System Shock 2: Gameplay Arc

So you've got your RPG mechanic, and it's obviously designed to encourage replay value. Indeed, one of my first thoughts when I was getting into the game myself was that it looked like it had a lot of potential for replay value.

Unfortunately, this is only true if you're willing to run hilariously sub-optimal builds. And to be frank, at that point you might as well go back to System Shock 1 and hold yourself to self-imposed challenges like 'never actually use the Skorpion'. It's the same thing, but in a better game.

But let's get into the details of why I say this.

The Trajectory of Gameplay

System Shock 2 has a very clear arc over the course of the entire game. You start the game beating things to death with your Wrench (As melee weapons deal with neither ammo nor durability, they're resource-free if you can avoid damage consistently, and they are your only resource-free way of fighting), only breaking out ranged weapons to deal with threats melee is extremely poor against, such as robots, cameras, turrets, or groups of shotgun Hybrids. After all, at the beginning of the game you have extremely limited ammunition, and you don't necessarily start with the Repair skill, and you definitely don't start with any disposable maintenance tools -and even if you did, you really shouldn't be using those until your Maintenance skill is up to rank 3 or 4, since that's tripling to quadrupling how far they go. Plus, most enemies you fight are pretty trivial to melee to death, so it's not actually burdensome to hold yourself to such limits outside one brief section that's heavy on robots early in the game.

As things progress, the proportion of situations it's worth considering using ranged attacks goes up a bit, but this mostly serves to counteract your rising ammunition supplies and rising ability to keep your weapons in good condition. You still can't properly transition to primarily fighting at range: there's just not enough resources for that, and it's still the case that most threats are easy to melee to death.

Then around the time you gain access to the sixth floor of the ship, things finally tilt over to the point that you start shooting things as a default, with melee being used primarily for particularly trivial threats. (Such as Annelid Eggs that have already opened up and thus present no further threat to you, but are still physically in your way) From there to the end of the game, you'll spend most of your time shooting things if you haven't specifically constructed your character as a dedicated melee specialist. (Which is mostly viable, though a bit of a pain to stick strictly to when it comes to some late-game situations)

This consistent gameplay arc is a big factor in why I say the game isn't actually that high on replayability. Among other points, two of your three classes are guaranteed to start with enough Standard Weapons skill to wield a conventional pistol: no matter what you're shooting for with a Marine or Navy character, you'll spend much of the game relying on a combination of the Wrench and the conventional pistol. This in turn ties into other mechanical choices to further increase repetition: Strength increases your inventory space, you need minimum Strength requirements to use certain weapons and to wear any of the combat armors, and it raises melee damage. Realistically, no matter your build you should raise Strength to at least 2 (So you can wear Light Combat Armor), and preferably at least 3 (So you can wear Powered Armor, which is the best general-purpose armor in the game) and honestly probably at least 4. (So you can wear Medium Combat Armor when your Powered Armor's battery is out and so you have enough inventory space) And since this is true and Strength raises melee damage... you should always prioritize Strength for early boosts, no matter what you're doing, since it will be a big help to your primary early game combat capability and expand inventory space and let you immediately equip Light Combat Armor when you find it (Which can happen on the very first floor of the game) and there's not a ton of competition for early priorities to boot.

This makes the early portion of the game very, very same-y.

In conjunction with Energy Weapons being garbage and Exotic weapons being impossible to invest in until you've cleared the first two floors of the game -and impossible to actually find any actual weapons for until you have access to the fourth and fifth floors- your only realistic build divergences are

1: Standard Weapons guy.

2: Heavy Weapons guy.

3: Psi guy.

4: All-in-on-melee guy.

Of these, Standard Weapons and Heavy Weapons are less divergent than you might think -a Heavy Weapons-focused Marine will only intermittently use his starting Grenade Launcher, and in practice it will tend to be on the same targets a Standard Weapons specialist would instead burn armor-piercing ammunition on, such as the Maintenance Robots. And since a Heavy Weapons specialist will still have pistol access, just having the armor-piercing rounds go less far due to not leveling Standard Weapons... it's all about the same thing for the early game.

This gets further exacerbated by other design decisions.

System Shock 2 has 5 'tech' skills. On the face of it, you might thing these tech skills would provide alternate avenues for character specialization. In actuality... Well.

Research is only worth investing in to any extent if you are playing on a lower difficulty (And thus have Cyber Modules to spare) or are specifically wanting to unlock the Crystal Shard. Otherwise, everything worth researching (ie the assorted 'organ' objects) or plot-mandated to research (ie Toxin A) only requires a Research rank of 1 -and you can use a Lab Assistant Implant to meet that requirement. In fact, the game doesn't even require you keep the Lab Assistant Implant installed after you've started researching! Dropping below the Research requirement for something you're currently researching will merely slow research down -you can even apply chemicals just fine. There's some Implants that require higher research to unlock, but they're all of dubious utility. They can be useful if you happen to invest that much into Research anyway, but they're not valuable enough to justify such an investment all on their own.

Repair is essentially worthless. The game throws a number of Auto-Repair Units at the player, and these can be used to handle any repair needs you may require. (Specifically: making a pre-broken weapon usable, such as the early-but-broken Stasis Field Generator, and repairing the handful of broken Replicator Units or keypads you might wish to make use of) Certainly, you can rely on the Repair skill to handle the issue of keeping weapons functional long-haul, but then you're opening yourself to weapons jamming on you in the middle of combat, which is awful and unnecessary thanks to...

Maintenance is essentially mandatory to get to rank 3 or 4 in the early-to-midgame if you're not playing either a heavily Psi-focused build or a heavily melee-focused build. And even for those it's worth considering eventually since it extends the battery life of Implants and Powered Armor. The game throws a large number of disposable maintenance tools at you, and with Maintenance 3 or 4 -which is a a modest Cyber Module investment- the issue of becomes weapon breakage essentially irrelevant, even on Impossible difficulty. Notably, a handful of weapons (Including the assault rifle) actually require Maintenance 4 to be able to perform maintenance on them, further reinforcing that Maintenance isn't really optional.

Modify is essentially worthless. There's enough French-Epstein Devices in the game to fully upgrade 3 weapons if you're playing below Impossible, and there's still enough to fully upgrade 2 if you're playing on Impossible. No matter what field you might choose to specialize in, 2 fully upgraded weapons is all you need: Energy Weapons is limited to 2 weapons needing an upgrade thanks to melee weapons being impossible to modify. Exotic shares the same limitation and also has the issue that its two ranged weapons share ammo and thus you should generally pick one or the other to specialize in anyway. Heavy has three ranged weapons, but the Stasis Field Generator and the Fusion Cannon share ammo type so you should generally pick one or the other to focus on anyway. Standard Weapons also has three ranged weapons, but you'll completely replace the conventional pistol with the assault rifle, and it's not all that useful to be upgrading the pistol in the early game; skill-investment-wise, you'd be better off investing more ranks into Standard Weapons to boost its damage, and French-Epstein Device-wise, they start showing up about the same time you get access to the assault rifle anyway. Lastly, the Black Ops Psi Amp cannot be modified, so a Psi-focused build doesn't care about Modification either. It's only if you eg decide to do a mixed Standard Weapons+Heavy Weapons build (One where eg you stop at rank 3 in each) where the French-Epstein Devices are strictly inadequate to upgrade all your stuff. And that only on Impossible.

Hacking is essentially mandatory to get to 2 or 3 points (You need Hack 2 to be allowed to hack locked boxes, and Hack 3 to hack replicator units: these are both fairly significant benefits, the former thanks to how many such boxes there are, and the latter because it makes your nanite supply go farther, not to mention some purchasables cannot be found in shops except by hacking), but is dubious to get to rank 6. First of all, ICE-picks can be used to handle all the locked boxes that require a Hack rank of 6 to be allowed to try to hack them: there's more ICE-picks then there are such boxes. Second of all, none of those boxes has anything amazing enough to care about in the first place; saving three ICE-picks for the final boss is a much more sensible use of them, and missing out on the goodies in question doesn't actually matter. Third of all, while higher Hack ratings do improve your chances with the hacking minigame, it's both cheaper to boost Cyber-Affinity to 4 than it is to raise Hack from 4 to 6 (While having greater benefits!) and also a fairly unimportant benefit: simply save in front of a box/keypad/whatever before you initiate hacking, and reload every time you've failed, and suddenly the only benefit of higher Hack ranks is to reduce how much real player time is spent on hacking a given thing!

Which means the tech skills are all either completely ignored or very uniformly raised to a certain range on most characters. You'd think being an epic hacker would be a viable build in its own right, what with the original System Shock's player character having been a hacker and all, but it's really not. There's no build customization here, it's entirely build optimization.

Stats is almost as bad. I already touched on how Strength is something you should realistically raise to 3 or 4 on every character, and that you should focus on it in the early game since all builds will be beating things to death in melee a lot for a long time, but the other stats aren't much better: realistically you should always get Endurance and Agility up to 3 or 4, and it's just a question of how early you do so, and since Hack is basically mandatory you might as well get Cyber-Affinity up to 3 or 4 eventually. Psi, meanwhile, is something you should completely ignore if you're not going to delve into Psi at all, and should almost certainly max if you're going to be a Psi character at all -even if you're going for a hybrid Psi character who uses it in supplement to a more normal build. The only major question of interest here is if you're going to raise any of these stats beyond 4, and that tends to be influenced more by difficulty than by build priorities. (ie on Impossible you don't have the Cyber Modules to spare on readily justifying maxing stats, whereas on Normal you have so many you may well be maxing stats just to get some kind of use out of your Cyber Modules)

The overall result of all this stuff is that build divergence doesn't really start feeling meaningfully different (As opposed to better/worse) until quite late in the game, at which point there isn't much game left... and honestly, most builds still don't feel that different. They largely tend to end up struggling against the same enemies, leading to the same basic decisions and experiences, among other elements that tend to remain the same.

So... there's actually very little replay value to be found in System Shock 2. In fact, the game makes a concerted effort to shoot down the possibility of significant replay value!

So much for one of System Shock 2's supposed main draws.

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Next time, we'll be getting a bit more into how same-y the late game tends to be.

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