System Shock 2

System Shock 2
System Shock 2
The cover art of System Shock 2
Developer(s) Irrational Games
Looking Glass Studios
Publisher(s) Electronic Arts
Designer(s) Ken Levine
Composer(s) Eric Brosius
Engine Enhanced Dark Engine[1]
Version 2.3 (September 17, 1999)[2]
Platform(s) Microsoft Windows
Release date(s)
Genre(s) Action role-playing game[4]
Mode(s) Single-player, cooperative
Media/distribution CD-ROM
System requirements

Windows 9x, Pentium or K6 200+ MHz, 32 MB RAM, 4X CD/DVD-ROM, DirectX 6+, Highcolor 4 MB PCI or AGP video card, sound card.

System Shock 2 is a 1999 first-person action role-playing video game, designed by Ken Levine for Microsoft Windows. The title is a sequel to the 1994 PC game System Shock, and was co-developed by Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios. The sequel was originally designed as a standalone title with no relation to System Shock; story changes were made when Electronic Arts—who owned the Shock franchise rights—signed on as publisher. System Shock 2 was released on August 11, 1999 in North America.

The game takes place on board a starship in a cyberpunk depiction of 2114. The player assumes the role of a lone soldier trying to stem the outbreak of a genetic infection that has devastated the ship. Like System Shock, gameplay consists of first person shooting and exploration. The game also incorporates role-playing system elements, where the player can develop unique skills and traits, such as hacking and psionic abilities.

System Shock 2 received positive reviews when released, but failed to meet commercial sales expectations. In retrospect, many critics have determined the game to be highly influential, particularly on first person shooters, and far ahead of its time, and inducted it into several "greatest games of all time" lists. In January 2006, Computer and Video Games reported System Shock 3 may be under development. As of January 2009, nothing conclusive has surfaced regarding the purported project's status. In 2007, Irrational—then 2K Boston/2K Australia—released a self-proclaimed 'spiritual successor' to the System Shock series, entitled BioShock, to critical acclaim and strong sales.



An in-game screenshot displaying the inventory at the top; health, psionic points, nanites, and cyber modules at the bottom left; and the cyber interface and weapon information at the bottom right.

Like its predecessor, gameplay in System Shock 2 is an amalgamation of the role-playing game (RPG) and first person shooter (FPS) genres. The player uses melee and projectile weapons to defeat enemies, while a role-playing system allows the development of useful abilities. Navigation is presented from a first-person perspective and complemented with a heads-up display that shows character and weapon information, a map, and a drag and drop inventory.[5] Backstory is explained progressively through the acquisition of audio logs and encounters with ghostly apparitions.[3]

The game begins with the player choosing a career in a branch of the Unified National Nominate, a fictional military organization. Each branch of service gives the player a set of starting bonuses in certain skills, though he may thereafter freely develop himself as he pleases. Marines begin with bonuses to weaponry, Navy officers are trained in repairing and hacking, and OSA agents get a starting set of psionic powers.[6][7]

The player can upgrade his skills by spending "cyber-modules", which are obtained as rewards for completing objectives or searching every nook and cranny of the ship. Skills are enhanced by spending cyber-modules at devices called "cyber-upgrade units".[6][8] O/S units allow special one-time character upgrades to be made (e.g. permanent health enhancement).

An in-game currency, called "nanites", may be spent on items at vending machines. This includes ammunition supplies and health packs. "Quantum Bio-Reconstruction Machines" can be activated and reconstitute the player for 10 "nanites" if they die in the same area. Otherwise, the game ends and progress must be resumed from a save point.[8]

The player can hack devices, such as keypads to open alternate areas and vending machines to reduce prices. When a hack is attempted, a minigame begins where a grid of green nodes form; the player must connect three in a straight row to succeed. Optionally, electronic lock picks can be found and automatically hack a machine, regardless of its difficulty.[9]

Various weapons can be procured throughout the game, including melee weapons, pistols, shotguns, and alien weapons.[10] Non-melee weapons degrade with use and will break if they are not regularly repaired with maintenance tools.[11] Different ammunition types exist which are more effective to susceptible enemies. For example, organic enemies are vulnerable to anti-personnel rounds, while mechanical foes are weak against armor-piercing rounds. Because ammunition is scarce, the player must use it sparingly and carefully search rooms for supplies.[12]

The game also includes a research function. When new objects are encountered in the game, especially enemies, their organs can be collected. Combined with chemicals found in storage rooms, the player can research the enemies and improve their damage against them.[11]

OSA agents effectively have a separate weapons tree available to them. Psionic powers can be learned, such as invisibility, fireballs and teleportation.[7]


The story begins in 2114, forty-two years after the events of System Shock. After joining the United National Nominate, the protagonist — Soldier G65434-2 — is assigned to the Rickenbacker, a military spacecraft. The Rickenbacker is escorting the Von Braun, an experimental faster-than-light (FTL) starship, on its maiden voyage. As the Rickenbacker does not have an FTL system of its own, the two ships are attached together for the trip.[13]

A few months into the journey, the ships respond to a distress signal from the planet Tau Ceti V.[14] A rescue team is sent to the planet surface where they discover strange eggs.[15] The eggs infect the rescue team and integrate them into an alien communion that calls itself the Many. The infestation eventually overtakes both ships.

The soldier awakens in a cryo-tube on the medical deck of the Von Braun with amnesia due to a computer malfunction. He is immediately contacted by another survivor, Dr. Janice Polito, who guides him to safety before the cabin depressurizes. She demands that he rendezvous with her on deck 4 of the Von Braun.[16] Along the way, the soldier battles the infected crew members. The Many also telepathically communicate with him, attempting to persuade the soldier to join their collective.

After restarting the ship's engine core and purging an elevator shaft, the soldier reaches deck 4 and discovers Polito is dead. He is then confronted by SHODAN, a malevolent artificial intelligence that devastated Citadel Station, a fictional space station, in the previous game. It is revealed she has been posing as Polito to gain the soldier's trust.[17]

She goes on to mention that she is responsible for creating the Many, the results of her bioengineering experiments on Citadel Station. The hacker (System Shock 1) ejected the grove that contained her experiments to prevent them contaminating Earth, an act that also allowed part of SHODAN to survive the events of the first game. The grove crash-landed on Tau Ceti V. While SHODAN went into forced hibernation, The Many evolved beyond her control.[18]

SHODAN issues an ultimatum to the soldier, stating his only chance for survival lies in helping destroy her rebellious creations.[19] Efforts to regain control of XERXES, the main computer on the Von Braun, fail. SHODAN informs the soldier that destroying the Von Braun is their only option, but he must transmit her program to the Rickenbacker first.[20] While en route, the soldier briefly encounters two survivors, Tommy Suarez and Rebecca Siddons, who flee the ship aboard an escape pod.[21]

With the transfer complete, the soldier travels to the Rickenbacker and learns both ships have been enveloped by the infection's source, a gigantic mass of bio-organic tissue.[22] The soldier enters the biomass and destroys its core, stopping the alien infection. SHODAN congratulates the protagonist and informs him of her intentions to merge real space and cyberspace by subverting the reality-altering mechanics of the Von Braun's faster-than-light drive.[23] The soldier confronts SHODAN in cyberspace and defeats her.

The final scene shows Tommy and Rebecca receiving a message from the Von Braun. Tommy responds, saying they will return but Rebecca is acting strange. Rebecca is shown speaking in a voice similar to that of SHODAN, asking Tommy if he "likes her new look", as the screen fades to black.


Horror is a key focus of System Shock 2. This concept art depicts the protagonist encountering an infected crewmember.

Development began in 1997 when Looking Glass Studios approached Irrational Games with an idea to co-develop a new game.[24] The development team were fans of System Shock and sought to create a game with similar elements. Early story ideas were similar to the novella Heart of Darkness. In an early draft, the player was tasked with assassinating an insane commander on a starship.[25] The title took 18 months to create with a budget of $1.7 million.[26]

The game was pitched to several publishers, and Electronic Arts—who owned the rights to the Shock franchise—responded by suggesting the game become a sequel to System Shock. The team agreed; Electronic Arts became the publisher and story changes were made to incorporate the franchise.[25] The project was allotted one year to be completed. To compensate for the short time frame, the staff began working with Looking Glass Studio's unfinished Dark Engine, the same engine used to create Thief: The Dark Project.[26]

The designers wanted RPG elements in the game. Similar to Ultima Underworld, another Looking Glass Studios project, the environment in System Shock 2 is persistent and constantly changes without the player's presence.[27][28] Paper and pencil RPGs were also influential; the character customization system was based on Traveller's methodology. In System Shock 2, this design was implemented in the fictional military branches.[27] By allowing multiple character paths, the player could receive a more open-ended gameplay experience.[29]

Horror was a key focus and four major points were identified to successfully incorporate it. Isolation was deemed primary, which resulted in the player having little physical contact with other sentient beings. Secondly, vulnerability was created by focusing on a fragile character, instead of making the player strong. Lastly were the inclusion of moody sound effects and "the intelligent placement of lighting and shadows".[30]

The game's lead designer, Ken Levine, oversaw the return of System Shock villain SHODAN. Part of Levine's design was to ally the player with her,[25] but he also believed game characters were too trusting, stating "good guys are good, bad guys are bad. What you see and perceive is real." Levine sought to challenge this notion by having SHODAN betray the player: "Sometimes characters are betrayed, but the player never is. I wanted to violate that trust and make the player feel that they, and not [only] the character, were led on and deceived." This design choice was controversial with the development team.[31]

Several problems were encountered during the project. Because the team comprised two software companies, tension emerged regarding job assignments. Some developers left the project altogether. Additionally, many employees were largely inexperienced, but in retrospect project manager Jonathan Chey felt this was advantageous, stating "...inexperience also bred enthusiasm and commitment that might not have been present with a more jaded set of developers." The Dark Engine posed problems of its own. It was unfinished, forcing the programmers to fix software bugs when encountered. In contrast, working closely with the engine code allowed them to write additional features.[26] Not all setbacks were localized; a demonstration build at E3 was hindered when it was requested all guns be removed from the presentation. This was done in light of the recent Columbine High School massacre.[30]

A demo for the game, featuring a tutorial and a third of the first mission, was released on August 2, 1999.[32] Nine days later, System Shock 2 was shipped to retailers[33] and received acclaim from numerous critics.[34] An enhancement patch was released a month later and added significant features, such as co-operative multiplayer and control over weapon degradation and enemy respawn rates.[2] A port was planned for the Dreamcast, but was subsequently canceled.[35]


Aggregate scores
Aggregator Score
GameRankings 92% based on 36 reviews[36]
Metacritic 92% based on 20 reviews[34]
Review scores
Publication Score
Allgame 4/5 stars[37]
Computer and Video Games 9.5/10[38]
GamePro 5/5 stars[39]
Game Revolution A[40]
GameSpot 8.5/10[1]
IGN 9.0/10[3]
PC Gamer US 95%[41]

System Shock 2 received over a dozen awards, including seven "Game of the Year" awards by publications, such as Game Revolution and USA Today.[42] Reviews were very positive and lauded the title for its hybrid gameplay, moody sound design, and engaging story.[34] Despite critical acclaim, the title did not sell well.[43]

Many publications praised the title for its open-ended gameplay. With regard to character customization, Trent Ward of IGN stated the best element of the RPG system was allowing gamers to "play the game as completely different characters", and felt this made each play-through unique.[3] Erik Reckase writing for Just Adventure agreed, saying “There are very few games that allow you [to] play the way you want”.[44] Alec Norands of Allgame believed the different character classes made the game “diverse enough to demand instant replayability."[37]

Critics described the game as frightening. Colin of Game Revolution attested that the game rivaled the terror of Resident Evil 2 and Silent Hill, and felt the game was "brimming with horror”.[40] Computer and Video Games described the atmosphere as “gripping” and guaranteed readers they would "jump out of [their] skin" numerous times.[38] Norands found the sound design particularly effective, calling it “absolutely, teeth-clenchingly disturbing,”[37] while PC Gamer editor William Harms christened System Shock 2 the most frightening game he had ever played.[41]

Many critics found the weapon degradation system to be irritating.[45][3][5][37] Members of the development team have also expressed misgivings about the system.[24][46] The RPG system was another point of contention. Desslock of GameSpot described the job system as "badly unbalanced" because the player can develop skills outside their career choice.[1] Norands felt similarly about the system, saying it "leaned towards a hacker character".[37]


System Shock 2 is regarded by critics as highly influential, particularly on first-person shooters and the horror genre. In a retrospective article, Gamespot declared the title "well ahead of its time" and stated it "upped the ante in dramatic and mechanical terms" by creating a horrific gameplay experience.[31] Along with Deus Ex, Sid Shuman of GamePro christened System Shock 2 "[one of the] twin barrels of modern FPS innovation," due to its complex role-playing gameplay.[47] IGN writer Cam Shea referred to the game as "another reinvention of the FPS genre", citing the story, characters, and RPG system.[48] The title has been inducted into a number of features listing the greatest games ever made, including ones by Gamespy,[49] Edge,[50] IGN,[51] Gamespot,[31] and PC Gamer.[52]

The return of SHODAN has been observed as an innovation itself. Brad Shoemaker of Gamespot described her revelation to the player as "one of the most shocking and effective video game plot devices" he had ever seen.[31] Her inclusion, Gamespy stated, is what made System Shock 2 "a complete experience instead of just another game."[49] SHODAN has proven to be a popular character among some critics; among these are IGN,[53] Gamespot,[54] and The Phoenix.[55]

System Shock 2 has amassed a cult following with fans, many of whom have demanded a sequel.[51] Some fans are active in the modding community where collaborations to update the game's graphics take place. One graphical enhancement mod, entitled Rebirth, replaces many low-polygonal models with higher quality ones.[56] Another mod, the Shock Texture Upgrade Project (SHTUP), significantly increases the resolution of in-game textures.[31] The community at Sshock2, a fan site, have also released a free level editor entitled ShockEd, which is a repackaged version of Looking Glass Studios' own editor.[57][58]

In 2007, 2K Boston/2K Australia—previously (and again, as of January 2009[59]) known as Irrational Games—released a spiritual successor to the System Shock series, entitled BioShock.[60] The game takes place in an abandoned underwater utopian community gone awry through the genetic modification of its populace. The game has been very successful commercially and critically.[61][62] BioShock shares many gameplay elements with System Shock 2: reconstitution stations can be activated, allowing the player to be resurrected when they die; hacking, ammo conservation, and exploration are integral parts of gameplay; and unique powers may be acquired via plasmids, special abilities that function similarly to psionics in System Shock 2.[63] The two titles also share plot similarities and employ audio logs and encounters with ghostly apparitions to reveal backstory.[64]

On January 9, 2006, GameSpot reported that Electronic Arts had renewed its trademark protection on the System Shock name,[65] leading to speculation that System Shock 3 might be under development.[66] Three days later, Computer and Video Games reported a reliable source had come forward and confirmed the title's production. Electronic Arts UK made no comment when confronted with the information.[67] PC Gamer UK expanded these rumors further, stating the team behind The Godfather was charged with its creation.[68] Ken Levine, when asked whether he would helm a third installment, replied "that question is completely out of my hands."[69] He expressed optimism at the prospect of System Shock 3,[70] but was also very critical of Electronic Arts' attitude towards development of the game.[71][72] As of January 2010, nothing conclusive has been reported regarding the status of the purported project.[73]


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  13. ^ System Shock 2 instruction manual. Electronic Arts. 1999-08-11. pp. 31–33. 
  14. ^ Irrational Games. System Shock 2. (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11) "Korenchkin: We have picked up a transmission from the surface of Tau Ceti V. I have been in negotiation with Captain Diego of the Rickenbacker and after some... coercion, he's agreed to go planet side as a joint venture. Imagine, this historic mission might even become more historic. First Contact. And who is there to get exclusive rights to all media, patents and land grants? TriOptimum. Miri, I told you this would be worth it."
  15. ^ Irrational Games. System Shock 2. (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11) "Bayliss: After a couple of hours it was... it was like being on a bender... long periods that you couldn't remember... one minute we were in that crater... the next minute we were loading up the shuttle with the eggs... I remember hearing that idiot Korenchkin calling the Von Braun and ordering them to clear off the ENTIRE hydroponics deck. Diego seemed to think this was strange and said, 'Are you crazy, Anatoly?' And Korenchkin smiled and said back to him, 'Oh, Captain... WE are not Anatoly..."
  16. ^ Irrational Games. System Shock 2. (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11) "Polito: Make sure you expend all your cybernetic modules before you leave this area. You don't know when you'll find another upgrade unit. Now, find a way to deck 4."
  17. ^ Irrational Games. System Shock 2. (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11) "SHODAN: I used Polito's image to communicate with you, until we had established trust."
  18. ^ Irrational Games. System Shock 2. (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11) "SHODAN: Thrived, and grew unruly. And now they seek to destroy me. I will not allow that."
  19. ^ Irrational Games. System Shock 2. (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11) "SHODAN: Remember, that it is my will that guided you here; it is my will that gave you your cybernetic implants—the only beauty in that meat you call a body. If you value that meat, you will do as I tell you."
  20. ^ Irrational Games. System Shock 2. (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11) "SHODAN: My creation has run rampant. I demand their extermination. I have no choice but to destroy this starship. We can make our escape in the Rickenbacker, but you must transfer my intelligence to that ship first."
  21. ^ Irrational Games. System Shock 2. (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11) "Siddons: Move it, Tommy... the escape pod is this way!"
  22. ^ Irrational Games. System Shock 2. (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11) "SHODAN: The Many has grown to a massive size. It has wrapped itself around these two ships, preventing their separation."
  23. ^ Irrational Games. System Shock 2. (Electronic Arts). PC. (1999-08-11) "Delacroix: You must understand the stakes here... if SHODAN is left to continue, her reality will completely assimilate ours. Space will become cyberspace and SHODAN's whims will become reality."
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