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Review: System Shock (PS5) – A Faithful Remake That’s Showing Its Age

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They just don’t make ‘em like they used to, huh? 30 years since its launch on PC, the holy grail of immersive sims, System Shock, has made its way to PS4 and PS5 with this slick remake. This is the first opportunity us PlayStation players have had to check out the game that inspired the likes of PREY, Deus Ex, and BioShock, and as such, piecing together its labyrinthine space station is like an entertaining history lesson. But despite its new visual glow-up, System Shock is really starting to show its age.

The original System Shock launched in 1994 and shaped an entire genre. Against the evil A.I. SHODAN, a nameless hacker must fight their way through the maze-like space station, gradually unlocking more areas in the process. Released in 2023 on PC, this remake from Nightdive Studios adds a lick of modernised paint to this classic, with a visual and gameplay overhaul that should appeal to both new and returning players alike.

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We want to start off by saying that visually, System Shock is a real treat on PS5. It sports this fascinating blended artstyle of both modern and retro aesthetics that perfectly embodies the original – as if Nightdive is trying to evoke what you think the game looked like back in the day. Despite having this hard-edged metallic design to its many rooms and corridors, there are refreshing pangs of vibrant colour that keep each of the game’s floors feeling fresh and unique. It’s topped off with a rock-solid performance on PS5 that means you can slither your way from maintenance to the executive floors without a single stutter.

The first thing you’ll notice about System Shock is that it is not there to help you – at all. This is a tough game, both through its so-so combat, and its gruelling space station puzzles. It’s both the good and bad of this remake, as it is invigorating to play a game that really makes you sift through text and audio logs. Something as simple as figuring out a code may require you to visit multiple areas across various levels of the station, and you’ll need to physically note the code down as the game won’t store it for you. Playing a game with a notepad by your side is a rather niche aspect of a bygone era of gaming, but you’ll undoubtedly sit up on your seat a little as System Shock challenges you this way.

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Finally figuring out a long sought after code, or turning on the power that grants you access to a whole new level of the station is immensely gratifying. This is also a game that feeds off of your curiosity, where you can track the storylines of ill-fated characters and slowly piece together the puzzle of the station’s A.I. takeover. Very rarely will System Shock spell it out for you, so if you aren’t keen on sifting through reams of texts, then its setting will likely come across as very surface level. Certainly you aren’t going to find environmental storytelling here like you do in Dishonored for example, and System Shock does very little to establish a history prior to SHODAN’s current takeover.

That however is the seed of our frustrations with System Shock. Since a lot of the context of the station lies in the text and audio logs, there’s very little reason to explore its various hallways and offices beyond the need to progress to the next level. Every now and again you’ll find a new weapon, or a modkit station to upgrade your arsenal, but for the most part you’ll be wandering in circles wondering what to do and where to go, and more than a few times you’ll spend upwards of 20 minutes trying to gain access to a room that has very little reward inside. System Shock is littered with dead ends, which in itself is fine, but with another audio log often being the big reward, it’s hard not to feel unenthused at times.

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Exploration can also feel trite thanks to its grindy recycling system, where you hoard masses of junk, vaporise it all to negate inventory issues, and then cart it to a recycling station to earn a few vitcoins. It’s nice to see what is clearly the inception of the recycling system in PREY, but it doesn’t quite have the same satisfying loop. It’s here too that it becomes glaringly obvious that the game is not meant to be played with a controller. Inventory management is incredibly tedious and lacks the speed or ease of use that you’ll find with a mouse and keyboard.

Frustrations carry over to the combat too, which if we’re being honest, just isn’t great. To give credit where credit is due, System Shock tries to keep things fresh with the most random collection of enemies we’ve ever seen. From cyborgs to floating bacteria, there is always an aspect of surprise as you encounter new enemy types, and things certainly improve as you discover better weapons. However, the issue is that the combat never really has the weight or dynamism that you’d get in more modern releases. Melee weapons lack impact, guns lack oomph, and with next to no cover, you’re essentially trading shots with an enemy that practically never misses – and this is the same in the cyberspace portions of the game too.

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The respawn system doesn’t help things either. Since any damage you’ve done or enemies you’ve killed carry over when you respawn, there’s very rarely any feeling of tension in the combat. Once you’ve unlocked that floor’s respawn area, you can be back in action within 30 seconds. You then have a choice of either using your healing supplies to inch ahead, or hoard them for the boss fights meaning you’re continually respawning, leading to some stilted progression. There is an in-depth difficulty setting to counter this if things prove to be too tough, but there is oddly no option to change this mid-game so you either have to stick with it or restart with a new save.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, System Shock is the faithful remake of a 30-year-old game, and you can feel that age in every facet of its being. In some ways, this is a tantalising look back at the game that started an entire genre, and if you’ve got the enthusiasm or nostalgia for immersive sims like it, then it’s worth checking out for that alone. However, if you lack that nostalgic connection, then System Shock is more a showcase of how far the genre has come, rather than a spotlight on how well it’s held up. System Shock may have walked so others in the genre could run, but for us, that walk is just a little too slow.

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