Games

The 'System Shock' Remake Demo Shows Its Development Is Back on Track

The Steam Games Festival gave us a welcome glimpse into a remake that once seemed doomed.
December 13, 2019, 8:28pm
Night Dive's System Shock remake demo for the Steam Games Festival was good.
'System Shock' remake screenshot courtesy of Nightdive

For this year's Game Awards, the show expanded beyond its star-studded stage, past our browsers, and right into into our Steam libraries. Whereas past years have incited sales on games featured in the show, this year, jolly old Geoff Keighley brought all the good little gamers a very special treat: “The Steam Game Festival.” For 48 hours, you could download demos from 14 different upcoming games, including titles like Heavenly Bodies, SkateBIRD, and my personal favorite: System Shock.

Nightdive’s complete remake of the original System Shock, which was initially released over two decades ago, has been highly anticipated since its announcement. Subject to its fair share of pushbacks and delays (including a period where development halted, the team was hit with layoffs, and the game went "on hiatus"), it started to feel like one of those games that may just never actually make it to market. Last night, thanks to the Steam Game Festival, I finally got to see just what Night Dive has been working on.

I played the original System Shock two years ago for a class called “The Evolution of Narrative Immersive Sims,” taught by Matthew Weise at the NYU Game Center. What had been introduced to me as a homework assignment ended up on my first GOTY list for Waypoint. The game was intoxicating, terrifying, and rightfully earned its place as my #2 game that year, despite fighting with its often times frustrating controls and chaotic HUD.

System Shock Enhanced Edition Screenshot

'System Shock Enhanced Edition' gives a good idea of how weird the original game looks to modern eyes.

What I hoped for from Nightdive was that same System Shock, just easier on the eyes and controls. After playing through the pre-alpha demo last night, I am happy to report that the game feels like precisely that. As soon as I realized I could lean with Q and E, I knew I was in good hands.

The most harrowing part of my experience playing the original System Shock was grounded in the game’s environmental design. That’s not to say I haven’t literally yelled at my computer after sprinting around a corner, only to end up face-to-face with a mutant. More terrifying still was the sudden crash of door closing behind me, the soft groans of enemies looming nearby, the beeping and tittering of cameras, screens, and other technologies. I was so pleased that the demo’s sound design fell almost exactly in line with the original.

That feeling of inhabiting a haunted, hostile place is the one thing that will make-or-break any System Shock remake. This boss isn’t waiting for you at the end of the level, she is the level. Evil is in the walls. She has an army of cyborgs and mutants waiting for you and cameras watching you, the entire station is constantly aware of you; you have limited ammo, a wrench, several audio logs to make sense of, and a no-frills map of what you’ve explored. SHODAN always has the upper hand, she anticipates your next move, and self-corrects. You walk along SHODAN’s halls. You enter her rooms. She is always in control.

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SHODAN’s presence felt somehow even more pervasive as I walked along corridor after corridor. Various tubes and panels almost seemed to be breathing, as if SHODAN herself was embodied in the station, and I was navigating her interior. For a while I stood there, watching these tubes breathe in and out, and I felt even more insecure and vulnerable than I had in the original. My memory was failing me. I felt lost, scrambling for traction, all the while I knew SHODAN could see my every move, my every dead end. Slowly, I regained my footing, and as I approached the end of the demo, I could feel my confidence coming back. I wasn’t afraid of her because I knew her. She was familiar again.

It took me about an hour to complete the demo. At first, I had some camera wackiness as I passed through doorways or went from room to room, but the longer I played, the more unstable my camera movement became. The demo doesn’t allow you to save, so after I died early on in my first run, I had to start from the beginning. I also couldn’t figure out for the life of me how to switch my pistol’s ammo out. The gun came with one type of ammo, but I only ever picked up a different type that I couldn’t seem to swap out for. Lastly, I was really excited to check out Nightdive’s interpretation of Cyberspace, but the first terminal I found didn’t seem to be operable in this demo.

Remaking a game as unusual and distinctive as System Shock is obviously difficult; even its own sequel, System Shock 2, made a lot of changes to the System Shock formula that shifted the core experience of the game towards something more like Deus Ex. So far, Nightdive’s demo feels like System Shock, now with more intuitive movement, facilitated HUD navigation, and updated graphics, which is exactly what I think fans of the original, myself included, have been wanting. My hope is that Nightdive’s remake continues to capture the authentic experience of the original, so that gamers everywhere can come to know what it is to fear SHODAN. If this demo is any indicator, I think they might just nail it.