System Shock 2: Double-Dipping

One of the more frustrating aspects of System Shock 2's (mis)use of RPG elements is how there's multiple cases where multiple separate systems primarily serve to produce... the same result. Raising the question of why have both systems at all?

The two most egregious examples: the leveling mechanic alongside the inventory system, and the limited ammo alongside the weapon durability system.

The latter case is almost understandable to me. System Shock 2 is very deliberate about the progression from hoarding limited resources to spending them relentlessly because nearly everything justifies them and you have plenty to spare, and it's actually one of the better-executed aspects of System Shock 2's experience. In conjunction with System Shock 2 following in the first game's footsteps as far as energy weapons using an energy supply instead of ammunition... the game does need some kind of mechanic to prevent energy weapons from breaking the intended design.

Almost understandable, though, not actually understandable.

First of all, System Shock 2 radically overhauls energy weapons: in the first game, you have a singular energy supply that all your energy-using things pull from. In System Shock 2, every energy-using item instead has its own separate internal battery supply, and the only connection to System Shock 1 is that there's recharge stations and those freely restore everything in your inventory in an approximation of System Shock 1 having recharge stations fully restore your global energy meter. If System Shock 2 was going to use such a radically different energy mechanic anyway, why not remove recharge stations and just make energy weapons operate off of batteries that function exactly like conventional ammo?

"But wait," I hear some of you saying. "Recharge stations are important to Implants and Powered Armor and the power cell mechanic!" Sorry, no they're not. The power cell mechanic shows up three times across the entire game, with the first one being a blatant tutorial on the concept. You could get rid of it and replace each case with some other justification for why the player has to jump through hoops to make progress. Similarly, Implants having limited battery life doesn't do anything meaningful in the game: their minimum battery life is over sixteen minutes (That's before you extend their battery life with Maintenance skill), and with the recharge stations and redundant Implants and how some Implants aren't worth wearing continuously ever in real play you will almost never meaningfully interact with the Implant power mechanic. Only the Powered Armor is really designed around the power supply dynamic, and that's not a strong argument for System Shock 2's current power dynamic.

Second of all, applying Maintenance necessity to non-energy weapons is still redundant. I would've understood if the game had gone with most weapons burning a limited supply of ammo and energy weapons instead require routine maintenance, and that would even be trivial to provide a narrative justification for ("Yadda yadda high energy involved burns out critical parts quickly"), but applying ammunition and maintenance to most weapons primarily serves to be a(n obnoxious) Cyber Module sink: the two facets serve the same design purpose as far as useful design elements.

The leveling mechanic and the inventory system are even worse, being completely baffling to me instead of almost understandable. Partly because System Shock 1 had a really good inventory system, with System Shock 2's largely ending up being the same thing but with obnoxious, tedious micromanagement thrown in, but mostly because they both primarily serve the same purpose: to restrict how many weapons (Particularly types of weapons) the player is making use of.

You might think the inventory system serves other purposes, but it really doesn't. There's bits and pieces of things suggesting useful design purpose, such as how the early game is populated heavily with items that can heal 1 HP and don't stack, thus cluttering up your inventory if you want to take advantage of these free healing items, but the game persistently designs itself away from such meaning. The healing items in question largely vanish past the initial floor aside a brief resurgence in commonality on the Recreation Deck, as one example, and another example is how the game actively tells you that you shouldn't cart around chemicals for research purposes. (Not even getting into how the chemicals-for-research mechanic is unwieldy and doesn't add anything to the game except obnoxiousness)

The two things that come closest to proper design meaning is that armor is clunky, taking up four space, and that Implants consuming inventory space theoretically encourages you to carry around swaps for different purposes. In the case of armor, you would theoretically want to cart around a hazard suit, the heaviest non-powered armor your character can equip, and Powered Armor, but in practice there's not really any reason to bother with the hazard suit: it's worthless against biological contamination (Biological contamination never times out, and the hazard suit only reduces the damage per tick, it doesn't reduce how much contamination is applied to you), and even on Impossible there's more than enough radiation hypos to get you through the handful of times it's mandatory to be exposed to radiation. (And there's only one early-game location that's irradiated, can't be cleaned up, and is worth the trip inside... which you can quickly run into, take the handful of worthwhile loot, and then zip back out having taken maybe 3 damage as a result, no need for even a radiation hypo) So in practice at most you'll bother with regular armor and Powered Armor -and if you're playing a 6 Strength character, Powered Armor is only a modest improvement over the heaviest armor, making it questionable whether it's worth the hassle at all.

Implants, meanwhile, are hampered by how there's only a few types and not all of them are at all useful. In particular, there's zero need to cart around the redundant copies of those Implants you only need to equip briefly (eg Wormblood, Lab Assistant), and of the Implants you'll equip long-haul only Brawnboost is seriously worth having a swap to avoid losing its benefits. A non-Psi character has no need to bother with the Psiboost Implant, either. The overall result is they don't really impinge on your inventory particularly.

Part of the problem is that the game makes all stacking items stack infinitely, or at least so far there's no reason to encounter the limit in real play. There's no incentive to eg consider carrying fewer health hypos to free up space for other items, and thus risking running out in the middle of combat. This means several stacking items just become a defacto missing inventory slot, up until a late period in the game... the same point where your inventory primarily empties out over time anyway. (eg once you've wrapped up the radiation sequence in the Body of the Many you can toss all your radiation hypos, but it's unlikely you'll then put something else in the freed-up slot so who cares?) The main consequence of the inventory system is thus having to deal with weird, dumb optimization micro-games, such as how you should generally try to prioritize using Annelid Healing Organs over using health hypos since Annelid Healing Organs are less common and thus using them is more likely to free up an inventory slot. Similarly, a Psi character should generally try to use the Annelid Psi Organ over Psi hypos, again to free up inventory slots.

And in fact the whole thing is less meaningful than System Shock 1's approach, where you had a fixed set of slots for weapons forcing you to pick and choose between weapon types, and another fixed set of slots for usable items forcing you to pick and choose what to take with you, while ammunition, grenades, and 'patches' (Which included that game's version of a basic healing item) were all separate and could be stacked unlimitedly.

This would all be frustrating enough, but then it combines with how the Cyber Module/leveling system also primarily serves to constrict weapon access. (See: previous post in which I talk about how most possible investment choices are optimization-based, not customization-based) If the game removed the inventory system -or kept something more like the first game's system- and relied on the leveling system to handle weapon limitations, the game would be vastly improved -and that's even though the leveling system is so poorly designed!

And I just don't get why the game does these double-dipping mechanics. What could the developers have possibly been thinking would be accomplished?


Next time, I get a bit more narrowly focused and talk about Psi.


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