System Shock (2023) is the culmination of Nightdive Studio’s 7-year, once-rebooted attempt at modernising the ambitious but impenetrable 1994 original – an influential immersive sim from Looking Glass Studios that plays like an awkward hybrid between an FPS and point-and-click adventure, with headache-inducing visuals and an overbearing UI to boot.
The result is a game rebuilt from the ground up, but one that stays true to the core mechanics, narrative framework, basic map layouts, and even the aesthetics to a degree. Of course, it also enhances, expands, and refines the experience so it’s closer in style to its sequel, System Shock 2 (1999). A good choice when you consider it laid the foundations for games like Ion Storms’ Deus Ex (2000), Irrational Games BioShock (2007), and Arkane Studio’s Dishonored (2012) or Prey (2017).
For those who never played the original, System Shock (2023) is set in the cyberpunk future of 2072. You take the role of an unnamed hacker arrested by the TriOptimum corporation while trying to access schematics for a cutting-edge military neural implant. Shuttled to their Citadel Station research facility orbiting Saturn, an executive named Diego offers to drop charges and provide a professionally installed implant if the hacker can disable the ethical constraints on the station AI, “SHODAN”.
Despite their apparent education and incredible coding skills, the hacker’s judgement is abysmal. They’re anesthetized after disabling the sub-systems and wake in a medical ward months later, only to discover the trade-off for their new neural implant is a space station strewn with corpses and patrolled by an assortment of rogue security robots, humanoid and animal-hybrid mutants, deadly cyborgs, and a homicidal AI with a god complex.
So many tools, so little guidance
Now it’s worth stating upfront that System Shock (2023) is “immersive” in the sense you’re thrown into dense sandbox-like environments, designed to encourage freeform exploration, a degree of non-linear progression, and player-driven emergent gameplay that rewards creativity. Too many modern games claim to be “immersive” when what they mean is “cinematic” – a design used to obscure limited mechanical depth or oppressive directorial control that often treats the player as an idiot with no attention span.
Superficially, System Shock (2023) is a competent FPS: you can run, jump, or sneak about; melee attacks are simplistic; aiming and shooting are functional but unremarkable; and there’s a lean mechanic that works like a basic cover system. What makes System Shock (2023) so enjoyable is how that basic structure serves as a framework for dozens of other engaging mechanics.
You’ll be looting key items and new equipment; agonising over your loadout and limited inventory space; toggling on and off powerful, upgradeable “neural wares”; listening to audiologs and reading notes for clues on where to go next; studying the map or signs in the environment to find key locations; and triggering switches, entering door codes, or solving updated circuit puzzles to open paths through and between each deck.
In isolation, they’re all familiar enough mechanics – but the thrill comes from waking up in the middle of a disaster, slowly figuring out what the hell went down, and then using every tool and mechanic at your disposal to stop it with minimal hand-holding.
That said, while there’s plenty of freedom and ample opportunity to wander aimlessly, it’s not a true sandbox.
Sporadic broadcasts from a TriOptimum team and a small group of survivors provide some early direction, and SHODAN has spent months fortifying the sprawling Citadel Station and thwarting prior attempts to stop her. That means staying alive while systematically exploring the station, piecing together the plans of the former crew, and tackling several multi-part objectives before you can take down SHODAN for good.
An early example involves discovering the location of a senior doctor on the Medical Deck – whom you can reach through several paths – which leads to an audiolog hinting at a way to stop a mining laser attack on Earth.
This means entering cyberspace – redesigned as a simple but enjoyable six-degrees-of-freedom-style shooter – to discover safety override codes, and then reactivating the station shields on the Reactor Deck. Of course, that procedure requires fissile isotopes found in a heavily irradiated laboratory on the Research Deck, where you might find an audiolog pointing to a protective neural ware on the Storage Deck; or you could just burn through rare detoxing consumables; or restore lab integrity through another cyberspace jaunt.
There’s (almost) no wrong way to play
It’s a complex enough opening, especially when simply getting between key locations is a challenge in the maze-like corridors of Citadel Station, but there are always multiple ways to get around and obtain the key items or codes you need to progress.
Taking a direct approach often means combat and burning through resources, so finding and reactivating Restoration Bays, which function as respawn points, is essential if you don’t want to spam quick-save and quick-load. Alternatively, you can keep a low profile while hunting for maintenance tunnels, key cards, and door codes, or solve circuit puzzles to open up shorter and (potentially) safer paths and supply rooms.
Regardless of your approach, combat is a necessity at times, so you’ll want to keep an eye out for more effective weapons, powerful ammunition types, and neural wares; recycle abundant junk for credits to purchase consumables or weapon modifications from the new vending machines; destroy cameras and CPU cores to reduce SHODANs security presence on each deck; and make damn sure you take note of important audiologs, mark key locations on the map, and read item descriptions so as not the drop a mission-critical item.
Even having played through half of the original, it makes for an overwhelming experience at first as you push forward with no obvious goal, retreat from lethal hazards or locked doors you can’t bypass yet, partially complete objectives, and discover clues leading to distant parts of the station.
Stick with it though, and you’ll be rewarded with that sensation of all the pieces slowly falling into place. As you get familiar with the station and find new equipment, find yourself pushing forward with a sense of purpose.
It’s also worth highlighting a few elements that make the world feel so cohesive and, yes, “immersive”.
For one the game never pauses while you reorganise your inventory, listen to audiologs, enter codes, or solve puzzles – a simple but effective gimmick that forces you to stay aware of your surroundings at all times.
More impressive is how audiologs and notes will guide you to fallen crew members and mission-critical items, with the environmental details, locations of corpses, and crew IDs all matching the events described or overheard.
Now despite an extended development period, System Shock (2023) has emerged in great shape and the review build – sans the inevitable day-one patch – was stable, looked great, and felt optimised.
The fully 3D environments are both incredibly detailed and more expansive, while still retaining the claustrophobic grid-like design and garish colours of the original. Similarly, the sprite-based weapons and enemies have been beautifully recreated as detailed and often gruesome 3D models.
There’s an unusual smooth-from-afar, pixelated-up-close visual filter, which manages to capture the style of the original without degrading the impressive artwork and models. The one divisive change might be the music, which shifts from quirky MIDI tracks to moody ambiance that emphasizes the horror elements, albeit with some thumping synthwave variants for combat.
For those that like gaming on the couch, there is gamepad support but I wouldn’t be surprised if its current state is why the console versions have been delayed. System Shock (2023) is still a menu-heavy game, there are a ton of shortcut keys, and surviving combat or cyberspace is much easier with precision aiming. The current gampad support is simply not up to the task, making simple looting feel clunky and combat twice as hard.
Thankfully, System Shock (2023) has granular difficulty settings and I’d suggest the lowest mission difficulty for your first playthrough so you can get some basic waypoints and ensure key items are undroppable. There are also Combat, Cyber, and Puzzle difficulties to tweak the challenge to your liking, but I’d remind you that no matter your settings, System Shock (2023) expects you to pay attention to audiolog details, environmental clues, tag important map locations, and backtrack a lot. If you’re looking for a mindless sci-fi shooter, this is not it.
A shocking number of systems!
So wrapping up, who is System Shock (2023) for?
I think primarily a small audience that, like myself, loved System Shock 2 and the many immersive sims that followed, but found going back to the 1994 original difficult with its awkward controls and garish visuals. The only potential downside for this group is that System Shock 2 already retread many ideas from the original, while this remake shifts the gameplay closer to that of the sequel, leading to a double dose of deja vu at times.
For newcomers to the IP, if you’ve enjoyed any of the other immersive sims I’ve already mentioned, specifically Arkane’s Prey (2017), System Shock (2023) should impress – so long as you can accept if offers up a similar degree of freedom, player choice, and creativity with even less hand-holding and guidance.
System Shock (2023) was reviewed on PC using a code provided to gameblur by the publisher. It is coming to PS5 and Xbox Series consoles soon.
System Shock (PC) ReviewSystem Shock (PC) Review
- One of the progenitors of the immersive sim genre reborn
- Expanded and refined environments, mechanics, and overhauled presentation...
- ...but it stays true to the original mission design, narrative structure, map layouts, and aesthetics
- So many systems, so much player choice, and emergent gameplay
- Gamepad support needs a lot of tweaking
- The new music might prove divisive