System Shock Remake Review (PS5)

A showdown with SHODAN

By Paul Hunter

Although I had a gaming PC growing up, I was mostly a console kid who played all the top games across Nintendo, SEGA, Xbox and PlayStation. System Shock was one PC game that I never got around to playing, but I, of course, got to experience and fell in love with the incredible spiritual successor franchise: BioShock.

Over the past week, I played through the new System Shock remake on PS5 from Nightdive Studios. I was amazed by how immersive it is given that it's essentially a faithful recreation of a 1994 title with modernized graphics and quality-of-life enhancements. You can see the origins of what would influence the BioShock series, from the environmental and audio log storytelling to the terrifying and oppressive environments to the superb progression through new weapons, weapon upgrades and character augmentations. There are some relics from the past that hold this game back from being an all-time great, like the cumbersome inventory management system and excessive backtracking, but as a whole this a top-notch sci-fi FPS that simply must be played by fans of the genre and BioShock enthusiasts alike.

The first five minutes slams you hard with a barrage of story sequences that help set the stage for this massive adventure. You play as an unknown hacker (male or female, your choice) who gets caught hacking information regarding the Citadel Station, a huge space station orbiting Saturn owned by the corrupt, clandestine TriOptimum Corporation. Company exec Edward Diego says they'll drop all charges, and in true cyberpunk fashion will implant a military-grade neural device in the hacker's brain, something they greatly desire, in exchange for boarding the Citadel and stopping the station's evil AI known as SHODAN, which is plotting to destroy all of humanity.

Naturally, your character agrees to the implant, and following a six-month induced coma to recover from the operation, you awake aboard the Citadel and find that SHODAN has commandeered the entire operation. All the robots onboard have been reprogrammed for hostility, and all the staff have either been mutated into grotesque, aggressive creatures or have been converted into dangerous cyborgs.

Following that dramatic intro, for the remainder of the game, the story is told almost entirely through the environment and the audio logs of the decrease as they retell their final moments. I walked away thoroughly impressed by how deep the storytelling goes, whether that's finding the deceased bodies of crew members deep in the bowls of maintenance crawl spaces—having hidden away to escape the ship's madness—or following the numerous sub-plots of crew members in their final desperate hour to bring order to the station.

You have to pay very close attention to audio logs and environments because there is zero hand-holding in this game. What I mean by that is that there's no quest log indicating what to do next, and there are no map quest markers unless you play on the Easy difficulty setting. The main way you figure out what the objectives are is by listening closely to the audio logs as crew members explain things like how to access vital rooms, how to activate or deactivate key parts of the Citadel Station needed to one step closer to SHODAN, or important security codes used to doors required for progression. You can review and replay audio logs at any time during the menu, and there were several occasions I had to do so when piecing together what my next move would be.

An impressive element of System Shock, and one that you rarely see in modern gaming, is how nearly every action you take is 'remembered' throughout the entire 20+ hour experience. The most obvious example is how the corpses of enemies you've killed will stay on the ground forever, even if you venture back to the same location five or ten hours later.

Another great example is how all items are permanent until either used or consumed. The Station is littered with valuable items like ammo or grenades and contains even more junk items that can be recycled for valuable coin currency. But you can also drop inventory items wherever you want and those items will stay put for the rest of the game (or whenever you decide to pick them back up again). I had a spot on the Maintenance level of the Station, which has the most connecting points to other Station levels, where at one point I had over 100 items stored on the floor ranging from Med Kits to guns to stimulant drugs that can enhance elements of your character for 30 seconds. The permanence of both enemies and items gives weight to every action you take and makes the Station feel like a real, lived-in environment that you materially impact.

Citadel Station has around a dozen levels to explore, starting in the Medical ward and taking you through the Research Labs, Storage, Flight Deck and more. Each floor is larger than you'd expect with winding, labyrinthine corridors containing a ton of off-the-beaten-path rooms or outright secret areas that only the most sleuthing adventurers will find. I decided not to look at online guides during my playthrough and only realized more than five hours in that there are hidden doors with no external markings indicating their existence—I only found out about these after randomly pushing my action button on a wall and seeing the "Hidden Door" trophy pop.

Each floor is filled with enticing activities like finding audio logs, locating life-saving respawn chambers, discovering energy recharge stations, solving various puzzles and entering Cyberspace to do battle with SHODAN's virtual forces. I'm so used to rushing through FPS games, but System Shock encouraged me, for a variety of reasons, to venture through each floor slowly and meticulously to uncover every last secret they hold.

Combat in System Shock is extremely tactical and high-stakes throughout most of the adventure. Even simple reprogramed maintenance bots can quickly shred your health if you walk around a corner unprepared, and the combat cyborgs, attack drones and rushing mutants and are even more deadly. You'll come across a wide range of weapons, from a simple melee wrench all the way to handguns, shotguns and high-powered energy guns. Each gun tends to have its own ammo and its own purpose like your energy gun easily disrupting the circuitry of drones and your piercing ammo effective against armoured robots.

Ammo, med kits and stimulants are all finite in this game, so you need to be very tactical about how you approach combat situations. Thankfully, your energy gun can be recharged at stations, making it your sole long-range range with technically unlimited ammo. That's a good thing because enemies will infinitely respawn on each level until you destroy the security cameras and power nodes that lower the floor's threat level to eventually zero (which stops the respawning). In general, guns have a nice weight to them and shots dish out damage with satisfying impact.

Character progression in this game happens through the collection of powerful new guns, but also through augmentations that can get upgraded and more powerful as you get further into the game. Upgrades include getting night vision, rocket boost running, energy shields and the ability to see nearby secrets on your mini-map, among other upgrades. Said upgrades are found all throughout the Citadel, which is yet another reason to search every room as you don't want to miss any of these valuable upgrades. You can also find the odd gun upgrade station where you can trade on those coins you've been collecting via the recycling system, with upgrades typically increasing the gun's damage.

All considered I had a blast playing through System Shock, and it's certainly piqued my interest in playing its sequel, which I hope also eventually gets the remake treatment. That said, there are some frustrating elements like cumbersome inventory management, punishing and almost unfair boss fights, and the sheer amount of tedious backtracking. These are all emblematic elements of gaming in the '90s, but the industry has progressed so much in the decades that have followed, it's hard not to be disappointed at obviously bad design decisions. I understand the developer's desire to honour the original game, however, it would have been nice to have seen modern conveniences like quick-access warp spots or an expanded inventory to reduce item juggling.

The Verdict

The System Shock remake is exceptionally well built featuring bright and beautiful retro-style graphics, lots of welcome game optimizations and redesigned controls to support the PS5 gamepad. The immersive world-building drew me in, but it was the high-stakes combat and deep exploration that kept me hooked over the game's surprisingly long 20+ hours. If you enjoy sci-fi shooters or BioShock, you need to play this game.

Final Score: 8.5/10 - Great

System Shock details

Platform: PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Nightdive Studios
Publisher: Plaion
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

A key was provided by the publisher.