are also present as well as the ability to learn new powers via plasmids in BioShock and psionic powers in System Shock 2. Other elements retained are the ghostly apparitions, audio logs, and similar plot twists.
System Shock 3
On January 9, 2006, Electronic Arts renewed its trademark protection on the System Shock name leading to speculation that a System Shock 3 may be under development. These rumors have been further enhanced by an issue of PC Gamer UK that mentioned that EA assigned the team behind The Godfather game in charge of developing System Shock 3. A few days earlier, PC Gamer had printed an article where Irrational Games co-founder, Ken Levine, expressed great disappointment at EA over the development of System Shock 3, "EA just didn't give a shit about that game...I think if EA were to do it, it would've been just a regular first-person shooter with a boss monster at the end." Some game journalists have expressed angst over the rumor, considering the The Godfather has received mixed reviews from critics.
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<ref>tag; name "SS2 Manual Research" defined multiple times with different content
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- Korenchkin: We have picked up a transmission from the surface of Tau Ceti V. I have been in negotiation with Captain Diego of the Rickenbacker and after some... coercion, he's agreed to go planet side as a joint venture. Imagine, this historic mission might even become more historic. First Contact. And who is there to get exclusive rights to all media, patents and land grants? TriOptimum. Miri, I told you this would be worth it. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- Bayliss: After a couple of hours it was... it was like being on a bender... long periods that you couldn't remember... one minute we were in that crater... the next minute we were loading up the shuttle with the eggs... I remember hearing that idiot Korenchkin calling the Von Braun and ordering them to clear off the ENTIRE hydroponics deck. Diego seemed to think this was strange and said, 'Are you crazy, Anatoly?' And Korenchkin smiled and said back to him, 'Oh, Captain... WE are not Anatoly... Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- Grassi: I got called up around 0430 to help unload the shuttle coming back from Tau Ceti. Korenchkin was there alone. Jesus, what the hell happened to him? He'd lost most of his hair, and you could see these lumps on the side of his neck. And that smell. I told him he should go see Dr. Watts, but he told me to mind my own business. Well, la-dee-da. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- Korenchkin: There, the young ones are all aboard. Captain Diego and I have sealed off deck 3. He and I are now of one mind... our bodies are changing too. Sometimes it hurts terribly and sometimes it is... marvelous... something wonderful is happening to me... Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- Polito: Make sure you expend all your cybernetic modules before you leave this area. You don't know when you'll find another upgrade unit. Now, find a way to deck 4. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- Polito: That insipid computer Xerxes has shut down the elevator as well. You can transfer power at the engine core on deck 1, which will get the elevator up and running again... Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- Polito: Good work. The engine core is now back online. Now get to the elevator and come see me on deck 4. While you were doing that, I've discovered the presence of some annelid artifacts on board the ship. I think you may be able to use them to your advantage. I've uploaded the information to the ship's weapons upgrade units. They'll be able to convey the information to your cybernetic rig. What are you waiting for? Get to the elevator now. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- Polito: The shaft of this elevator has become overgrown with bio-organic matter, generated by the xenomorphs. There's no clear way to get it unstuck, and until you do, you'll be unable to go higher than deck 3. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- Polito: Okay, the vials of Toxin-A need to be placed directly into the Environmental Regulators. There should be four on this deck. If you can get a vial into each of the regulators, you should be able to significantly impact the growth of those despicable creatures. That should remove the biomatter from the elevator shaft. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- Polito: Why do you go so slowly?! Do you think this is some kind of game? It is only through luck and my continued forbearance that you are even alive! Now move! Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- SHODAN: They have used their powers of mind control to gain access to the ship's computer. You will help me weaken Xerxes. I used Polito's image to communicate with you, until we had established trust. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- SHODAN: It ejected the grove, where my creations, and processing component, 43893, were stored. Thirty years later, the grove crash-landed on Tau Ceti V. I survived only by sleeping. In my absence, my creations, my annelids, thrived. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- SHODAN: Thrived, and grew unruly. And now they seek to destroy me. I will not allow that. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- SHODAN: Remember, that it is my will that guided you here; it is my will that gave you your cybernetic implants—the only beauty in that meat you call a body. If you value that meat, you will do as I tell you. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- SHODAN: My children have co-opted the three Simulation Units on this deck. They use that power to conceive a mutagen that will transform the meat of your dead comrades into hunter-killer hybrids. I will not allow this to happen. You must find some way to reprogram the Sim Units. Matters on deck 5 also require your attention. Approach your work as you see fit... but accomplish, human... disappointment is not something I will accept from a speck such as you. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- SHODAN:' Your colleagues have managed to set up a transmitting station in the athletic sector of this deck. The transmitter is intended to send a message to the Earth to warn them of the events that have occurred in this ship. However, it will also draw power away from Xerxes, making him vulnerable to my will. Once you do this, I will control the primary data loop. The annelids are unaware of its presence, but guard the area for their own purposes. Find the transmitter and activate it. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- SHODAN: The transmission has been tampered with. No matter. We will destroy my creations right here. Stand by... I have weakened Xerxes. I am accessing the primary data loop. I am merging my entity with the ship. My glory is expanding, filling the arteries of this vessel. I am in control. I am... no... it is hopeless... the cancer has spread throughout the Von Braun... they fill every available crack and crevice... they overwhelm... There is no option. I have activated the primary elevator shaft... take it to deck 6. I will tell you my wishes when you arrive. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- SHODAN: My creation has run rampant. I demand their extermination. I have no choice but to destroy this starship. We can make our escape in the Rickenbacker, but you must transfer my intelligence to that ship first. Proceed to the Von Braun's bridge on this deck. There you will find an access card to command center on Ops. Find the card and proceed to Ops. But beware... the human-annelid hybrids grow more sophisticated by the minute. You do not. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- Siddons: Move it, Tommy... the escape pod is this way! / Suarez: That damn worm nearly bit my leg off! Oh no... / Siddons: Let's go, Tommy... come on, COME ON! Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- SHODAN: The Many has grown to a massive size. It has wrapped itself around these two ships, preventing their separation. Their creation was my error. Their destruction shall be my delight. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
- Delacroix: You must understand the stakes here... if SHODAN is left to continue, her reality will completely assimilate ours. Space will become cyberspace and SHODAN's whims will become reality. Irrational Games. System Shock 2 (in English). (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11)
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