A Shock to the System:

Or, when I stopped trusting CGW's reviewers.

October 20, 2003 AD - My original review/rant.
August 15, 2005 AD - A comment or two from reader Hunter Keeton.
August 15, 2005 AD - Some in-game text supporting Hunter's comments.

October 20, 2003 AD
Ah, System Shock 2. A classic. Virtually perfect.

At least, that's what people keep telling me. I can't agree. (Massive spoilers and rants ahead. If you can't handle either, please return to the main lobby. Thank you. Oh, and I pick apart the plot, pointing out niggling little continuity glitches.)

As I mentioned in a story review, there's a brand of story that greatly galls me. A story that seems like it's going to be really good, and then turns out mediocre. I tolerate mediocre stories, but I simply can not abide ones that reek of wasted potential. System Shock 2 is a game in the same sad style. It tries to be an FPS/RPG hybrid (first person shooter/role-playing game) and, like the human/annelid hybrids that roam the halls of SS2, comes out a failure.

The game itself starts off great. The opening cutscene, for example, is impressive. The music behind it is rather good. (So this is the only place it's used.) It gives a brief recap of the original game, followed by an ad/news item for the new faster-than-light (FTL) ship, the Von Braun, complete with your average propagandistic voiceover.

After a choice quote from the first game, it narrates: "In 2072, a rogue artificial intelligence, known as SHODAN, lost her mind. In her limitless imagination, SHODAN saw herself as a goddess, destined to inherit the Earth. That image was snuffed out by the hacker that created her." (The actual plot of SS1, as I managed to dig up in the manual, is a little different. But for the sake of flowing text, it's understandable.)

One problem that isn't obvious at first is that the game assumes you've played System Shock 1. I haven't. As such, some stuff (anything containing the words "Citadel", "Diego", "cyber-implants", and various "grove" synonyms, basically) was lost on me until I found the plot of SS1 in the back of the PDF manual. (Insert standard rant on the dearth of dead-tree manuals, and the habit of putting important things in the back of a PDF, without even mentioning them in the quick-start guide. C'mon, at least put a table of contents for the PDF in the dead-tree stuff!)

Here's a rundown of the SS1 plot that should cover all the points revived in SS2. 2072, Citadel Station. It's a space station in Earth orbit. Much of the solar system (Earth and off-planet colonies) is run by a megacorp called TriOptimum, and Citadel is part of their empire. A TriOp employee, Edward Diego, hires a hacker to crack the space station AI - SHODAN - and remove its ethical programming, presumably making it more receptive to his less-than-ethical plans.

Things did not go according to plan.

Removing SHODAN's ethical programming released its latent megalomania. It - she, actually, for it gained self-awareness and a sexual identity - killed most of the humans onboard, and subverted the rest by using the station's medical technology to turn them into cyborg slaves.

Six months later (part of the deal for hacking SHODAN was some military brain-implant technology, followed by six months in an enforced coma to let the body heal and adjust), the hacker who originally caused this mess awakes to a hostile station and seeks to fix it, stopping several of SHODAN's plans to kill and/or subvert the entire human race in the process. One of these plans involves jettisoning Beta Grove, where SHODAN was breeding mutant nasties to inflict upon the Earth.

(Of course, the good guy wins.)

Fast forward 40-some years. (30, according to some sources. 70 according to others, who seem to have added the other two items, proving they know little of math and less of logic.)

TriOptimum has been gutted. The previously powerless governments took a stand against the megacorps and formed the Unified National Nominate, seemingly because they liked the whole 20th century UN name but didn't want to too closely associated with it. (Why else would they noun the verb 'Nominate'? Since the opening voiceover calls them "The UNN Protectorate" Perhaps the original text simply referred to it as the UN, with the UN's various member countries having been reduced to protectorates?)

In other news, one Dr. Marie Delacroix comes up with a theoretical FTL interstellar drive while working for the slowly-dying TriOptimum. Word gets out, TriOptimum rises like a phoenix and the Von Braun is built. After much screaming, threatening, and a few assassinations, a deal is reached in which the UNN gets a linking system and umbilical designed so one of their ships, the sublight (but heavily-armed) UNN Rickenbacker, can piggy-back on the FTL trip.

The captains of the respective ships, appropriately enough, hate each other's guts. William Bedford Diego (Son of the guy who hired the hacker in SS1 - 70 years indeed!) heads the UNN Rickenbacker, and Anatoly Korenchkin (your average corporate climber: bloody-minded, assassin-hiring, with no experience captaining anything, never mind a superluminal ship) is the 'CEO' of the Von Braun.

(Thinks.) Oh, damn, what I was doing? Oh, yeah, the opening.

Incidental comment #1: Apparently, after SHODAN went nuts, her voice started doing freaky echoing, re-re-repeating, and random speeeeeeeed and PITCH modulating. People feel this is scary. I feel they cribbed from Max Headroom. Basically, SHODAN must be running Max's speech subroutine with an echo and multilayer effect kludged in. Where's Bryce Lynch when you need him?

Incidental comment #2: "Military. Science. Consumer." Is the TriOptimum slogan, as revealed in the opening 'ad' for the Von Braun. "Commerce" would IMHO have worked better as the last one, since the first two are abstractions and the third is a term for an individual. Too jarring. If you're gonna do something akin to parataxis, do it right. Caesar didn't say "I came. I saw. Asses were kicked."

Incidental comment #3: The 'ad' shows mostly shots of the Von Braun or the Rickenbacker. There's a nice shot of the ships linking, followed by the lone shot of the two ships linked, and that's too close to see both ships entirely. There's a good reason for this, going back to Arthur C. Clarke's 2010, in which the Leonov was piggy-backed onto the Discovery: When a small, stout ship is attached to a longer, sleeker ship - by an interlock on the back of the ships, no less - it looks sexual. Like the upper, smaller one is the male, trying to hump the sleeker and more delicate-looking female. Cropping the shot removes this, unless you read 2010 and have a sharp memory. And a filthy mind.

Incidental comment #4: The opening ends with an emergency message from Delacroix, designer of the FTL drive and semi-willing member of the operations (Ops) staff on the Von Braun. It's staticy, but I hear the following: "This is Dr. Marie Delacroix of the UNN Von Braun. We've been hijacked by an unknown force. Ship security has been compromised. Do not allow the ship to (static)... repeat, do not allow the ship to leave under any circumstances. I don't know what (few more words, lost in static)." Problem is, the ship is NOT a UNN ship (it's owned by TriOptimum, a point which was established a minute before in this very same opening cutscene). Also, the ship wasn't really hijacked by an unknown force, since the ship's own crew ostensibly did the hijacking. And while we're at it, the ship left 5 weeks before the trouble started and a message like this would need to be sent, making it hard to keep the ship from leaving. You'd think someone who's the corporate analog to a commanding officer would know this stuff.

Now, onto the game. You go back 4 years and shape your player's stats by enlisting in one branch of the military (Navy, Marines, and the OSA). There's little idea of what these branches are (the OSA, for instance, is the psionic "Black Ops" group) unless you check the PDF manual, which means you have to bomb out of the game, load Acrobat Reader, then check the manual. Then you take three tours of duty (of nine possible) that shape your character.

All in all, many of these early missions (which are only done as a one-page text summary with no input from the player) sound a lot cooler than the fourth year - duty on the Rickenbacker as it follows the Von Braun to Tau Ceti 5, AKA the game - does. Running through tunnels, fighting to stop terrorist attacks, ferreting out traitors....

First I chose the Marines, because it sounded good. I became a heavy weapons expert, and started the game carrying a grenade launcher. Sound cool? Surprise! You can't get ammo for it this early in the game. (Not that I found, anyway.) So once your few grenades are gone, you might as well toss the launcher in whatever room you designate as "the room I'm gonna use to store the crap I can't carry around because my inventory is too small". (I used the level 2 chemical store room. It has shelves, a door, and is close to the elevator. More on the damn elevator later.)

Your main weapon will be a wrench. Of course, I didn't find the damn wrench first time through, since it's located in Cryo Recovery (suite A?), which is about to undergo catastrophic depressurization. What do you know, bodies to search for wrenches and me in something of a hurry. So I began (and ended) the game proper running around and praying for my quickly-dwindling life as the second wave of baddies - the first fell to the grenades - stopped in.

Oh, and even the most basic weapon eats up inventory slots. Don't even think of carrying more than about 3 weapons and their ammo (which take up more slots, and some weapons have 2 (or 5!) ammo types).

So, thinking I've made a seriously screwed up character, I restart the game and try again.

I chose the OSA, mostly because the OSA's recruiter and mission-explainer has a voice that gives me waves of blissful pleasure. Helped along by the fact that she's not male. Besides, a psionic "Black Ops" agent should be able to rely on himself to get out of fixes, right?

Bad move. Turns out that the "psi hypos" that fuel your fancy psionic tricks, including the ones used for self-defense, are rarer than rocking horse dung. So you'd better get weapons skills once you're handed some "cyber upgrade modules". Unless you like swinging a wrench a lot. But then I find out that, due to the OSA guy having less weapons training overall - which is to say none whatsoever - he's more ineffective with the wrench. (Note: I hesitate to say "less effective" since everyone is ineffective with the wrench, it's just a matter of degree.)

I find two wrenches this time. (Good move, putting two wrenches in the area that's supposed to be depressurizing and none anywhere else that I found. Silly me, thinking those warnings to "Get through a secure airlock before you're sucked into space! MOVE IT!" and "Move to Cryo Recovery B immediately!" implied urgency.) I think the game is taunting me.

The end result is that, no matter what guy I chose, I wound up falling into the same patterns. Supposedly you can play a psionic OSA agent who runs a more "strategic" game, but it just doesn't work. There's still baddies that need to die, so basically you just wind up praying for your life and prodding things with a wrench until you can learn how to fire a gun. Meanwhile, a Navy or Marine player could just use upgrades to buy first tier psionics and become almost your equal. Your exclusive "weapon", a psionic amplifier, can be found in the safe area of Cryo Recovery B, which you can search at your leisure.

A note on monsters. Each area has a "minimum monster level". After a certain point, when you kill a monster, a new one spawns to take its place. Halls are never empty, but your ammo supply always is. Really nice there. Especially when I cleared an area to make a stand in, then had a zombie spawn behind me and whack me over the skull with a lead pipe. No, I just cleaned out these rooms and I'm standing at the only exit. Spawning something in this cleared area behind me is, I don't care what anyone says, cheating.

Eventually you get a gun. Yay! A gun! Wait a second! You know how to use it? Of course! You're military!

Well, forget it. Psionic Dude was completely scotched by the handgun. He couldn't even fire the thing, never mind fire it with any accuracy. Quoth I the manual: "Standard [weapons skill]: The ability to use standard guns such as pistols and rifles, and the ability to use a wrench as a melee weapon (though the wrench itself has no minimum skill)." Now, I don't know much about handguns but I do know that they have the world's oldest point-and-click interface. Still, the System Shock 2 pistol has a minimum skill rating of 1. I made it unscathed through three tours of duty, including survival training on Io and a year undercover in a criminal organization and did not learn how to FIRE A HANDGUN. Those must have been some pacifistic thugs.

Okay, screw this, I'm not starting over. I do a bit of looking and find a cheat that'll give me some modules to give me the skills of a marine in addition to my psionics. A desire to cheat this early in the game is a very very very bad sign.

And we can't forget the maintenance kits. Guns are damaged by regular firing, and the rate of decay of weapons is mindbending. Using one or two guns regularly means they WILL break at least once a level if you don't watch them like hawks. To improve guns and stave off the inevitable gun jamming, you need to buy or find a one-use-only disposable maintenance kit, have the maintenance skill, then use the kit on the gun. You want to know how hard this is to do when under fire? Disposable maintenance kits? Damn, a pistol that can only fire a few dozen rounds before badly breaking is close to being disposable itself!

And, to all the people who complain that Doom gives you so much ammo you can "shoot at random". No, it doesn't. It gives you enough ammo to kill what's there, with a bit left over for human error. System Shock 2 on the other hand, doesn't give you enough ammo and then spawns more monsters to widen the gulf! I do not want to be forced to make EVERY bullet count, and to search EVERY corpse in the hopes of finding a weapon so I can drop a few items to clear out inventory space, pick up the corpse's weapon, drop it in my newly-freed inventory slots, check it to see if it's more abused than mine - almost a given - and if so unload that weapon, drop it, pick up my items from where I dropped them....

Now comes the next two problems. Dr. Janice Polito and the damn elevator.

Polito is, to put it nicely, a taskmaster. Not so nicely, a serious bitch. Her bossing around, ordering you from objective to objective, with only occasional bits of praise got on my nerves and quick.

Strife, an RPGish FPS that IMHO did this right, had a person who gave you orders (Blackbird), but she, at least, was usually civil and often witty. She also occasionally broke in with almost conversational comments. None of this for Polito. If you're not finishing her last task yesterday, she has a problem with it. I suppose it comes from her real identity - more later - but accurate character portrayal does not excuse locking me in a box with someone I quickly grow to hate.

And then there's the elevator. Allow me to quote the charming Doc Polito. "That insipid computer Xerxes has shut down the elevator as well. You can transfer power at the engine core on deck 1, which will get the elevator up and running again. But you can't use the elevator to get down there. Wait... there's some kind of maintenance access right on this hallway. You can use it to reach deck one. However, it's locked and Xerxes is hiding the passcode from me. Dr. Watts should have the code. He's probably in the Crew sub-section. Grassi has the key to get in there, but he's in the Medical sub-section, probably near the biopsy lab. Now get to the Medical sub-section and find Grassi." You got all that? Good, because I still boggle at it. It's a literal list of objectives disguised as narrative. (And it misuses the word "insipid". "Insipid" means boring, though a lot of people - myself included, unfortunately - use it more like it means "stupid". But I don't have an editor. The changelog data files for SS2 imply this particular text went through at least six revisions without any change to that word.)

So, let's say you find Grassi. Wait! First you have to unlock a stuck door! Then you don't find him, you have to look elsewhere. You find the keycard, eventually. Then you find Watts, who's almost dead. Watts is a man who deserved to die. Here's three of his data logs, audio recordings left behind by various members of the late and unlamented crew:

"01.JUL.14: Since returning from the Surface of Tau Ceti 5, patient (Watson) has experienced numerous novel phenomena, evidenced by inflammatory nodular growth and the presence of a large wormlike parasite. This morning, the parasite penetrated the subject's chest... from the inside... and attached one end of itself to the subject's forehead. If I remove it, I could kill the kid. If I leave it... Final Diagnosis: beats the hell out me. I'd love to refer this to Madorsky at CDC, but unfortunately, he's 67 trillion miles away."

"07.JUL.14: Patient Watson died at 0240 of non-specific causes. Despite zero respiratory and brain function, the body is still displaying autonomous motor function, as does the parasite. At 0847, the patient even spoke to one of the nurses. Autopsy is set for 1630 and then we'll see what makes this Lazarus tick..."

Okay, at what point did it seem like a good idea to cut open someone who's obviously under control of an alien parasite, without pumping a few slugs into him? Maybe all his guns were busted.

"07.JUL.14: The time is 1630. Autopsy subject: A. Watson. Now we're going to make the first incision in... hold him down nurse! Nurse! Hold him down! Aahhh!!! Hey! AAAHHH!!!"

A brief word about the aliens, AKA the annelids. They subvert humans with parasites, turn them into one of various forms that become your enemies. They also talk to you. They're called "The Many", a big organic-based collective intelligence. They're like the Luddite Borg. Except, despite their many rants on the failures of cold metal, they showed humans how to make the Cyborg Midwives and they somehow took control of the ship AI, Xerxes. I'm sorry...? The babble in one log about how the aliens used "Mind control" to take over Xerxes doesn't make sense. It's not organic. And if "mind control" could work on AIs as well as humans, why couldn't they do the same to their "mother", SHODAN?

Okay, find Watts, watch him die - or hit him in the face with a wrench and get no reaction - find the info on his body, go back to open that emergency access, kill a robot, go down through the emergency hatch to the engineering level. Where you get to run through a radiation area. Now comes a horrid misuse of the "ghosts", sometimes-spooky spectral figures that appear and re-live their last moments for your edification. One pops up to say "Do you have a rad hypo? I'm so sick..." Well, considering that you're standing next to something spitting radioactive steam with a big UNSAFE RADIATION LEVELS warning.... Combined with Polito's warnings and some random logs talking about this area, I think someone who doesn't know the area is hot deserves to suck up the rems.

For the next area, let me use another another reviewer's summary, from page 2 of their review. (Weird site, but man, does this review nail my opinion of the game, if not my opinion of contraception.) Pardon the crassness, but the game promotes such comments, at least under one's breath: "Oops the corridor leading to the power station is flooded with radiation, better go to the controls to purge it. Oops the door to the purge controls is locked, have to go get the key in the command center, which is also locked so let's head on down to find the person with the key in cargo bay 2*. Oops cargo bay 2 is locked, better go find the key in cargo bay 1. Okay got the key to cargo bay 2 where I found the key to the command station where I found the key to the purge controls, let's purge that radiation! Huh? The computer locked out the purge command? Oh for the love of fuck, guess I'll go find some circuit boards to override the lockout. Okay overrode the lockout, purged the radiation, went to the power station and turned the power back on to the elevator so now I can finally go ride it up to deck 4 WHICH WAS THE VERY FIRST OBJECTIVE IN THE GAME. Oh great the elevator is blocked on deck 3 better get out and clear an entire deck to unblock it**. Now that that's done with you can finally get to deck 4 WHICH WAS THE VERY FIRST OBJECTIVE IN THE GAME. That's 5 hours spent fixing an elevator to move up two floors. ARE WE SHITTING OUR PANTS IN TERROR YET?!!!"

* About the time I decided to give up entirely and god-mode. Just a bit before, the game had sprung on me the worst trick I've seen in a game in a while - the in-game no-warning cutscene. All of a sudden, the screen fades to white and I panic and start firing, only realizing it's a cutscene after it gets underway. An incredibly jarring and cheap shot, seemingly designed to make me waste ammo firing blindly, and this is the ONLY time they do such a thing. No other in-game cut scenes are sprung on you like this.

** Which is done by finding four doodads to plug into four environmental regulators on deck 3, Hydroponics. This makes me wonder. Marie Delacroix, the faster-than-light drive mastermind, has somehow snuck onto the subverted deck and made a toxin capable of killing the alien infestation. A doctor of hyperspatial physics manages to synthesize an alien-killing biotoxin? Never mind that: I get my cyborg-space-marine ass shot off by the deck's guards, but a nonaugmented theoretical scientist just nipped in and took over a biolab for long enough to synthesize an alien-killing biotoxin? Not only is it unlikely, Delacroix is showing the worst of the Star Trek Science Officer traits: Doctorates in whatever the plot calls for. She also seems to be the main contact for computer and AI security, something which Dr. Polito, as an AI expert, would be more suited to. Any worse and she'd be on an island with a guy named Gilligan, making a radio out of coconuts.

The major disappointment of the Hydroponics deck is that we never see Nurse Bloome, who was - at the behest of the Many - strapped down and surgically and cybernetically altered to become "the new mother to our children" (the newest crop of annelid alien worms), as shown in a creepy ghost scene. Does that mean she's supposed to be a Cyborg Midwife, along with several dozen others? Then why do the data logs of the subverted doctor who performs the surgery focus on this one as being so important? Why claim Bloome's the one who has received the, er, honor of being "the mother of them all!" if you're gonna make a few dozen like her? The use of the phrase "mother of them all" implies that she's going to be giving birth to them, not just guarding them like the Midwives do. I was thinking she'd be some freakish half-worm abomination sort of like queen ants you see with horribly distended lower ends. You know, the ants with corpulent and squirming egg-spawners attached to their relatively tiny bodies. After all, the annelid eggs are the size of oil barrels, it's not like Bloome could squeeze 'em out of any human orifice! Even if we didn't fight her, just the sight of something like that would have turned Hydroponics from one of the better levels to the out-and-out best and most memorable gaming experience I've had in a while, even with the spawn-behind-you monsters and the continuity errors.

A comment or two on Polito: First, we have the massive foreshadowing that we haven't seen SHODAN yet, and we have - if we turned over every freakin' rock and checked every desk - found a data log by Dr. Polito where she has A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT VOICE. Not only that, but this other and altogether more pleasant data-log-Polito is talking about hardware containing an AI, found on Tau Ceti 5 at the same time the alien worms of subversion were. It contains English voice prints. Then we learn later that the AI got out after Polito did the genius Star Trek move of plugging it into hardware from which the entire ship's LAN ("Primary Data Loop") was accessible. One word that Polito, a researcher of AIs with psychotic leanings, should know: SANDBOX.

So, we move up to Ops, deck 4, and have finally left Engineering, Med/Sci, and Hydroponics below us. Now, it's time for the meeting with Polito. Her office consists of a long hall and a woman at the end sitting in a somewhat unladylike pose. She has no control over her position, though: She's dead, a gun near the corpse. Suicide is the implication.

Then, the walls and ceiling retract to reveal that Polito's office is, rather improbably, inside what looks to be a 100-foot diameter truncated octahedron with 50-foot tall televisions set in the four square side walls. Plus hologram generators. I'd like to know who in TriOp she had to sleep with for THAT perk.

We see a big face on the TVs in the walls. Ta-da! It's SHODAN! She explains her past, and how she beat humanity to Tau Ceti. Remember when I said "... the hacker who originally caused this mess awakes to a hostile station and seeks to fix it, stopping several of SHODAN's plans (...) in the process. One of these plans involves jettisoning Beta Grove, where SHODAN was breeding mutant nasties to inflict upon the Earth."? Well, Beta Grove spent thirty years floating through space before crashing into Tau Ceti 5. (This scene is wonderfully disturbing at first, since SHODAN's voice is almost sing-song as she says "There was a garden grove on Citadel-Cit-Cit-t-t-t-t-Citadel Station. There, S-SHODAN processing c-c-component 4-3-8-9-3 was performing a grand and wonderful experiment." It sounds like a beginning to some fairy tale.)

Since it's been 42 years since the destruction of Citadel Station, one of two things happened. Either the mutants spent 12 years getting used to Tau Ceti 5, or relativity screwed SHODAN's timing.

Yep, relativity, given her speed. While I'll admit the authors of the SS2 plot (Which was made by Irrational Games with some assistance and an engine from Looking Glass. It was NOT made entirely by Looking Glass. Get that straight before you praise or condemn LG for making the game.) did a good job of wedging SHODAN's return in, it falls apart upon close inspection. SHODAN getting to Tau Ceti - 10 light years away - in approximately 30 years means Beta Grove was averaging 1/3 light speed over the trip. While the grove might have rockets of its own, the module was not designed for interstellar flight. It presumably has some rockets of the positioning/stabilization variety, with only enough propulsion to quickly get the module clear of the Earth's pull and of major cislunar and translunar traffic lanes. Remember, this was a jettison system, not a landing system.

All in all, that means the grove must have been ejected with a "muzzle velocity" of approximately 1/3 light speed! Man, why even bother with an FTL engine when your jettison systems are powerful enough to kick something out with that much force? Do a 2 stage rocket effect and you probably have a (one-way trip, admittedly) ship at Tau Ceti in 20 years.

I'd also like to know how SHODAN could bleed that much speed off before cratering on Tau Ceti 5. Positioning rockets would have neither the force or the fuel to spare.

And also, if Citadel pushed Beta Grove off that fast, it would move as fast in the opposite direction! Citadel would have been pushed at probably (given its larger size) 1-4% light speed in a random direction. Even if the force only accelerated the station to .1% of c, that's still 300 kilometers per second. Oh, and the acceleration, applied only to the relatively small area around the Grove, would likely rip the station apart.

(Update, August 21, 2006 AD: Some back-of-the-envelope - and possibly wrong - math revealed that if you pointed a one-metric-ton object moving that fast at Earth, it would hit the planet with a force equivalent to 651 megatons of TNT. Which is slightly more force than if you put every single atomic weapon ever detonated in one place and blew them up.)

It's a continuity hole, and an unneeded one. According to the changelogs hidden on the CD, the Rickenbacker captain originally was NOT related to Edward Deigo of the original game: His name was William Bedford Forrest. And the star system wasn't Tau Ceti, it was Canopus, 98 light years away. It was like they felt it was cool or "symbolic" or something to move everything up and make a few more ties to the original game.

I wouldn't cared about these glitches, but by this point I was annoyed enough with the game that I was noticing these holes and they were grating on me. More to follow.

So, now we get to leave the TV room, kill some cyberninjas, set up a radio transmitter (The one that sends Delacroix's "UNN Von Braun" message? Nope. There's another message that's a little more to the point, from a random crewmember. I didn't hear it in-game, I found it on the CD.) and kill the ship's AI so SHODAN can take its place.

Now, SHODAN tells you that the Von Braun is a loss. There's too much infestation and your (and her) only hope is to get onto the Rickenbacker, disconnect the umbilical, and head for home doing sublight. (SHODAN will overload the Von Braun's engines and kill the annelids - her "children" - once the Rickenbacker's clear.)

So you override the engine failsafes (override, override, override...), then head to the bridge. Fight a "psi reaver" boss monster - the mutated remains of Von Braun CEO Korenchkin. Blow up some stuff. Leave through the umbilical.

But before we go there, another rant. Since the player has amnesia, he's been finding out as he plays along that SHODAN's had big plans for him. First, that SHODAN-as-Polito's been orchestrating things covertly since the real Polito shot herself. Second, his cyber-implants have been illegal since the Citadel Station incident. Finally, he did NOT volunteer for this. He was subdued, sedated, operated on, and shoved in cryogenic storage while SHODAN watched the ships fall to The Many. SHODAN had the memory-regeneration process at the end of his thaw from cryo sabotaged so he'd remember everything before SHODAN's ambush, but not the ambush itself.

But herein lies a problem. Polito's suicide letter to Delacroix is dated 10.JUL.14. The cryo storage was started on or around 06.JUL.14, when one Bayliss sent Polito a message: "Doc - I don't feel right about any of this. I still don't understand why you asked me to mess with the memory restoration on that grunt. Why didn't you want him to remember volunteering for this gig? He did volunteer for the implants, right? Every email from you gets stranger and stranger... it's like you're not even the same person anymore." Well, considering that e-mails seem to be voice recordings as well, you'd think he'd have noticed the pitch of her voice going down all of a sudden.

But still, what about the four or so days there when SHODAN was mimicing Polito while Polito was still alive? Did the real doctor not speak to or otherwise contact any person who had received instructions from SHODAN-as-Polito? I suppose on a large ship that would be possible, but we're handed a fairly small cast of characters, all either low-level grunts or upper-level officers. Who all take to e-mailing each other, implying that either there's no decent crap-mail filtering mechanisms on these newfangled PDAs, or that the upper-level people actually know the lessers somewhat.

Oh, and just before heading up the umbilical, you get a note from Dr. Marie Delacroix herself. Apparently SHODAN had been helping her stay alive, but now she's sold Delacroix up the river and left her trapped: "I have vital information for you, but I'm trapped in cargo bay A. Come find me as soon as you can..." Only problem is, there's NO cargo bay A! There's a Cargo Bay 1A (and a 1B), as well as a 2A (and a 2B). And I ran all the way back to check them anyway and found.... NO ONE! Not even a fresh corpse.

Beyond the umbilical is the really bad part of the game, which is sort of like the really bad part of a root canal. While the Hydroponics level at least had the cyborg midwives (excellent design on that thing - it's severely creepy and has a great feeling of pure wrongness and corruption), and the bridge had the psi reaver boss, now we get the Rickenbacker. Task one: Kill a clutch of 15 eggs spread around the first level of the ship. For some reason, they stopped bothering to map the levels out at this point on the automap, instead giving you a list of the sights to see on the level. Perhaps because these levels are so damn linear that a map would be redundant. Still, in-game, you really should have an automap of these levels. As a UNN military officer, you were originally assigned to the Rickenbacker (despite starting the game on the Von Braun) and should have at least SOME capability to map your own ship!

The entire Rickenbacker segment feels like it was done under time deadlines: Linear and uninspired.

From here on in, it goes downhill and fast. Next you have a reverse-gravity level, since walking on the floor will trigger a chain reaction in an unstable meson accelerator, while me walking right above the accelerator and firing a few rockets at it is no problem.... Then we meet what's left of the Rickenbacker's captain, William Bedford Diego. For a while there he seemed to be under the influence of the The Many but apparently he had the ship medical systems rip the alien parasite out of him, leaving him slowly dying as part of the bargain.

Of course, since the player is not one to leave someone die slowly when he can finish them off real quick, reversing the gravity and having him crash from the new ceiling to the new floor far below was a very nice touch. Real noble way to die, there. Since he was found on his back, either he was lying on his stomach - and the surgical incision - on the medical table, he flipped over while falling the 15-20 feet, or he bounced and rolled over. Comfy.

Another thought: On the Rickenbacker we also find data logs from a Rickenbacker crewman that explains the infestation, starting when they landed on Tau Ceti 5: "The eggs were lying in a semi-circle in the middle of what looked like a crash crater." Presumably the aliens, despite not seeming to have evolved beyond the worm and spider phase before humans got there, got rid of all the remnants of metal composing Beta Grove and made it into a nursery.

Some more running about, and we get to the bridge of the Rickenbacker. Lo and behold, we can't leave yet! The main biomass of The Many has grown to an amazing size and is wrapped *around* the two ships.

Okay, hold it! WTF? Bigass worm around the two ships? That doesn't make sense. There CAN'T be enough biomatter contained in two ships - humans, plants, everything - to create a giant worm large enough to loop twice around both ships. I know the ships have a bigger crew than just the ones I see, but by the same token the ships have to be larger than the area the player tools about in - the opening cutscene makes both ships look like small cities.

So, player launches himself in an escape pod, which plows into the worm. Now we get what is the most inspired yet infuriating part of the game. We get to crawl around INSIDE the bigass worm. Very disorienting, extremely icky, no map available for a GOOD reason, very hard if I wasn't godmoding.... But it's too long. Why? Anything is too long if it feels a need to resort to the dreaded jumping puzzle. And, if you don't look up above the obvious jump-off point and see the organic ladder up to a niche we must visit, a puzzle we have to do TWICE.

After this fun diversion, we meet the brain of the Many, which is a ropy, rotting watermelon that spins and has stars floating around and previous-level boss monsters guarding it. After killing it we, rather improbably, end the level by jumping into the hole the brain concealed, which leads to a water slide into the next level.

We find ourselves back on the Rickenbacker, except various parts are sealed off and there's a corridor sticking out into space from a hole in the front of the bridge. Beyond is a walled area with a Star Trek: TNG Holodeck grid pattern on the walls.

SHODAN at this point reveals that she wasn't going to destroy the Von Braun at all - she needed engine override control triggered for different reasons. She's going to take over the universe with technobabble. To wit: "I know you have struggled, but I never had any intention of destroying the Von Braun. The Von Braun's faster than light drive can be used to create pockets of proto-reality. I am now using it to modify reality to my own specifications. The process shall not take long. If it sounds unpleasant to you, put your mind at ease, insect... you will not survive to see my new world order..."

Okay, WHAT? You mean to tell me that TriOp made engines that are capable of arbitrarily altering reality? No, it can't be. This is some new effect that SHODAN thought up for them. It has to be.

Cue Marie Delacroix, the inventor of the engines: "If you are receiving this, I am already dead. When I realized SHODAN had betrayed me, I integrated these comments into her primary data loop. SHODAN has exploited the warping capability of the Von Braun's faster than light device for her own purposes. The device works by altering space around the ship to fairly arbitrary specifications. SHODAN has altered it to HER specifications. The effect is rather small now, but spreads with alarming speed. Soon, it will reach earth. You're in her world now... her memories and her rules. Watch your back."

Okay, so you mean to tell me that Delacroix released preliminary work about a functional faster-than-light drive that could RESHAPE THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE? And TriOptimum built it without, say, trying to use to reshape Earth into a TriOp-controlled area? It amazes me that a supposed 'good guy' like Delacroix would be so callous as to release info about something that could give someone effective godhood without spending time to figure out safeguards against such a contingency. Not only that, but she seemingly did it so she could keep her grant from TriOp. I know the manual claims "Delacroix herself has serious concerns about the reliability of the device and its unexplored side effects." Well, then, WHY'D SHE HAND IT TO THE CORPORATION THAT SPAWNED SHODAN IN THE FIRST PLACE?

Speaking of which, why'd Polito tell Delacroix she was looking for material and rumors on the events on Citadel station? She's supposed to be an AI guru who wrote a seminal AI text called "Emergent AIs and Ethical Constraints" that "was the premier philosophical work on AIs in the post-SHODAN era". Shouldn't she KNOW enough about SHODAN to at least safely assume that this psychotic female AI that's gotten loose is probably the real deal, without spending a few days to research it? Shouldn't she already know the rumors about the happenings on Citadel? Anyway, that complaint is minor compared to these universe-changing engines that TriOp just put on a ship and sent out into space....

So, we go through a trippy mix of Cyberspace and Citadel Station, find SHODAN, and kill her.

And the comes the end. The end, oh God, the end.

It starts off fine, with the main character finally planting a cap in SHODAN's skull and then returning to the normalized alien-and-SHODAN-free Rickenbacker, but then we cut back to our Young Couple. Ah, the young couple. Tommy Suarez of the Rickenbacker and Rebecca Siddons of the Von Braun. As you learn from their e-mail logs, they met onboard, fell in love, watched their comrades become slavering mutants, and now are trying to escape. Aww, cute. Unless you're the type who's screaming "WAAAAA! I don't WANT cute little stories!! I wanna eat dead burnt bodies and see veins in my teeth!!", of course. Every other player is sort of rooting for them, if only because they're about the only two other people who've yet to be eaten/subverted/whatever. And they actually do escape, on a sublight escape pod with cryo units. This also means they represent pretty much Earth's only hope of getting a message back. (Since at this point you think SHODAN's going to destroy the Von Braun, no worries about the FTL engines being used....)

But, no. The Von Braun and the Rickenbacker are normal again and can hobble back home to rethink this mission. So what happens? Rebecca turns into SHODAN. As I said, "What the bloody hell?" Does this mean that SHODAN warped reality enough to change a human into herself? Since she's a cyberspace entity, does that mean reality still have elements of cyberspace? Doesn't that mean she's still won and the universe is hers? Does it mean that she started the transformation before as some sort of contingency plan? If she could make a contingency plan while she had these godlike powers, why did she settle on making a flesh-and-bone copy of herself - who'll no doubt be shot dead once the pod docks with the Von Braun - when she could have just made an identical copy of the Von Braun, spacewarp engines and all, as the ultimate backup? For that matter, why doesn't she just make a battlecruiser large enough to envelop gas giants? It's so bloody obvious sequel fodder that it's an insult compared to the novel way they spawned a sequel from the original standalone game!

Here's my idea, if we simply must have a sequel tie-in - which is almost impossible since they've already put the universe in peril and there's nowhere "bigger" to go as a Big Finale for a System Shock 3. Start the ending the same way. When we cut to the escape pod, both Rebecca and Tommy are visible at the ship controls. We hear the following: "Record log Tommy Suarez 13 July. We've received a hail from a crew member on the Von Braun. They managed to regain control of both ships." (Begin to zoom out.) "We were going to turn around and head back, but the escape pod's navigation computer locked us onto Earth we haven't been able to change or even disable it. The Von Braun's coming to pick us up instead." (Zoom changes to a rotation, towards a bank of computer monitors on the walls of the pod.) "It's almost like the pod would rather go to Earth the long way than back to the Von Braun." Tommy gives a brief, slightly bitter laugh. "After what happened there, I guess I can't blame it." (Rotation stops, 'camera' starts to zoom onto of one of the escape pod's monitors. Behind the random data that's scrolling up the monitor, SHODAN's face appears.) "We can always hook it up to the Von Braun's diagnostic systems to see what's wrong." (SHODAN's face fades back out. Cut to the SHODAN-laugh end of the real cutscene.)

Now, that's a sensible ending. SHODAN would have had reason to install herself onto the escape pod earlier, as a backup plan in case the entire Von Braun was a wash and she really DID have to nuke the ship to keep it from The Many. Much better than some half-assed contingency spawned once she attained godhood. It would also explain why this escape pod was the only one the subverted Xerxes didn't eject. Rather that just "being broken" until someone happened to find and fix it, SHODAN was blocking it from Xerxes' control until she decided to use it. It would also help explain how the rather hapless Romeo and Juliet managed to get to the pod - perhaps SHODAN figures she might need some human hands on the way back to Earth, and these two have fairly complimentary skills and will obviously get along with each other. So, plot-wise, their survival odds were boosted because SHODAN was shepherding them to the pod, like she was shepherding the player and Delacroix.

It also leaves plenty of openings for a sequel. SHODAN taking over the Von Braun again seems a bit much, but who's to say she wouldn't just slip in and bide her time? She's obviously not patient, but when it's a being's only chance of survival, even the arrogant might well settle down for the long haul. She could even mimic Xerxes, who's probably so integral to the ship operations that he'll need to be revived if the skeleton crew (as in, the ones not eaten/killed/changed/etc.) left on the Von Braun and Rickenbacker ever hope to hobble home. Then she could wait until they're back on Earth and everyone's defenses are down before making her move.

I suppose mine might have some plot holes, like why SHODAN just wouldn't eject the pod at the first opportunity, regardless of the success or failure of the Von Braun plan (But then, does SHODAN want two copies of herself active at once? Would the second SHODAN be unwilling to re-integrate with the first once they meet again?) but I feel it does make a little more sense of things than the hackwork they passed off as an ending.

All in all: Not a good game. But what bugs me is that some small part of me wants to play some of it again. There was some really fun and scary bits that were worth salvaging from the overall mess, and I'd love to play those bits again, one glorious level of REAL terror.

If the game at least had some dev tools, maybe a fan group could have made a killer level set, like is done for Thief. But no, we don't even get that.

Such a shame.

August 15, 2005 AD
I received this e-mail recently (September 21: and then didn't post it for over a month - Real Life, groan, gripe, whine), from Hunter Keeton. Reprinted with permission.

Re: Your System Shock 2 review.

Just read this, and while I disagree with your review, I enjoyed your cogent presentation of your points.

I had one thought on the final ending with Siddons turing into SHODAN. I think why this happens in explained in two of the logs Siddons leaves. In one, she mentions a "military grade implant" which she does not understand. She stashes this implant, along with some other supplies, in a cache. This cache is never discovered by the player. This implant reminded me of the implant the hacker receives in the first System Shock game. In a second log, Siddons mentiones being injured, and there is some mention of the implant having potential healing ability (not a surprise, as some one of the OSA powers can heal the player). In the end cutscene, Suarez says that Siddons is resting to heal. I think that its not too much of a stretch to assume that Siddons used the military implant to try to survive to get to the pod, and that the implant contained SHODAN's programming on it. Thus SHODAN takes her over.

In any case, this is what I assume the designers were getting at, and what I thought of when I saw the end cutscene. I admit that making sense of the ending relies on the player listening to these specific two logs and putting two and two together. But this was why I enjoyed the end cutscene.

All the best,

While I didn't go through the entire stack of game files with a fine-toothed comb, this did jump out at me:

re: Civil war
To: Suarez, Tommy
I'm trying to get up to find you, Tommy, but I can't. I'm stuck in Ops. There's some kind of civil war going on here... the security forces came in and... Now don't freak out, but I'm hurt... but not too bad, I managed to pull together a supply of med kits and a few other goodies... some of it looks valuable, but I'm not sure what it is, maybe some kind of military grade implant. I left the stuff I didn't need in a corner of the data library, out of the way in case I need it later. I'm on my way. I promise you, I will not die. I will not die. You do the same, my love. Yours... Becca.

Go back! Back I say!
Run along home.
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