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Nightdive's smart remake proves System Shock has still got it

Shodan who's boss.

Looking down a space station hallway in the System Shock remake. You hold a chunky lead pipe; you have a feeling you'll need it.
Image credit: Nightdive Studios / System Shock

There's a dilemma to remaking a 30-year-old game, and it's how much do you remake. If you build it completely anew and reimagine everything, then how much of the original game do you still actually have? Then again, if you don't change enough, how much of a remake is it?

This System Shock remake is an attempt at the answer, and an intriguing one, because I think if you showed it to someone unaware of the original, who was judging it purely in a 2023 context, they'd look at it and wonder what the fuss was about.

To them, I'd hold up images of the original, which I've included in this piece from a quick playthrough earlier. And as you can see, the difference is dramatic. The lighting makes a massive difference to the mood, and there are clearly decades of technological advancement on show. And yet, somehow, the game still looks old.

This might seem like a misstep, like the developer hasn't been able to live up to remake a game with this legacy deserves, and maybe that will still prove true - this is only a demo I'm playing. But the more I play, the more I'm convinced it's a deliberate thing, that the game wants to evoke old. It's almost as if there's a pixelated layer applied to everything in order to do it. You can see it on objects, on enemies - everywhere.

Cover image for YouTube videoPC Gaming Show - System Shock Trailer
This vid gives a good montage of the game in motion. The lighting in particular makes a massive difference to the atmosphere.

And I think that's a really clever, and sensitive, way to both honour the original game and to check people's expectations a bit, about what's possible here. It says don't get carried away and expect too much - this is still the original System Shock game. And now you're probably thinking, 'What's the point then? I'll play the original.' But don't; there's a load of other stuff going on here that should change your mind.

To begin with, there's new content. There's a whole new section at the beginning, in the introduction, that wasn't there before. That old cutscene where you see yourself being tracked down to an apartment and then being apprehended: you now play that sequence. It gives you a chance to walk around your own apartment for the first time, opening fridges and flushing the toilet - the kinds of things that used to excite people in the 90s when interactivity like this was new - before sitting down to hack a computer and be caught by the authorities.

Ye olde, original, System Shock.

Plus, a whole load of work has been done to how the game plays. In 1994, when System Shock came out, you had to enable freelook in games! That's how long ago it was. The camera was fixed by default. That now seems ridiculous of course, but standards have changed and the remake has done all it can to keep up with them, and make this a much more natural and intuitive experience to play. And it is.

Developer Nightdive has also done things like improve the inventory system, improve the interactive panels and puzzles, and improve the differentiation between the items you pick up, which all now have fancy animations when you use them.

The new System Shock. It's hard to get a sense of it in still images, but there's a moodier feeling to the new game. The atmosphere allows for a bit more emptiness, a bit more unease.
It's on the baddies, particularly, where you see a kind of oldness. But they're still quite unsettling.
Puzzles are now much clearer and easier to interact with.
The flying sections of System Shock are a kaleidescope of colour and action. and a nice contrast to exploring the space station's halls.

What strikes me most about the remake, though, is how different it feels in terms of atmosphere. The original behaves much more like an action game, with a very catchy electronic track pumping in your ear, whereas here, it's gone. The remake has settled down a bit, taken a breath, and leaned into the atmospheric eerie space station vibe instead. And it makes a big difference - it's quite creepy now.

On the surface, then, this isn't the blockbuster treatment I expected. But actually, beneath that, there's a lot here to admire. I think Nightdive has shown real care and respect to the original, and it's remarkable, really, how powerful the experience of that game still is. The slower approach to a first-person shooter, with puzzles and inventory management, still feels really current, and that sudden switch to first-person shoot-'em-up sections still feels as dizzying and dazzling - and audacious - as it ever did. System Shock has still got it.