System Shock (2023) Review | Keeping Things Cool, Old School

System Shock comes back in a glorious reboot that sticks to its roots by bringing interstellar suspense while refusing to hold your hand.

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One year short of three decades, Nightdive’s magnum opus, System Shock comes back full force in a glorious reboot that sticks to its retro roots by bringing interstellar suspense and terror while absolutely refusing to hold your hand.

In 1994, System Shock broke into the first-person shooter scene, going toe-to-toe against demon-riddled rival Doom, by offering a more literal “out of this world” horror experience. While this franchise didn’t stay as active as its rival, it kept its loyal fanbase satiated with its old but gold gameplay, a sequel in 1999, and an enhanced edition that still sees gameplay today. 

We got the chance to play it before release, but as Steamworks had its complications and threatened to make me cry, the scope of this review is more limited than we’d want it to be. Rest assured, we’ll still give a proper recommendation by the end based on how it compares to its predecessors and how it measures up to gaming’s modern sensibilities.

Out of the Fire, and into Deep Space

While this is considered a System Shock remake, or if we’re being extremely technical, a reboot, it retains its core gameplay–something that could be hit-or-miss with the core audience. Unreal Engine really made sure to give this game a modern sheen that, at first, feels a bit alienating (pun intended) to anyone who’s spent time with the classics.

As someone who’s played both the first and second installment, and never finished either due to my 90s kid skill issues, even I had a slightly different feeling about the game. It’s by no means a bad feeling, it’s just–new.

You get your standard-issue weapons and enemies that make their epic 2023 return. Guns that run both on energy and hard ammunition are available from the get-go, and this will be the case in the official release. You’re still the nameless hacker imprisoned in a space station creeping with humanoid mutants, robots gone mad, and the ever-infamous SHODAN who’s basically running the whole show. This isn’t exactly a shot-for-shot recreation of the 1994 game, but the game’s sections (as seen on the map), early progression, and orientation into the plot are pretty much the same.

Fewer Changes, More Fun

This is a title marketed to 2023 audiences, no doubt. However, one can’t deny copious amounts the old-school charm it exudes. From the aesthetics to the sound design, it’s quite the nostalgia trip. Hyperrealistic characters and set pieces are great and all, but seeing a few stretched pixels and clearly 

There’s no tutorial, at least in this version. We get tooltips on our HUD and audio logs to help piece things together–gameplay and story-wise. Vaporizing items will likely elicit a moment of confusion for anyone picking this game up for the first time. Regardless, you’ll get a generous helping of fun as you explore a vast map. Judging from the very first floor, the succeeding levels will be just as detailed.

Finding secrets that lead into fun and trippy plot-progressing mini-games and solving simple, yet mind-boggling puzzles to open a door three rooms away really gives a sense of awe and satisfaction. Being able to crank the difficulty all the way up, and dialing it down when you get overwhelmed is something I truly enjoyed in the original System Shock (see 90s kid skill issues above), and I am so glad it makes its comeback here.

Simple, Clean, Scary as all Hell

Given the game’s aesthetic and graphic requirements, you can’t expect too much. Make no mistake, though, as this is still a premium experience in terms of reliving a classic. 

If you’ve played the original series or even the enhanced edition, you’re there for the challenge and fun of it all. It’s either a speedrun or a nice casual stroll through the space station with an entire arsenal in your pocket. This time, we get immersion. Lots of it.

From dark, depowered areas crawling with enemies to the neon-lit walkways also crawling with enemies, you’ll be training your sights ahead if you don’t want to respawn a mile away, or worse–back at the beginning if you forget to save your game. This won’t be a 90s walk in the park. System Shock has gotten with the times and will definitely show you as you get maimed, shot at, or blown up with explosives just because you failed to check a tight corner.

By No Means a Modern Shooter, and That’s Fine

System Shock is something you couldn’t compare to its younger, more intense triple-A contemporaries. Personally, I believe that wasn’t the goal in the first place. On the surface, you’d see a game in 2023 that lacks a wise-cracking protagonist, equally witty side characters, a file cabinet of an inventory, From Software-level lore, and the ability to aim down your gun’s sights. This game has none of those, which could be disappointing to those who’ve found comfort in the sensibilities of games nowadays.

That being said, I believe the folks at Nightdive purposely kept the old school charm in gameplay mechanics and simply updated the overall look–which is great, in my opinion.  This would be the best time to reintroduce a classic. It’s a refreshing way to play, given the heavy-hitting action and survival horror titles we’ve gotten in the past couple of months. 

Final Verdict – 8.5/10

Now, hear me out first. We’re well aware that we have yet to explore the full breadth and depth of 2023’s System Shock, and there’s surely much more to explore. In this day and age, you just need one stage, nay, 10 minutes into a game to tell if it’ll get you hooked or not. This isn’t a book or a documentary mini-series. This is a classic game reimagined and recreated–and in that aspect, it will, indeed keep you playing.

From a gameplay perspective, it ticks the necessary boxes. You get smooth linear gameplay, challenging puzzles, a straightforward plot, immersive exploration, and the utmost respect for the player’s intelligence–too much respect if we’re being honest. Either way, it’s fun. At the end of the day, that is the highest of priorities.

While we’re still living in a modern age with modern gaming where people have grown accustomed to the hand-holding and ease of use that modern titles employ, there will always be room for a game like System Shock. It’s that good, and everyone should give it a spin. May we live long enough to see its rebooted sequel come out in 2052.

The PC edition of System Shock is available to pre-order via SteamGOG, and the Epic Games Store including a free copy of the upcoming System Shock 2: Enhanced Edition if you’re one of the early bird buyers.

This review was made via a PC game code provided by the publisher.