System Shock 2: Psi Gameplay

Psi is one of the mechanics whose screwed-up-ness I'm most sympathetic to, as far as strictly mechanical stuff goes. There's... narrative stuff I'll come to later that makes me less sympathetic than I might otherwise be, but unlike a lot of System Shock 2's failings Psi isn't something where it was executed extremely well in the first game and then System Shock 2 made it awful (The original System Shock doesn't have psychic powers to do well), and 'wizard analogue gets an interesting variety of unusual powers' is fairly common to end up screwball in any design, even in games that otherwise have very solid executions.

Even so, there's some frustrating, baffling decisions in the mess.

The biggest one by far is the conceptual presentation of Psi being divided into five tiered sets, particularly the part where everything in a tier has a fixed cost defined by its tier: every Psi ability in the first tier costs 1 Psi Point, every Psi ability in the second tier costs 2 Psi Points, and so on up to the fifth tier abilities costing 5 Psi Points apiece.

Now, I don't object to a tiered concept per se, but the issue is that System Shock 2 doesn't really hold itself to a quality progression to fit to this tier system. As a direct example, Cryokinesis is a tier 1 attacking power, while Projected Pryokinesis is a tier 3 attacking power... and then Cryokinesis is consistently more efficient against any target and Projected Pyrokinesis is inexplicably useless against all mechanical targets. So instead of Projected Pyrokinesis being a way to upgrade your psychic offense, having invested tons of Cyber Modules to break into the third tier of Psi, it's just a garbage option you should probably skip buying.

More broadly but less concretely, there isn't really any aspect of the game placing the more useful powers higher up. Some of the best powers -such as Localized Pyrokinesis and Adrenaline Overproduction- are down in the second tier, and in fact most of the tier 5 powers are pretty terrible. There's also frustrating context stuff: one of the potentially legit cool tier 5 powers sets a teleport beacon, where using the power again will take you to that beacon...

... but the very fact that it's all the way up in tier 5 means you're unlikely to purchase it before reaching the part of the game where backtracking largely stops being a thing. (Also, it doesn't actually work across loading screens, severely limiting its real utility...) Making it pretty worthless, aside a silly exploit that it's not worth specifically purchasing for. (There's a specific situation where you can get 10 Cyber Modules, but then normally they'll be taken away from you, which teleportation can bypass that latter part... but on Normal each tier 5 power costs 20 Cyber Modules to buy. Higher difficulties make all Cyber Module costs higher, making it even dumber to buy teleportation to specifically try to hold onto the Cyber Modules on higher difficulties)

So above and beyond the usual problems with grab-bag power lists tending to be a mix of the inane and the amazing, there's fundamentally a disconnect between the game's mechanical framework and the design it then holds itself to. The fact that you purchase powers individually also amplifies the usual problems with grab-bag lists: in most games with grab-bag lists of this sort, it tends to be more or less free to get all the powers in a tier, or at least the cost is limited to competing with other things in the grab-bag. (eg in the King's Bounty games, you do burn Magic Crystals on acquiring Spells... but even a fairly situational power is easy to justify getting the first rank in. What System Shock 2 does would be comparable to if you burned Talent Runes on individual Spells in the King's Bounty games, which would make it much harder to justify any given Spell purchase)

Then there's the lack of clarity in how the game intends a Psi-heavy character to function. The early game has a clear-ish design in this regard -Cryokinesis is foisted onto you no matter your training choices if you pick an OSA character, and clearly fills most of the early-game utility of pistol access, in terms of eg sniping cameras- but past that it's not really clear how a Psi-heavy character is supposed to function as an equal to non-Psi characters. Which is particularly frustrating since Psi is actually considerably more intense to delve into than any given weapon skill is; just breaking into a tier is notably more expensive than hitting the equivalent skill level in weapons, and while this is partially offset by the fact that there's 5 Psi tiers vs 6 skill ranks for weapons, the problem is that you then additionally have to purchase individual Psi powers. The first couple of tiers have relatively token costs, but on Normal each tier 5 power costs 20 Cyber Modules, in addition to the 75 it took to break into the tree at all. Rank 6 of any weapon costs a mere 50 to hit, and rank 5 30; just breaking into Psi tier 5 costs 5 Cyber Modules less than advancing from 4 to 6 in a weapon, and if for some reason you elect to take all seven Psi abilities in the tier you've spent another 100 Cyber Modules. That's around what it takes to bring a weapon skill from nothing to max!

In practice, it tends to be far more realistic to play a more conventional character who picks up a few key Psi abilities to support killing things. A melee build in particular really ought to just be an OSA agent so you can get Adrenaline Overproduction, as it makes it pretty trivial to one-shot almost all enemies if you're building yourself even vaguely correctly. A pure Psi character finds machines tremendously frustrating and isn't even that great at killing biological enemies. Notably, one Psi power lets you generate a melee weapon from nowhere, and if you look at base damage numbers it can be tempting to think it's the most powerful melee weapon...

... but it has nothing equivalent to weapon skill ranks, so in actuality taking this power is generally going to be inferior to leaning on a Laser Rapier and/or Crystal Shard backed by skill ranks. Not even getting into how Smasher is bugged so that the Crystal Shard is ridiculously lethal with it.

Mind, as usual with such grab-bags there's some stupid exploitive stuff you can do, such as how there's a power to turn yourself invisible... which is normally sanity-checked by disabling itself if you attack or use any other Psi power... but Localized Pyrokinesis' ongoing death aura won't prevent you from making yourself invisible, nor does making yourself invisible cancel that aura. So you can kill enemies while they stand around, staring blankly at nothing and unsure why they're burning to death. That's something a Psi-focused character can do that gives no incentives to invest particularly outside of Psi.

But overall, the Psi system is a poorly-designed mess with no clear design goals -and unlike many of the game's problems, it's not because of crudely layering RPG mechanics atop a reasonably competent FPS core.


Next time, I talk about OS upgrades- one of the mechanics most obviously premised under a customization model and in actuality ending up as an optimization model.

See you then.


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