For a certain generation of gamers, the mere mention of rogue AI SHODAN introduces an involuntary shudder. The primary antagonist of both 1994’s System Shock and 1999’s System Shock 2. Without SHODAN, there’s no GLaDOS.
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So, how do you follow up one of the most terrifying video game villains of all time? Well, developer Nightdive Studios decided to work with Terri Brosius, the original voice of SHODAN, to make her just as scary as the original. Then, Nightdive Studios surrounded it with the most atmospheric space station you could imagine dying on.
Honestly, System Shock looks more like how I remember System Shock 2 looking. 1994’s System Shock was a UI-heavy point and click adventure, while this remake plays out like the games that it inspired: this plays like out like Bioshock or Prey, as I tote a woefully small gun with too few bullets and try to survive the various horrors of the space station.
To a returning player, you know SHODAN is bad news. Your character – the Hacker – starts my hands-on by being forced to remove SHODAN’s ethical blocks at gunpoint. After that, The Hacker gets six months in the freezer and wakes up with a brand new implant and a front-row seat to the localised apocalypse, with Citadel Station now filled not with people but with cyborgs, mutants and a host of corpses.
One of the first enemies you see is a surgical bot, cheerfully offering healing services as he carves up a corpse in front of you. Even when you’re not fighting the aforementioned mix of baddies, there’s a slowly building sense of menace from the security cameras tracking your progress through the abandoned hallways. This creates a real sense of panic as things bounce rapidly between intense combat and exploration, and because you never know what’s around the corner, it’s nerve-wracking whether you’ve got 100 rounds of ammo or 10. The combat itself feels somewhat clinical – as clinical as you can be when you’re swinging a wrench around trying to avoid getting eviscerated – but that’s partly because of the scarcity of resources and the need to make combat as efficient as possible. Except, of course, when you get surprised by a cyborg with jetboots rocketing towards you down a corridor.
20 minutes of hands-on time isn’t enough to really get to the bottom of the spooky mystery, but it’s enough time to get a sense of the place, and the atmosphere is astounding. You start with a brief prologue on some planet somewhere, with a neon-drenched haze that hints at a Blade Runner game I wish someone would make. Once you’re in space it’s all winking lights and hard edges, and the whirring of medical machinery. Something has clearly gone very wrong, and I wished that I could have spent more time finding audio logs and digging into these mysteries: it was my genuine wish over the next few days that I could find a few more hours to poke through the space station, finding out more about its doomed occupants.
All in all, it looks like Nightdive Studios is giving us an updated version of one of the PC’s most venerated titles, reimagining it for a modern audience. Based on my hands-on, there’s a lot to be excited about here.