What is your tolerance to bad controls? This is the question to ask when someone wants advice on whether to play System Shock or not.
Because everything else in the game is pretty much perfect. The graphics, mind-blowing for its time, consisting of true 3D enviroments mixed with sprites for characters, allow the players to look in every direction and angle without the perspective issues that plagued Ultima Underworld (with which SS1 shares more than a few similarities). The music is perfectly in tune with the 90’s cyberpunk setting, and the noises made by the robots will permeate your entire stay on Citadel. The story is several notches above the usual throaway plots of any shooters of the era, with a memorable villain and some formidable set pieces.
And everything has a name. I can’t stress this enough. You can put your mouse on anything in the scenery – any thing – and it will tell you what it is. “Force Field Rotor” “Molecular Matter Generator”. Yes, you can’t really use any of them, and most of the names don’t actually make any sense anyway. But it’s all for the sake of atmosphere. This game is full of it.
So let’s return to the elephant in the room. Can bad controls break a game? Difficult question. I’m definitely not a fan, but I do believe one can overcome bad controls if they are not central to the experience. For example, a racing game with bad controls is just a disaster waiting to happen. An adventure game with bad controls, though, is easier to swallow. System Shock, despite being more of a shooter/adventure hybrid, falls in the latter category. So you can get used to the controls, and what’s more, you’ll see they won’t get you killed. Cyborg mutants will do that instead.
It is often regarded as a RPG or even survival horror, perhaps an effect of the sequel’s reputation for being exactly that. In truth, you won’t find many survival elements because ammo is plenty (do we consider Doom survival?), horror elements are relatively scarce aside from the usual bodies scattered around (but any violent sci-fi worth its salt should have them), and RPG elements are completely absent, with only the somewhat limited inventory as a slight reminder. Expect to shoot a lot and not be horrified much.
So I guess there’s two things I’m trying to say: the first is, if you liked SS2, there’s no guarantee you’ll like the original because it’s a very different beast. But the second is, if you are looking for a great mix of shooting and adventure, look no further than System Shock.
Playing today: the difficult interface and complex graphics must have kept this out of reach for the consoles of the era. So this was a PC exclusive. As was common for many games of its time, it came out on both floppies and CD-Rom. The latter version is superior in everything, especially the inclusion of voices and a SVGA mode, not to mention it’s easier to find around. Should you choose this path, don’t expect an easy life: Dosbox will have small issues with the mouse, and a real Dos machine might fall into memory problems way too often.
However, just last week GOG finally released an Enhanced Edition with several improvements: higher resolutions, native Windows executable and especially more modern controls. So you have no excuses anymore, really. If you want to go the purist way, GOG also includes the original edition as a download, emulated with Dosbox. There’s no reason to use that one, though, when you can just play the EE with the original controls and resolution, and avoid the small issues that come with emulation. Whichever way you choose, remember to save your magpulse ammo.