System Shock 2: Class Issues

System Shock 2 has an 'immersive' tutorial/'class' selection opening dealy where the game flat-out lies to you and provides extremely misleading impressions. ("Welcome to cyberspace!" "You mean this is what the hacking minigame is going to be like?" "Not even slightly, not that we'll actually tell you that in-game.") Part of this involves picking your 'class' in the form of which branch of the UNN military you want to join -Marine, Navy, or OSA- and from there you pick three duty stations that each last a year and provide some beginning-of-game stat/skill boosts.

This all sounds fairly interesting, letting the player define/customize their character without being overwhelmed by an opaque screen filled with technical information, but the execution is broken on basically every level.

On the most basic mechanical level, the choices are not even. OSA Agents have more Cyber Modules' worth of benefits, and thus a run that ever intends to do anything with Psi should always start as an OSA Agent, no matter what else you might intend to do. On higher difficulties, the unevenness spreads: a build intending to take Standard Weapons to at least 3 (With no Psi) should, on Impossible, always pick to go Navy, as you end up with more Cyber Modules than a Marine focusing on Standard Weapons. For that matter, if you're going Navy for some other reason you should probably pick Standard Weapons regardless; it's worth more Cyber Modules than the competing choices!

On a slightly less basic level, this 'immersive' experience actively undermines the process of learning the game. You make each choice blind, unaware of what other choices you'll get down the line if you're not consulting a guide and don't have the list memorized; if this was a more typical character creation screen, you could make your first pick based on your intentions with later picks, instead of locking yourself into a choice and having to adapt later choices to that initial choice. Or restart the entire game.

These issues are basic quibbles compared to a larger design issue: the entire rest of the game is aggressive about making these choices irrelevant.

First of all, which 'class' you pick and the following three choices you make are all long-term irrelevant. The Marine doesn't get any inherent, unreplicable advantage at shooting things. The Navy guy isn't impossible to beat at technical skills. The OSA Agent is only ahead on Psi potential because he's ahead on Cyber Module count, making him generally superior rather than specifically better at Psi. This constricts the relevancy of class to the early game, as the more Cyber Modules you acquire in normal play the less your initial choices matter: if you make a Marine character and a Navy character, and then have each of them buy each others' starting capabilities, at that point which 'class' you started as doesn't matter at all.

This in turn runs into the problem that System Shock 2 is designed to ensure the early game is very, very same-y. If you're not an OSA Agent, you'll start the game by picking up a Wrench and a pistol, beating enemies to death with the Wrench and shooting out cameras, turrets, etc with the pistol. If you are an OSA Agent, you'll just use Cryokinesis for the purposes you'd use a pistol -and possibly only as long as it takes to buy the first rank in Standard Weapons. You are going to want an anti-machine tool anyway, and armor-piercing rounds from the pistol is a very adequate answer for a surprisingly long time, all for a minor Cyber Module investment.

The overall result is one is left wondering why the game bothered with this entire 'immersive' system with 'classes' and character customization at all, given it demanded a lot of novel art assets, novel audio assets, etc, and is, in basically every imaginable way, inferior to simply skipping past all this garbage and giving the player 60 starting Cyber Modules or however many is around equivalent to what a Normal difficulty character gets out of this sequence. The closest thing to a positive implication I can think of is that these picks don't -directly- suffer from higher difficulties inflating Cyber Module costs, ensuring a minimum level of character competency. Which... comes back to the unevenness of choices being a bad design decision, not to mention that it's questionable of the game to make Cyber Module costs the primary effect of difficulty modifiers.

Seriously, why did the game do any of this?


But speaking of the OSA Agent, next time I'll be transitioning into talking about System Shock 2's many, many major narrative problems, and how deep and just plain stupid they are.

See you then.


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