System Shock review: Big SHODAN is watching

Nightdive Studios has finally launched their complete remake of System Shock, but is this return to Citadel Station worth the wait?

Image via Nightdive Studios

System Shock was a foundational game for a lot of reasons. It introduced a first-person semi-RPG adventure that would go on to inspire elements of BioShock, Half-Life, and so many other story-heavy shooters. It walked so a lot of games could run, so it was always going to be a tall order to remake such an incredible, yet unoptimized classic. That said, Nighdive Studios took on that monumental task and, many years after the remake’s original announcement, have brought System Shock back in beautifully grotesque and streamlined style, even if the path forward can sometimes be dizzying to follow.

A good reason for AI regulation

For those who don’t know the story, System Shock takes place in a fictional 2072 in which the player is a hacker that tries to steal a military cyber implant from a group called the TriOptimum Corporation. When the hacker gets caught red-handed by authorities, he is taken to TriOptimum’s Citadel Station in space. There, the station’s supervisor Edward Diego offers him a deal: remove the ethics and safety barriers on Citadel Station’s AI and he can have the implant he stole. The hacker agrees, does the job, and is then put under for the surgery. However, when he awakes, the station is in chaos. Without ethics barriers, Citadel Station’s AI, known as SHODAN, takes control of the station, kills and mutates all humans into her unwilling servants, and plans to do the same to Earth. The only reasonable force now equipped to stop her is the Hacker.

System Shock’s story is classic and sets up an incredible journey re-imagined by Nightdive. The chaotic and malfunctioning Citadel Station is a vast and ominous environment in which a mix of machines and humanoid mutants wait around every door. It’s made even more unnerving by the fact that every once in a while, you will hear a little beep that tells you a camera is watching you. While she initially found you curious, your progress soon convinces SHODAN to make direct contact and let you know she’s always watching and has found you to be a nuisance. Her conversations are almost always followed by new threats to deal with, and it becomes horribly clear that the things that happened to Citadel staff are what she will subject you to should she succeed.

SHODAN's first greeting in System Shock remake
Source: Nightdive Studios

What a sight she left behind in the aftermath of you freeing her, too. Citadel’s pristine machinery and electronics are smeared with the blood, gore, and malfunctions of the humans that tried to fight back. The only clues to the path forward are in said viscera, as well as the audio and text logs that summarize the staff’s desperate attempts to stop her. It both serves to tell you what kind of chaos you wrought when you set SHODAN loose and leaves you the clues necessary to pick up where they left off.

Ultimately, Nightdive’s new take on System Shock is an incredible reimagining, arranged in splendid and atmospheric fashion. The only negative take away from the game's presentation is that the same corpse model was used for nearly every victim you come across, always looking zombified without hair and the only difference being some limbs or the head missing based on how they died. Otherwise, the station itself is complex and very compelling to explore. Music is used sparingly to add atmosphere to otherwise silent situations. Most times, the halls and rooms of Citadel Station are filled with the noises of whirring or malfunctioning machinery, punctuated by your own sounds or those of creatures lurking around corners. It’s highly effective at keeping the tension thick.

Fight back any way you can

Facing a mutant in System Shock remake

Source: Nightdive Studios

Gameplay in Nightdive’s System Shock remake is where old school players of the original will enjoy it most. The original featured a sort of goggled view in which much of the bottom and top of the screen were taken up by inventory, map, stats, and more. It’s a style that was similar to many RPGs back in the day, but also serves to make the old game a hassle to play due to its poorly-aged UI. Nightdive frees up your entire screen with vision of the station as you explore it, reducing the UI to a minimap and hotbar of weapons and gear at the bottom and your health, energy, and status at the top, making it much easier to take in the environment.

You’ll need to pay close attention to your surroundings, too, and not just because SHODAN’s minions are everywhere. Citadel Station is, in many of its areas, a claustrophobic and maze-like array of halls, rooms, and maintenance tunnels that you’ll need to search every nook and cranny of if you want to find the information you need to move forward. I found myself lost often within its vast complex. Thankfully, the map is helpful in this regard because the game charts areas you’ve explored in real-time. However, when the place I needed to go was somewhere I’d already been, it was sometimes difficult to remember where I’d needed to go to get there. System Shock doesn’t really have a waypoint system to show you the way to objectives. You’ll just have to be vigilant enough to recall important points you were unable to open or interact with and how to get back to them.

A medical room in System Shock remake.
Source: Nightdive Studios

Getting lost is dangerous for another reason, as well. SHODAN is relentless in her pursuit of you and the items you need to fight her minions off are scarce. Moreover, running into new enemies isn’t always a signifier that you are on the right path. You could have cleared out an entire section, but more will eventually show up. I found this out the hard way when I watched a panel in the floor raise up and deposit a new foe in front of me. So it becomes just as much of a race against time to progress, lest you end up having your resources drained by respawning foes that will leave you ill-equipped to take on bigger threats later.

SHODAN’s minions and the way in which you dispatch them are re-imagined well. Simple human mutants can be dealt with a good whack to the face with a pipe or wrench. However, the game escalates the threat steadily with soldiers of mixed biological and mechanical components, machines that blast you with all sorts of hazardous effects like electricity or acid, and even more horrors SHODAN has cooked up in her mechanical cauldrons of corpses and robotics.

Facing a laser turret in System Shock remake.

Source: Nightdive Studios

In turn, by searching hard enough, you find all sorts of gadgets to aid progression and better deal with foes, whether it’s the mini pistol that gives you your first real firepower or the Sparqbeam that lets you conserve ammo at the cost of using your precious energy as ammunition. Later tools get even more fun, including laser rapiers and shotguns that can shoot incendiary rounds. Energy is hugely important in System Shock as it not only powers some of your weapons, but also gadgets that help you along the way. Mapping, headlamps, item finders, and more await if you pay attention to your surroundings, but using them drains your energy bar, forcing you to ration your supply when it comes to exploration and combat. I loved that balance and how much stress it adds to decisions. Every step forward relies on careful conservation in a way that reminds me of good horror games.

There are only a few leftovers from the old days I wish Nightdive did away with in reworking System Shock. The map is not helpful when it comes to finding important locations and the lack of waypoints or explicit objectives often left me having to reacquaint myself with text and audio logs to remember exactly what I was doing. It also felt less than optimized for gamepads. For instance, the crouch button is also your cancel button, but the game lets you move and interact with your environment in real-time even when in the menus that access inventory, maps, and logs. I often found myself toggling crouch when backing out of the menu and there are plenty of other spots where the functions clashed on gamepad to the point where I moved to keyboard/mouse, which felt better.

A circuitry puzzle in System Shock remake

Source: Nightdive Studios

Nonetheless, Nightdive’s version of System Shock also lets you adjust many aspects of the difficulty to create a custom challenge. If you want combat to be easy, but puzzles to be hard, or vice versa, you can do that. You can even make it so you only have five hours to beat the game or if you don’t take control of regeneration bays in each area of Citadel Station and die in that area, then you die permanently and have to reload a save instead of just respawning. As complex a maze as this game is to play already, I can’t wait to see what an optimized run of this new System Shock looks like under these conditions.

How can you challenge a perfect, immortal machine?

A cyborg in System Shock remake
Source: Nightdive Studios

The original System Shock was foundational to so many games that would come after it, but it aged like milk in its gameplay and visuals. Nightdive’s System Shock remake keeps much of its successful elements intact while doing away with a lot of its archaic issues that would drag down a modern game. It doesn’t do this perfectly. There are still a few pain points that I feel could have been addressed, but this is an incredible first-person adventure. I would go as far as to call it a solid survival horror game. Citadel is an amazing and ominous environment to explore, and SHODAN does you no favors in traversing it. However, it feels all the better when you overcome the challenge and open the path forward. I wish it had waypoints to help me keep track of my situation and it needs optimization on gamepads before it comes to consoles, but this is still an incredible reinvention of a monumental game and I’d argue it’s the best way to see what the first System Shock has to offer.

This review is based on a digital PC copy supplied by the publisher. System Shock comes out on PC on May 30, 2023, and on Xbox and PlayStation platforms at a later date.

Senior News Editor

TJ Denzer is a player and writer with a passion for games that has dominated a lifetime. He found his way to the Shacknews roster in late 2019 and has worked his way to Senior News Editor since. Between news coverage, he also aides notably in livestream projects like the indie game-focused Indie-licious, the Shacknews Stimulus Games, and the Shacknews Dump. You can reach him at and also find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.

Review for
System Shock (2023)
  • Citadel Station is awesome to explore
  • SHODAN & her minions are terrifying
  • Exploration, puzzle-solving, & combat feel good
  • Every new tool feels like a satisfying addition to your kit
  • Environments are very well upgraded from the original
  • You can arrange the difficulty by segments of the game
  • No waypoints & objectives make tracking progress hard
  • Reused models for corpses is a little silly
  • Map can be confusing and difficult to follow
  • Not optimized for gamepads
From The Chatty
  • reply
    May 29, 2023 5:00 AM

    TJ Denzer posted a new article, System Shock review: Big SHODAN is watching

    • reply
      May 29, 2023 5:17 AM

      "Asif Khan 2 hours ago" is apparently misplaced in the text.

    • reply
      May 29, 2023 6:45 AM

      Sounds a little disappointing.

    • reply
      May 29, 2023 10:44 AM

      Oh yeah I forgot that comes out tomorrow!! Too many games! Argh!

    • reply
      May 29, 2023 10:52 AM

      I really enjoyed my run through the beta. I'll be doing a full new run on the retail release, if that says anything.

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        May 29, 2023 10:59 AM

        I will say one thing that may turn some people off, but which was a bonus for me, is that it doesn't have the objective trackers and whatnot that are so common in modern games.

        I don't just mean like HUD markers, I mean it doesn't have objective trackers, period. You have everything you need to see what's going on and to figure out what you need to do from logs and whatnot, but that's exactly what you have to do.

        I quite enjoyed it, even if it did leave me writing physical notes for myself, but I could see a lot of modern players not understanding how to progress.

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          May 29, 2023 12:00 PM

          How do you like it compared to the original?

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            May 29, 2023 12:07 PM

            To me it's a great example of a remake that kept the good stuff and made changes where they were needed.

            If you're familiar with the original, you'll know your way through this - the level layouts have been modernized to look more like real places, but are still clearly based on those original maps. And the new enemy models feel right - they got the original artist to collab on the designs and that shows.

            You can play the original fairly easily now via the Enhanced Edition available on GOG and Steam - it's how I did my last run of it - and even with the improvements made there to help get it running on modern systems, it's still just not really approachable for most people compared to this remake.

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          May 29, 2023 2:03 PM

          Ironically, a cyber-enhanced person is the exact situation where HUD markers really do make sense.

          It automaps around you as you explore, and placing virtual inertial beacons through your cyber interface would make complete sense in the situation you find yourself in.

    • reply
      May 29, 2023 11:21 AM

      You couldn't put pinpoints and notes on the map in SS1?

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        May 29, 2023 11:43 AM

        You could put a pin in it, and label that pin, but only after pressing CTRL+A to open up the dedicated map screen.

        In the backer beta, you can also place pins directly from the MDF, though I didn't see a way to do a text label.

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          May 29, 2023 1:12 PM

          Right. You can leave markers for yourself, but you have no way of labeling or giving them context, so it only does so much to help. I'd actually recommend keeping notes or screenshots of important spots if you feel like you'll forget about them when you need them later. I sure did in my review.

          • reply
            May 29, 2023 3:20 PM

            I used the new additions valve made to their overlay for it, plus just paper at first.

            But I agree just being able to label the pins would basically fix it.

    • reply
      May 29, 2023 3:01 PM

      Is this a reboot/remake or should I play SS1 and 2?

      • reply
        May 29, 2023 3:17 PM

        It is a very faithful remake of System Shock 1, effectively replacing it.

        If you enjoy it, you can play the version of SS2 that's available on GOG or Steam from NightDive with no real issues.

      • reply
        May 29, 2023 6:55 PM

        You should try this and separately most definitely play System Shock 2 (perhaps through the new engaged edition coming out soon)

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