The classic Glass game launched 20 years ago today, is among the most brilliantly nerve-wracking virtual spaces ever created. System Shock 2 wasn’t an enormous success at launch. It was sandwiched between Half-Life and Deus Ex, two video games that redefined the sci-fi first-person shooter. And for a few years, it was almost not possible to play legally, due to its bizarrely tangled copyright standing. However, it impressed a technology of iconic survival horror video games like Prey, Dead Space (conceived as a System Shock sequel), and most notably BioShock, created by System Shock 2’s designer Ken Levine. And even after 20 years, nothing has fairly captured the same stark creepiness.
Survival horror video games usually focus on vulnerable, ordinary characters and induce a way of paranoid powerlessness, stripping down interface components or tweaking camera actions to imitate a frail human body’s movement. System Shock 2 has an unstoppable cyborg protagonist and a role-playing game’s love of quantification. Like its 1994 predecessor System Shock, it’s a cyberpunk game overstuffed with powers and weapons — you play as an unnamed soldier on a faster-than-light spaceship seemingly overrun by parasitic aliens.
However, unlike its predecessor, which let you use any equipment you picked up, accessing these weapons and powers is tough. System Shock 2 makes use of an advanced upgrade system with draconian cutoffs for equipping necessary items. Your protagonist might be augmented into a super-hacker, a grasp of energy weapons and old-fashioned firearms, or a psychic warrior with pyrokinetic energy and invisibility cloaking. He’s additionally extremely vulnerable until you build up the right set of complimentary upgrades, which requires progressing the plot long sufficient to earn dozens of rare “cyber modules.”