System Shock 2: Hybrid Lack of Vigor

System Shock 2 is a game I was hyped about for years. I kept running across tantalizing bits suggesting something unique and interesting above and beyond the actual praise directed toward it, painting a picture of a game with high replay value, a dark story, and the potential to play through the game by hacking the technology around you instead of fighting everything. Then I happened to get a hold of and play the original System Shock, and it was a fantastic game that could easily be a precursor to the System Shock 2 people had painted in my head, raising my expectations still further.

And when I got to System Shock 2 itself...

Well.

It turns out basically everything ever implied or claimed about the game to me over the years was a big fat lie.

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Now, part of the reason I'm covering System Shock 2 after Bioshock is that I experienced them in that order. The majority of it, however, is that Bioshock is not very impressive of a game on its own merits -bar the handful of things I praised already- and then gets worse when you properly contextualize it by looking at System Shock 2 and finding that the development team is reiterating the same errors in the same way, with little improvement-by-learning to be found at all. This being the case even though the goal of Bioshock was to do System Shock 2 Again, But Better. The counterpart to this is that System Shock 2 is also Not A Very Good Game, regardless of the critical praise it's received ever since its release, and many of its flaws become more damning when you look to the future and see that, yes, they just repeat these same flaws for no good reason. It's not that System Shock 2 was trying to do something novel and difficult and its flaws are an understandable outgrowth of tackling such a challenge. No, its flaws are idiosyncratic to the development team, and the evidence -particularly when you look even further forward to Bioshock Infinite, but I'm not touching that just yet- is that the development team is unable or unwilling to engage in the self-reflection necessary to properly acknowledge and address these issues.

More damning than making a mistake once is making it over and over again. And more damning than that is doing so for no benefit whatsoever, which is a recurring element in the 'shock series failings.

More damning than those is that the root cause of many of these flaws are obvious, whether in the sense that someone on the development team has a pet issue the team really should know better than to indulge or in the sense that a fundamental systemic decision was made where it was obviously all but inevitable that the final failing would occur, and yet the development team not only failed to notice this ahead of time the first time but went on to do it again. Twice, in many cases.

Usually I devote 1-3 posts to 'this game is Not Very Good, here's how'. System Shock 2 merits a rather more involved discussion, partly because its issues are genuinely that numerous, partly because the game is routinely touted as an ideal to strive toward, and partly because its issues are so obvious. Usually it's not clear whether a given issue in a game is the product of

A: Personal wonkiness of the development team or

B: Some aspects of the game being rushed, where a non-rushed version wouldn't have had that issue or

C: The issue not being obvious from an internal development perspective for reasons opaque to an outsider or

D: The issue being an acceptable casualty in pursuit of some desirable trait the game does have or

E: Something I would never guess or

F: Some combination of the above.

This lack of clarity normally makes it difficult to talk constructively about the issues a game has. Brutal Legend, for example, has a number of issues with its plot where I suspect the issues would've existed even if the game hadn't been rushed... but it was rushed, it leaks into the entire game, and then the whole thing is made murkier by things like it having the unusual distinction of rock star voice actors who don't normally do that.

With System Shock 2, it's a lot more obvious what went wrong where, and why.

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Mechanically, one of System Shock 2's foremost problems comes from how extremely obviously the game was constructed first as a fairly stock shooter game of the time, and then RPG elements were tacked atop this after the fact. This is a particularly stark contrast with the first System Shock, which meshes the two genre elements together into an interesting and coherent whole, but it's a poor approach in general.

Let's start with...

Weapons

System Shock 2 has thirteen different weapons, and their general design would be vastly improved if you ripped the RPG elements out and simply assumed a typical FPS carry-all-the-weapons-and-all-the-ammo-effortlessly sort of design. There'd still be some problems, such as how the Viral Proliferator and Annelid Launcher share an ammo type and that ammo type is extremely rare and not purchasable or otherwise grindable, but just stripping the RPG elements out would magically make the weapon design essentially competent.

But with the RPG elements slapped in... well.

Let's start with the category problem: there's four categories of weapon type and more specifically weapon skill. Each category has three weapons, with the exception that the Wrench is (sort of) classified as a Standard Weapon and thus that category strictly has four weapons.

The categories in question are where some of the breakdowns occur right away, in conjunction with the problems introduced by other RPG elements.

First of all, the Energy category is garbage. Its basic laser pistol is flatly inferior to the conventional pistol under Standard Weapons, having half the base damage and lacking the specialist ammo types available to the conventional pistol, which is particularly appalling since two of your three 'classes' will automatically start with enough Standard Weapon ranks to be able to use the conventional pistol, where the laser pistol requires you either work for it in-game or pick the Marine and choose to specialize in Energy Weapons. In theory the laser pistol is advantaged against enemy machines, but it only does double damage to them so the fact that it has half the base damage of the conventional pistol directly cancels that out. Worse, since the conventional pistol can break out AP ammo to do four times damage against machines, in actual fact the laser pistol has no niche at all.

It's tempting to think the laser pistol justifies itself on the basis of being an energy weapon. In System Shock 2, the laser pistol and EMP rifle have internal batteries instead of relying on external ammo supplies, and these batteries can be fully recharged unlimitedly for free via recharge stations sprinkled throughout the game. This should contrast with how other weapons have to burn actual ammo, particularly considering how System Shock 2 is designed so that your overall supply of ammunition throughout the game is fairly limited and precious, particularly on higher difficulties where enemies drop ammo on death much less often.

Unfortunately, this runs into the weapon durability mechanic.

The weapon durability mechanic is straightforward: a weapon has a durability from 1 to 10, and each time it's fired it has a random percent chance of losing a point of durability. (You can easily test this yourself by acquiring a 1 durability weapon, saving, firing until it breaks, and then reloading and doing it again: the number of shots it takes for it to break is random) If the durability lowers from 1, then the weapon 'jams', and you can't use it until you repair it, either via the Repair skill or via an 'auto-repair device'. (Which there's a fixed, small number of in the game world)

Now, the percent chance of failure is actually defined per weapon, with eg the Annelid Launcher and Viral Proliferator breaking down much more rapidly than most other weapons, but the laser pistol and the conventional pistol have similar breakdown rates... and since your breakdown rate is defined by volume of fire, the laser pistol having crippled damage output leads to you needing to fire more shots which leads to it breaking down faster which means it simply replaces 'burns ammo and less often disposable maintenance tools' with 'burns disposable maintenance tools at an appalling rate'. (You use disposable maintenance tools to increase weapon durability, avoiding jams entirely)

(Also note that melee weapons never break. This ties into stuff I'll be talking about later)

So in practice, the laser pistol is 100% inferior to the conventional pistol. This is all before considering that inexplicably the laser pistol fires a slow-moving projectile, where the conventional pistol's shots are hitscan. It's much easier to avoid wasting shots with the conventional pistol, which further worsens the durability issue, and there's other issues this brings into play; for example, if you fire on a camera that's in yellow alert mode and miss, the conventional pistol will have more than enough time to adjust your aim and hit the camera before it transitions into red alert mode. The laser pistol? Unless you're basically on top of the camera, by the time you see that the shot has missed it will be too late.

Thing is, though, if you stripped out the skill investment system and ripped out the maintenance mechanic and also ripped out the inventory system -all examples of RPG elements grafted atop the core shooter experience- the laser pistol would be fine. It would be an excellent weapon for letting you attack at range without wasting your precious supply of proper ammunition, and its poor damage would function to avoid it being your staple offense weapon. It would be a way to wear down melee enemies from safe positions, snipe cameras without wasting ammo, take out turrets that you've managed to get an angle on where they can't shoot back, etc. It's only thanks to all these RPG elements being stacked on top that it's garbage.

Skipping ahead to the Energy 6 weapon (Excepting Psi being more complicated, all skill/stat ranks max out at 6 points for buying purposes), energy gets the dual-circuit EMP rifle. What's it do? Well, it fires a slow-moving projectile that does very high damage to mechanical targets in an area of effect. In trade, it's completely worthless against fully organic targets, and it's technically only partially effective against cyborgs. (Though cyborgs are an extremely limited list) Okay, that doesn't sound bad, right?

The problem comes when I compare it against Standard Weapons' own rank 6 option: the assault rifle. The assault rifle uses the pistol's own ammunition supply, but is flatly superior to the pistol such that there's no reason to carry a pistol once you can use an assault rifle. More relevantly to this particular point, this means it has access to the same armor-piercing rounds as the pistol. How much damage does an assault rifle do with armor-piercing rounds?

Exactly as much as the EMP rifle does.

This makes it extremely difficult to justify investing far enough into Energy to unlock the EMP rifle. For the same Cyber Module count, you could've invested into Standard Weapons instead and gotten a weapon that's just as effective against machines (More effective, actually, since it's much easier to miss with the EMP rifle) and then also useful against everything else in the game.

Much like the laser pistol, this is very specifically the RPG mechanics at fault. If you stripped out all the RPG mechanics, the situation would be flipped in some sense: your default earliest access points for the assault rifle and dual-circuit EMP rifle are very similar (They're both found on the Hydroponics deck), and without the RPG mechanics in place the only reason you'd want to use armor-piercing rounds would be if your EMP rifle was completely out of battery and you'd just encountered a serious mechanical threat. The EMP rifle would still be a bit specialized, as the vast majority of enemies in System Shock 2 are immune to it and the toughest part of the game in particular has no pure machines and only a handful of cyborgs, but this specialization would be functional instead of essentially worthless.

There's an additional wrinkle here, also caused purely by RPG mechanics: leveling up a weapon skill is not only how you unlock the ability to wield weapons, but it also improves damage on weapons if you progress above the the weapon's unlock requirement. (That is, Energy Weapons 6 raises the laser pistol's damage by 5 steps, since that's 5 ranks above its base requirement) The relevancy of this is that the Wrench is, uniquely, a weapon that doesn't require any weapon ranks to be equipped, but nonetheless scales its damage with Standard Weapons. As such, investing in Standard Weapons has the additional benefit of making your default melee weapon even stronger, unlike investing in Energy Weapons.

This is offset some by Energy's rank 3 weapon, the Laser Rapier, as the Laser Rapier is 100% superior to the Wrench, and by a sufficient margin that even though it's a rank 3 weapon and thus benefits less from leveling Energy than the Wrench benefits from leveling Standard Weapons, generally if you're going to bother to unlock the Laser Rapier at all it will automatically replace the Wrench. On higher difficulties where your Cyber Modules don't go as far, though, it's generally questionable to unlock the Laser Rapier. There's better ways of becoming competent in melee -the only unique advantage the Laser Rapier has is that for some reason the final boss is immune to all other melee weapons. This isn't important unless you're specifically doing a gimmick pure melee run, though, as the final boss is fairly trivial to shoot to death once you've dealt with their primary gimmick.

And once again, this is entirely the RPG mechanics at fault. Without them, the Laser Rapier would be an early-midgame upgrade to your melee capability, simple as that, and in general what is currently the worthless Energy field would all be perfectly viable, useful weapons.

This issue doesn't impact the other two weapon categories -Heavy and Exotic- as aggressively, with Heavy in particular actually being plenty strong on the basis of the Grenade Launcher being arguably the best weapon of the entire game and it's the basic Heavy weapon, but it's still relevant. Exotic's two more advanced weapons very much suffer from the issue.

The key issue in Exotic's case is that System Shock 2 has a research mechanic. The research mechanic is based on the Research skill, and serves two-and-a-half purposes: the first purpose is that many enemies have a chance of dropping an 'organ' named after their type, and if you research these organs this will, barring a couple exceptions, have the benefit of increasing your damage against that enemy type. The and-a-half purpose is that every object in the game can be 'queried' to get a text log of variable usefulness, and with researchable items you can't access these logs unless you've successfully researched the item. This being how a typical player would learn that Annelid enemies are resistant to energy weapons. The final purpose, however, is that all Exotic weapons, some Implants, and one plot-related special item are impossible to use unless you've researched them. In the case of Exotic weapons, this is in addition to meeting the Exotic skill requirement, making Exotic more burdensome in Cyber Modules than any other one weapon tree.

Exotic's basic weapon, the Crystal Shard, happens to be sufficiently powerful that it can be worth jumping through the hoops necessary to research it. Mind, this is in part due to a bug that causes the Smasher OS Upgrade to increase its damage far more than intended, but even without that it's unequivocally the best melee weapon, with high base damage and significant ability to scale it because it's unlocked at Exotic Weapons 1. Particularly if you're playing on lower difficulties, where you have Cyber Modules to spare, achieving Research 4 -or, more likely, achieving Research 3 and using the Lab Assistant Implant to bolster your Research score to 4- to unlock the Crystal Shard is actually worth considering. It's powerful enough that it directly outclasses the Wrench if you have Exotic Weapons 3 and Standard Weapons 6!

In turn, Exotic's rank 3 weapon, the Viral Proliferator, is something you'll probably incidentally use if you elect to use the Crystal Shard in the first place, as it only requires Research 3, one less than the Crystal Shard. Since you'll want to invest some into Exotic to power up the Crystal Shard regardless, and in particular the second and third ranks of a weapon skill are dirt cheap (Indeed, for every stat and skill around 2/3rds of the cost of maxing them is concentrated in the fifth and sixth ranks), you'll be unlocking it anyway if you're serious about using the Crystal Shard. As such, the Viral Proliferator actually kind of works out. More or less. Well enough.

The Exotic Weapons 6 weapon of the Annelid Launcher, by contrast, is something that doesn't make any sense to pursue in real play. In addition to requiring Exotic Weapons 6, it requires Research 6, and it's the only thing in the game that requires Research 6. Worse, nothing requires Research 5. And remember: 2/3rds of the cost in maxing a skill or stat is in the fifth and sixth ranks. For the Annelid Launcher to be worth pursuing, it would have to be the best weapon in the game by a wide margin... and in actuality it's not particularly great.

Strip out all these RPG mechanics and the Annelid Launcher would actually be fine. It would still suffer from its ammo type being very limited and also from sharing that ammo type with the Viral Proliferator, but a non-RPG version of System Shock 2 would be one where you'd probably actually consistently use the Annelid Launcher in the hardest part of the game -it's basically custom-tailored to that part of the game.

But the RPG mechanics do exist, and they make the Annelid Launcher essentially invalid, even to a character who intends to max out the Exotic Weapons skill!

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So the weapon design suffers badly from the game being an FPS that skinned an RPG and is now wandering around, ghoulishly wearing it as an ill-fitting cloak. But wait! One of the most commonly-cited positive qualities of System Shock 2 is that it has high replay value, which is obviously caused by the RPG mechanics leading to the player being encouraged to use a narrow selection of weapons!

Surely that part justifies the existence of these RPG mechanics? Right? Right?... Right?

Well...

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