Wednesday, 21 July 2010

July's Observations (part 3)

It's difficult to take any computer or video game seriously nowadays, looking across the shelves of console games (any of the three major consoles!), and it's a tragic mass of manufactured shooting or sports games.

This situation is more than a little depressing in its own right, but it is made even worse having played two of the best PC games that exist: System Shock and System Shock 2. I don't really have the vocabulary to elucidate far as to how these games excite me. But simply, their brand of first-person adventuring imparts a sense of seclusion, claustrophobia, of bettering one's-self in order to progress. The whole "hacker trapped on a space station" plot is mere icing on the cake, the fact that both games have semi-persistent multi-level worlds is what makes them utterly fascinating.

Both games start you off having awoken from cryogenic sleep, with warning bells chiming in your ears as you realise you're in a place where things have gone very wrong indeed. I shan't talk about the sequel too much for now, but the first game's angular level design and near-gaudy, bright sci-fi textures give the Citadel Station a much-missed "light" tone despite the direness of your situation. If the game was released today, it'd be all dark corridors and a dumbed-down interface. But no, bright blue panelling assaults your eyes, and tiny things lay around on the floor for you to pick up - okay so the pixellation does look a touch rough nowadays - such as "power pills", weapons and PDAs. For 1994, the CD version's audio logs were a thing of wonder. And this being Looking Glass, they were well acted and written, imparting a consistent sense of desperation in the crew members as they fight the menace that is blighting it. Of course, nowadays, Aliens Vs. Predator 2010 (and others) employ them to pad out gameplay with pointless observations and soap opera acting.

You feel vulnerable at first, weak attack strength, tiny laser pistols and crowbars being the only weapons to hand. Trips to the healing pods will be regular as you engage enraged, marauding robots, gulping down adrenaline pills searching for that elusive unlock switch, passkey, or access to the next level. The slow progression through the 9 levels, knowing that - as you ascend higher - enemies will become more deadly and the challenge will continue to raise, is a simple game mechanic which has been lost to the "joys" of open-world, multi-mission games.

You can download SS1 from here, and I would recommend using the mouse-look mod with it.

There are a few fan-sites, but interest in the games seems to be waning gradually, unlike Thief's continued worship. To be fair, Thief is also a stellar game - and possibly still the finest stealth adventuring you can experience, especially if you try some fan missions such as Rocksbourg or T2X - but System Shock is simply better. With the addition of the mouse-look mod making "WSAD+mouse" play possible, and higher screen resolutions, System Shock is brought forward to the Duke Nukem 3D era at least. But that's enough. I feel that its esoteric sprite graphics, and over-bright atmosphere makes it feel far, far more unsettling, exotic and enjoyable than any selected modern sci-fi or horror game. Malba Tahan's mod merely makes it more accessible and easier to get started, which is a positive thing.

There is one negative, however. Between playing SS1 all the way through for the first time at the start of this year, and Mass Effect 2, gaming has been almost entirely ruined for me. Music has become more important, but experiencing a game like SS1 was life-changing. Yes, life-changing. Please, go and play it, but I warn you - it may ruin gaming for you if you warm to its standards. Because Looking Glass and Irrational were on top form throughout the 90s, and in System Shock 1, 2 and both Thief games, it showed.

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