Thursday, September 23, 2021

System Shock 2

Been playing System Shock 2 for the first time recently. I've decided it's overrated. Mechanically it's just DOOM with inventory and character levels. Having levels means you need to invest a bunch of XP into speed if you want the movement to feel good...

The game is hardly unplayable; far from it. However, its perception clearly relies heavily on illusion and trickery. It has more atmospheric music and the enemy design leans to body horror. 

"But but survival horror you have to carefully conserve..." Yeah, no. DOOM is, if anything, even more strict with ammo. In DOOM you don't worry about it since there's always more health and ammo to find. In System Shock, you shouldn't worry about it, because not only is there always more health and ammo to find, but you can buy and stockpile things and melee isn't pure [death wish]. You can make a melee build and melee the whole game if you want. In DOOM if you run out of ammo you're completely boned. In System Shock I can't even imagine running out of ammo unless you're like 8 years old or something. If you're worried about it, pick up adrenaline rush: problem solved.

If you play DOOM on nightmare for your first run, you will get annihilated.
If you've never played it before, you can go ahead and play System Shock on impossible. You'll want to quickload a lot to learn enemy attacks, especially since the attack hitboxes are a bit... However, unless you're totally wasteful, like shooting all the doodads out with pistol bullets and not having any points in another weapon skill, you'll be fine. 

Impossible severely limits your XP. On one hand, this seems to be a good way to make things more difficult. On the other hand, it's clear many abilities are balanced around being fun instead of being good; on impossible you can't afford most of the fun stuff. You can swap difficulty on the fly, so you can switch to normal or even easy when it's time to level up if you want. Difficulty also affects your maximum HP and how much you get healed for; you would think most of the difficulty would be down to those factors anyway, so if you swap back after levelling it's not even that much of an exploit.

I do like how functionally XP is found in the levels, not on enemies, so you can't grind for XP.

Bonus round: there's no good reason to use anything in DOOM except the conventional shotgun and chaingun, unless you're out of bullets or really, really like prettier colours. In System Shock, exactly the same. Standard weapons OP. Boring. The rocket launcher is pretty okay in DOOM, and likewise System Shock has a grenade launcher which they buffed like mad.

Double bonus round: the attacks from System Shock enemies are dramatically harder to dodge reliably than the attacks in the "hard" game Dark Souls. On impossible, they even do more damage: you can be one-shot by the goomba-equivalent. "Hero walks out of Tintagel. Blue slime hits him for 10! He is dead!" 

There's a very noticeable long-term trend toward games becoming trivialized.

That said, Dark Souls bosses are far deadlier; System Shock has approximately one boss. 

Getting hit in System Shock consumes non-renewable resources instead of renewable resources, which makes System Shock feel more like you're short and need to conserve. You imagine the possibility of running out; also enemies are renewable, unlike total playthrough health.

Dark Souls feels punishing because you can't just quickload when you die. Similarly when you do get hit, you get hit hard (regardless of what armour you're wearing). However, it's clear they made it feel so punishing they had to pull way back on the difficulty so it would be playable by the mass market. In reality your level in Dark Souls is almost irrelevant, so the death penalty is almost meaningless; further, you might know about rings of sacrifice.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of old-school D&D, which was insane enjoyment and amusement when I used to play/run games. In an OSD&D campaign, resources aren't ever truly limited, because there's no source code; still the ongoing resource management and problem solving struggle causes a similar feeling to SS2. The leveling system is also similar to Dark Souls. Levels mean essentially nothing except for bragging rights, and can easily be lost if an undead touches your guy or if your guy dies. Comparatively leveling in SS2 gives you a lot more goodies.

I tried to run a game of D&D recently for people who have played a lot of 5th edition and they hated it due to high character lethality, low balance, and slow level progression. Then again I was probably too cruel and definitely seriously out of practice.

Icycalm (if you don't know of him, long-winded nrx adjacent videogame critic) has written about why DOOM doesn't appeal to him, saying it doesn't have a cohesive story or differentiated levels. He says it's too simple. I like it because it's more simple at base and the complexity is emergent; afaict a lot of the fun of videogames and other game systems is emergent complexity (cf. chess). This is for instance why Civ 2 is the best of the series. In game design it seems crucial to hit the point where immediate complexity is low enough but emergent complexity has a high enough potential. This is something I need to learn, or re-learn.

Alrenous said...

Sounds like Icycalm (I am somewhat familiar) doesn't like DOOM because it's too much of a videogame and not enough of a movie. Certainly a great videogame has a great story, but a great story with bad interactive mechanics is typically called a book.

I like DOOM because the movement doesn't make you feel like you're trudging through sludge. It's wildly 'unrealistic' but gameplay comes before realism. Also DOOM can scifi that shit. Secondly but just as importantly, you can't casually disrespect the enemies. They're opponents, not power-fantasy cannon fodder. Ironically designing a game to be a power fantasy makes the (perceptive) player feel weak, like they're being babied. You don't win because you outplayed them, you win because mamma softened them all up for you. You win because daddy handed you an AK-47 and all they have is nerf bows.


You can deal with D&D character lethality by letting them have higher-level characters to start. IMO strategy is too simple when you're at level 1. Hit them with your pointy stick, or cast minor befuddlement to make hitting them with your stick 1 point easier on the die. Of course my only real exposure to D&D is running a solo character through Baldur's Gate 2. Stoneskin means you don't need to heal. Chain lightning means you don't anyone else to do damage. I did enjoy that game immensely, though much of that was because e.g. I had never seen a mindflayer before and finding them felt like genuine exploration. "What else is possible?" "Let me show you." By contrast, a modern game is like, "Have we done that cliche yet?" "Yeah uh you can skip the cliches, thanks..." " want to skip the entire game?"

I too was thinking about D&D and I wondered if it was mainly about teaching social skills to nerds. In D&D you can try all the weird shit and, if the DM is competent, the NPCs will react in a realistic way. In other words you can repeatedly torpedo your reputation without actually, you know, torpedoing your reputation, and eventually learn not to torpedo your reputation IRL.

Did Christians hate it because they liked dunking on nerds?

Anonymous said...

Your complaints about D&D are mainly about the game as it exists now (and as it existed when B.G. was new.) The "old school game" is very different, and if correctly administered requires fairly sophisticated strategy from players at all degrees of advancement. I have always found character lethality to be an important part of enforcing the strategy requirement, so no part of me wants to reduce it.

Christians hated it because it competed with them for the attention of their smart kids, thereby injuring their egos.