Impressions: System Shock Remake demo is the video game equivalent of listening to vinyl

Nightdive Studios’ System Shock Remake is a singular vision, the product of a very particular design and aesthetic philosophy that prefers preservation to modernization. This is the video game equivalent of listening to vinyl records on a modern hifi system. Some folks will adore the experience and others are going to go right back to Spotify.

A high-tech coat of paint on an old space station

Recently, the word “remake” has become synonymous with titles like Resident Evil 2 and Final Fantasy VII. Capcom and Square Enix gave us modern systems and gorgeous visuals that reminded us of how it felt to play these games when they represented the bleeding edge of technology.

Nightdive isn’t interested in doing that. They renovated Citadel Station but left the superstructure intact. The combat is antiquated, and the inventory system is awkward. The environments feel primitive and claustrophobic, and even with updated visuals, the geometric walls and floors remind me more of the late ‘90s Build engine games than Bioshock, the original System Shock’s spiritual successor.

This game will not hold up for an audience who didn’t live through the birth of the first-person shooter in the ‘90s. System Shock Remake is aimed at a particular kind of purist retro gamer who played and loved the original System Shock, which was originally released in 1994, followed up with a sequel in 1999. But you know what? That’s okay.

What’s not okay is the execrable voice acting. As you explore Citadel Station, you discover audio recordings left behind by the station’s now-deceased residents. At one point, a guy is explaining how he’s the sole survivor of his group with mutants closing in, and the only emotion the voice actor can muster is vague annoyance. Is he facing a life-threatening situation or did someone mess up his coffee order? Murderous mutants or skim mochaccino? It’s hard to tell.

Indie studios, please stop hiring Jenn and Brian from accounting to handle your voice acting. Voice actors are expensive, but they’re expensive for a reason. They deliver real emotion and breathe life into your game world. This is a corner you shouldn’t cut, especially in System Shock, which depends on player immersion. Every time one of Nightdive’s voice actors opens their mouth, they destroy my suspension of disbelief. This is my only actual gripe with the game; everything else is just a difference in opinion between me and the dev team. {Ed. note: the voice acting in the demo is from the original game and Nightdive has said it will be replaced with new voice acting in the final version of the game.}

A dangerous and awkward world

Saving and loading are not enabled in this demo, which emphasizes the game’s difficulty. Just like in the original two System Shocks, bullets are in short supply, and your main weapon is a medium-sized length of pipe. If you die, you start the demo completely over. I know it wasn’t the devs’ intention, but the demo managed to turn System Shock into a rogue-like. Nightdive promised players an Ironman mode, and intentionally or not, this demo is it! 

Combat is primitive and stilted. Mutants lumber ponderously towards you and your job is to dodge their clawed swipes, lunge in, and smack them in the face. Cyborg assassins won’t even respond to you if you lean ever so slightly out of cover and pour bullets into their faces. You can fling grenades at them but they don’t have any grenades to fling at you. The original Half-Life’s soldier AI turned video gaming on its head; don’t expect to see those innovations here. I can’t tell if this is a symptom of the demo’s alpha state, or Nightdive attempting to mimic the AI of the original game.

Nightdive uses wall textures that make their environments hard to navigate. It’s not always strictly clear what is an interactable object and what isn’t. I spent a little too much time asking myself, “Is that a button on the wall? Should I try to right-click that to use it? Nope, not a button.” Graphics are far from finalized though, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much.

The puzzles were satisfying, and the most fully-formed part of the game. The familiar but always fun Pipe Dream-style puzzle makes an appearance, but we also get stuff like the funky little number above. You can connect red, blue, and yellow wires to the circuit board, and your goal is to mix them so that the colors combine to feed “green energy” to the final destination in the lower right-hand corner. The way that you clicked and dragged the wires to the different sockets was so satisfying; this is the sort of design that made the original System Shock a classic.

For some, this demo is a glorious feast. For me, it felt like the gaming equivalent of eating my vegetables. I get that System Shock is an important piece of history. But I don’t play games to engage with the history of gaming – I play them to see how designers have pushed the boundaries of storytelling, immersion, technology, and art. I already got the System Shock remake I wanted; it was called Bioshock. But even though this wasn’t for me, over 21,000 Kickstarter backers are hype for exactly what Nightdive is delivering here. And I’m not so jaded that I can’t recognize the value in that.