System Shock (PS5) Review: Would You Kindly

Our review of System Shock, developed by Nightdive Studios (original by Looking Glass Studios, 1994). Remaster available now for PS5 (reviewed), PS4, Microsoft X/S, and Windows.

System Shock (PS5) Review: Would You Kindly


A remake of the fabled immersive sim, better known today as the precursor to BioShock.


It’s a bit creaky and lacks some of the player-friendly features of modern game design, but it’s a fun trip down memory lane nevertheless.


Elizabeth, Booker DeWitt, Jack, etc.

System Shock (PS5) Review: Would You Kindly


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an evil AI has taken over a space station, a brilliant hacker/soldier is the last hope of stopping it, and there are killer mutants on the loose.

System Shock, itself heavily inspired by rogue AI fiction such as Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” or 2001: A Space Odyssey, was a landmark game at its 1994 release. Helping to popularize the immersive sim genre, in which player choice dictates not only the outcome of the story, but the individual plot beats, character dynamics, even which level paths become available, System Shock proved immensely popular, paving the way for games such as BioShock, Deus Ex, and the recentish Prey reboot.

A new, Kickstarter-backed ground-up remake of System Shock by Nightdive Studios (sadly, the original Looking Glass Studios shuttered in 2000) offers contemporary players a chance to see what all the fuss is about – and, unfortunately, to struggle with a few too many outdated mechanics which Nightdive has resolutely refused to modernize.

System Shock is fun, yes, and a nice bit of history. But it can also be an old-fashioned slog, plagued by too much backtracking, confusing pathfinding, fiddly item management, and annoying enemies. Mercifully, adjustable difficulty alleviates some of these problems – though you’ll still spend far too much time retracing your steps when you learn you’ve overlooked something – but this is a remaster which, all things considered, would have benefitted from less fidelity to the original.

System Shock (PS5) Review: Would You Kindly


The year is 2072 (which, aside, um, isn’t that far off anymore). You, the nameless hacker protagonist, have been commissioned to bypass the extremely impressive artificial intelligence protocols of SHODAN, the supercomputer in charge of Citadel Station. (Like I said, familiar plot beats.) Things predictably go awry, and soon enough SHODAN is in the midst of the galaxy’s worst computer breakdown, unleashing waves of mutated and roboticized enemies (the former crew of the Citadel, horribly transformed) as you try to figure out a way to shut her/it down and escape in one piece.

At a mechanical level, System Shock represents an awkward stage in the development of the immersive sim model. Played in the first-person, like BioShock and Deus Ex and so many after it, it nominally offers you alternatives to combat – like its many hacking sequences – but mostly relies on the cheap trick of overwhelming you with absurd numbers of overpowered enemies.

There is a lot of combat in System Shock, and there are a lot of Game Overs (unless you dial the difficulty all the way down). Save-scumming – the practice of manually saving every few minutes, to give yourself plenty of checkpoints to reload to – is practically required, since you never know when you’ll turn a corner and get run down by a dozen mega-cyborg-mutants. Older gamers will recognize this practice; it’s not particularly fun, and it turns a lot of otherwise interesting missions into a slog, since you’ll be forced to inch your way through them, scrounging for items and precious health powerups, restarting every time you’re K.O.’d.

System Shock‘s storytelling is great. The idea of a single all-powerful AI plaguing your every movement has been done many times over – Portal is a wonderfully comedic take on this – and SHODAN remains an iconic villain for good reason. She/it will taunt you at every turn, tampering with the station to interfere with you, catching you off-guard with a plethora of jump scares. Voice actor Terri Brosius, the original SHODAN, returned to re-record all her dialogue for this remake, and her commitment to this, her most famous role, really shows.

I have mixed feelings about System Shock‘s approach to progression. On the one hand, it’s great there are no big glowy arrows telling you exactly where to go, and that you’re forced to pay attention to dialogue and environmental details in order to figure out next steps. On the other hand, the complete lack of handholding can be overwhelming (it certainly was back in 1994), thanks to a maze-like design which makes it impossible to figure out what to do next. Difficulty modifiers can reduce some of this headache, as can online walkthroughs, but it takes some getting used to a game which simply disregards the decades of quality-of-life improvements we gamers now take for granted.

System Shock (PS5) Review: Would You Kindly


The best “station breakdown” video game remains, at least for this writer, 2014’s Alien: Isolation, which combines the terrifying threat of the xenomorph, aka the “Ultimate Predator”, with a beautifully realized retro-future space station overrun by malfunctioning androids.

Alien: Isolation is a beast of game in many respects, not least its one-hit-kill attacks and deliberately infrequent checkpoints, but it manages to capture the System Shock vibe without cheating the player through artificial difficulty spikes, labyrinthine level design, or overwhelming numbers of enemies. (In fact, for most of the game, it’s just you and a single xenomorph in a horrifying game of cat-and-mouse.)

System Shock, released some twenty years before Alien: Isolation, had yet to learn those lessons, and its remake, faithful to a fault, keeps all the 1994 original’s bad habits intact. That’s fine, in a sense – you might as well experience it the way it was meant to be played – but it also means modern gamers might get annoyed after a certain point. SHODAN, the hilariously bonkers antagonist, still deserves your attention, and it’s worth playing through just to hear everything she/it has to say. You just might need a guide to get you there.

Final score: 8/10 plasmids.

Visit the official website for System Shock here.