System Shock 2: OS Upgrades

OS upgrades are one of the mechanics that most excited/intrigued me initially...

... and disappointed me once I got a handle on the game.

The basic setup goes thusly: at four specific points in the game, you'll have the opportunity to pick from one of 16 distinct upgrades to permanently apply to your character. You can't pick a given upgrade twice, and there's no take-backs, but other than that there aren't really any limits. You don't need to meet specific requirements to pick an option, you're not forbidden certain options based on class or some such, nothing like that.

This is a fine little system for giving the player the opportunity to customize their character...

... but the details really don't hold up.

Part of this is that a number of the OS Upgrades are just plain terrible. For example, one OS Upgrade makes it so you don't suffer damage from 'Psi burnout' -this is a mechanic where holding the button after initiating a Psi power causes a little meter to appear with a line that grows to the right, and if you let go of the button once it crosses over into the yellow portion the power is calculated as if you had 2 more ranks in your Psi stat than you actually have, but if you fail to release the button before the line gets all the way to the right instead you fail to use the power and take some damage. But... only the highest powers have the line move fast enough for this to be a relevant concern in real play, and if you're really bad at avoiding burnout while trying to get the supercharged effect, the smarter answer is to accept having slightly weaker Psi ability. By the time you even have high-end Psi powers, you should already have 4-6 in your Psi stat anyway, making +2 much less dramatic a benefit anyway, and not all the scaling benefits are that important anyway -and the teleport beacon Psi ability doesn't scale at all with Psi.

Or even less ambiguous is the +8 Cyber Modules upgrade, which is just plain a newbie trap. At the beginning of the game, +8 Cyber Modules might seem like a noteworthy amount, but in the long haul there's nearly 900 Cyber Modules. 8 Cyber Modules is nothing, and the beginning-of-the-game boost it provides isn't even that significant.

But the main reason the whole thing is disappointing is how the options lean toward either being overly-specialized or overly-generalized.

One way of illustrating the problem is to imagine modifying an OS Upgrade by making its effect much larger. One OS Upgrade makes it so you have +2 to your Hack rating... specifically when hacking Security Stations. If you made it so that OS Upgrade flat-out guaranteed an auto-hack, skipping the minigame entirely... it would still be a dubious pick due to how narrow and niche its utility is. Conversely, if you made the OS Upgrade that provides +5 HP instead provide +50 HP, it would go from 'maybe worth picking on Impossible, but otherwise garbage' (Higher difficulties lower base HP and lower how much HP you get from Endurance) to 'an amazing pick no matter what you're doing and no matter what difficulty you're on.

There's only a handful of OS Upgrades that are tuned toward customization of your experience rather than optimization, and the list gets even smaller when you discount eg the Security Station-hacking one. (Because of how useless the concept is, regardless of how you scale the values) And even some of the ones that have shades of customization feels more like luck than anything else -for example, one OS Upgrade is a boost to all your gun damage, which ends up with shades of customization because a devoted melee build is surprisingly viable and such a build doesn't care about boosting its gun damage. But the game doesn't come across like that was intentional, and outside melee's viability a ranged damage upgrade is just a general upgrade in the late game, not a customization option.

The list's overall result is I'm genuinely confused as to why the mechanic is in the game at all, given that the developers don't seem to have had a coherent concept of what it would add to the game.


Next time, we get started on talking about System Shock 2's 'class' system.

See you then.


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