The neologism “abandonware” merges in a single word the concept of abandoned software, of a program which, regardless of its historical importance, is now buried by the sands of time, forgotten in an apparently eternal limbo. The developer Nightdive Studios has made abandonware its core business: like a hungry warthog, the studio digs through the debris of ancient videogame publishers in order to obtain titles to restore and put back on the market. Among the pearls recovered over the years by the group is System Shockprogenitor of a videogame trend from which masterpieces such as Bioshock and Prey derive and which now lends itself to returning to the field in a significantly renewed version.
However, it is not enough to revise a masterpiece of gaming-that-was to give life to guaranteed success. The history of Nightdive is not without its missteps, and the genesis of this specific remake is extremely complex and tortuous. The game took its first steps on Kickstarter way back in 2016, since then it has undergone suspensions, rework and even thecomplete elimination of the contributions offered by the famous author Chris Avellone, who saw his career stumble on sexual harassment allegations that were later dropped in court. A path that is anything but peaceful, in short. Considering these antecedents, we had tempered our expectations a lot, however the revived System Shock proved to be a solid product, albeit not very daring.
System Shock, from its origins to the remake
The original System Shock hit store shelves way back in 1994, just a year after that Doom that had shocked the gaming world. Taking into account the limitations of the time, this unusual sci-fi product was extremely ambitious: you could crouch, you could lean around corners, weapons were equipped with multiple ammo, you interacted with environmental elements and it all came strongly fueled by a captivating storyline. It was a real milestone which, however, had the misfortune of being heavily overshadowed by its sequel, even disappearing from the retrogaming landscape. Anyone who has been tempered to the standards of today’s game design will in fact find it hard to immerse themselves in this experience which – even only at the design level – is daughter of a historical period that we have long left behind. The first approach of Nightdive therefore collided with this obsolescence: the demo made available during the crowdfunding had updated the aesthetics of the game, but in terms of design and mechanics, the developers had mostly oriented themselves to slavishly reproduce the original and the result final tasted stale. Over time, the study recognized that it was necessary to enforce most significant authorial changestranslating the project from a real remake to something more similar to a reboot. Virtuous examples of this approach are by now the order of the day – Resident Evil 4 and Doom, to mention a couple –, however the set objectives have had to deal with a certain lack of funds, with the result that System Shock has assumed a less daring creative position, orbiting in half between the new and the old.
The life of a comatose hacker
The events explored by the work begin without too many frills: a hacker hired by a megacorporation deactivates the ethical limitations of an artificial intelligence – SHODAN -, then is drugged by his employer and wakes up in a space station subject to a disturbing epidemic. With the exception of some recordings recovered around the ship, the protagonist is left to himself, as is the player. Within minutes it becomes clear that the onboard AI, deprived of any criteria, has decided to rebel against humans: Mechanical equipment and robots attack on sight, regeneration stations have been modified to turn civilians into cyborgs, and the survivors have been infected with a virus that has profoundly mutated them. The mission to be completed at that point is equally crystal clear: SHODAN must be eliminated so that he can return home safely.
The hacker will have to visit the different floors of the orbital station in order to destroy the servers that support the infrastructure, then he will have to infiltrate the artificial intelligence software in order to eradicate its influence. It all unfolds through gameplay between shooter and action-adventure, with an exploratory component that dominates the entire usability of the title. Between doors that require access keys and limited equipment from hackable computers, backtracking becomes an obligatory step, even more so because the objectives to be pursued are not explicitly highlighted. System Shock therefore trusts in the attention of its players, often forcing them to read or listen to the collected documents.
It is not, however, an easy game! Reverberating the style of the early nineties, the title offers a higher degree of challenge than the now conventional one. Ammunition is scarce, the character is relatively vulnerable and you constantly have to deal with managing a grid inventory that limits resource collection all too quickly. You don’t get to touch the frontiers of survival-horror, but there are nonetheless bridges in common with the genre, especially when at the end of the adventure you realize that you have consumed too many treatments and ammunition during the first levels. In short, it is easy for the first game to be annihilated by the fact that your supplies are insufficient to survive the challenges of the epilogue, so prepare yourself spiritually for the possibility of having to start a second run even before completing the first.
A System Shock between two eras
Despite being completely revamped, Nightdive Studios’ System Shock remains archaic in its own way. The gameplay has been refreshed, it is in step with the times, but its design infrastructure also remains faithful to the abstruse original, for better or for worse. The judgment in this regard is highly subjective – Legend Of Grimrock proves that every now and then it is worth looking back – however the reboot’s content offer is not in line with what one would expect from a 2023 release. -graphics the developers have played the graphics engine card Unreal Engine 4, so the results can be satisfying even if they don’t reach amazing goals. At most, there are some model management problems, a defect that pushes enemy corpses to sway in place as soon as a loading area is crossed. If this might seem like a minor flaw to you, keep in mind that sometimes new opponents are generated in the same areas of the bodies, complicating life for anyone who wants to quickly understand if they are faced with a threat or a bug.
More serious is, in our opinion, the almost total absence of options designed for the accessibility of the title, a lack that affects both the gameplay and the more purely technical juncture. The difficulties available are limited, for example, to reflect those present in the System Shock of the nineties, there are no new settings that can lighten the burden for those who are not used to getting lost in apparently rambling mazes: there are no beacons, light trails to follow, or overlays to notify active targets. In wanting to be optimistic we can liquidate the question as a choice aimed at preserving the sense of solitude and abandonment that exuded from the reference work, however such benevolence cannot in any case also extend to the fugitive of those rearrangements which could instead be integrated without run into distortions of form.
In a gaming world that becomes more and more inclusive, we now expect a remake to make an effort to introduce options useful for satisfying the needs of the visually impaired, the colorblind, the hard of hearing, elements that are not present here. Not only that, there are also certain trivial possibilities such as the opportunity to change the difficulty level once the game has started or to alter the size of the subtitles so that they are clearly visible even in the most agitated moments. This shortage of additions it does not affect the value of this renewed System Shock, but calibrates well the scope of the perspectives in the field: the game allows you to explore a now almost untouchable masterpiece without suffering, but the developers have not taken any evolutionary step that is able to overcome that single finish line.
Sviluppatore: Nightdive Studios
Publisher: Prime Matter
Piattaforme: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
Nightdive Studios’ System Shock finally makes a title that has made the history of game design accessible to new generations, but which at the same time wears its almost thirty years with little grace. Finally everyone can launch into the battle against the SHODAN artificial intelligence without fear of having to deal with the heavy technical limitations of the time, however whoever embarks on the adventure will also discover that the developers have decided to keep alive those design complexities that synthesize the gaming zeitgeist of the early 1990s. Instead of focusing on a reboot that is able to embrace contemporary tastes, Nightdive Studios has in fact preferred to embark on a radical restoration that almost entirely preserves the consolidated formula. The updates are functional, but not substantial, a difference that greatly complicates the modernization of System Shock, especially now that the market has accustomed us to high quality remakes and reboots.