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The System Shock remake is excellent - and Nightdive's most ambitious work yet

What made the original a genre-defining classic - and how does the remake modernise the game?

After years of uncertainty and anticipation, System Shock has made its triumphant return and this remake is even better than I could have hoped. This Unreal Engine remake carefully straddles the line between modern and retro gaming, delivering a heartfelt interpretation of a classic. To give a better sense of what developer Nightdive has accomplished, we'll compare the remake to the original, explore its history and share some thoughts on performance too. This might be one of the best remakes ever made.

System Shock was originally developed by Looking Glass Technologies, a small Massachusetts studio known for its innovation. They pioneered a genre now known as the immersive sim, where players are plunged into a world where choices matter, problems can be solved systematically and thinking outside the box can be critical to success. The original Ultima Underworld games contained the genesis of this idea, but System Shock would be the studio's masterpiece. If you've ever played Bioshock, Prey 2017 or Deus Ex, among many others, you can thank System Shock for paving the way.

System Shock's release in 1994 may have come as a shock to players who had discovered first-person gaming through Doom and Wolfenstein, but beneath the clunky interface and abstract visuals lay a game unlike anything else on the market at the time. Facing off against the AI Shodan, you'll explore the many floors of Citadel Station non-linearly, unravelling the mystery through audio logs and emails - a fresh concept at the time.

Here's the video remake of this article, mastered by John Linneman.

At your disposal, you have a cursor driven-interface complete with drag-and-drop inventory, a wide range of potential weapons, the ability to infiltrate cyberspace and much more. The items you choose to engage with and weapons you carry will determine your path through the game and those items often influence the environment and enemies in a systems-driven way. System Shock is all about atmosphere, exploration and tension. The 3D engine powering the game even supports slopes and various other room configurations that weren't possible in games such as Doom.

System Shock is a challenging game to return to given its clunky interface - even when playing the Enhanced Edition. That brings us to 2016, when Nightdive Studios launched a Kickstarter campaign to build a complete remake of the game. Following the release of an early Unity prototype, production stalled and was restarted in Unreal Engine 4, culminating in the 2023 release. It took years - and the blood, sweat and tears of its creators - but System Shock lives.

Remaking a game is never easy. On the one hand, players expect you to respect the game's legacy, but if you stick too closely to the original, you may fail to capture the imagination of new players. The System Shock remake expertly navigates potential pitfalls to produce an exceptionally memorable immersive sim that feels both fresh and reverent from visuals and audio to game design and the interface. We'll tackle each in turn, starting - in true DF fashion - with the graphics.

The bold colours and unusual shapes that give the original game its unique look have been retained, but expect changes to layouts and more where necessary.

The original System Shock is a strange game from a visual standpoint, with the juxtaposition of contrasting colors and oddly-shaped corridors creating a sense of unease that builds tension. The original is never as scary as Irrational's System Shock 2, but what's here is compelling and atmospheric. The remake follows in the footsteps of the original, updating the aesthetic where appropriate. Unlike most modern UE titles, System Shock eschews realistic materials and filtered textures in favor of pixelated, point-sampled surfaces complete with bold, garish hues. In many scenes, the original's flat surfaces have been reworked with copious amounts of geometry. It walks a strange line between modern, detailed visuals and a retro aesthetic, and it works.

I can't stress enough how expertly executed the materials choices are - Nightdive's artists managed to create a unique fusion old-school pixelated and modern PBR materials, while light behaves as you'd expect in a modern game with screen-space reflections, surface roughness determining specular intensity and so on. This could have been accomplished by pre-scaling textures using nearest neighbor scaling and then creating normal maps, specular maps and so on. Once properly set up, those materials display the expected specular response while retaining the retro pixel look - incredible.

I also appreciate the adherence to the basic shapes that define the original. System Shock is known for its meandering hallways filled with unorthodox, sometimes illogical, structures and the remake manages to capture this while improving the layouts, creating something more legible. Levels closely follow the original but make changes where appropriate without losing the original intent. Additional flourishes have been added to spice up the scenery, while large open spaces now feature props like railings, tables and chairs.

System Shock 2023 feels right - and that's key.

More than most remakes, System Shock does a great job of channeling any lingering memories you may have of the original 1994 release - it feels like returning home after years of absence, even if the visuals have been dramatically improved.

Lighting also plays a key role in building atmosphere - brightly-lit filaments brilliantly pierce the darkness, playing off the pixel textures around you. It's not just set dressing either, as you can shoot out lights and reduce ambient light levels in the process - which of course plays into the game's systems.

Another aspect worth mentioning is the weapons, both in terms of visual design and world integration. The starter pistol in any shooter needs to look and feel great, from Half-Life 2's Glock or Halo's M6D Magnum - racing through the corridors with a perfectly-proportioned, satisfying pistol adds so much to any shooter and System Shock nails this. Nightdive has also gone the extra mile and merged the first and third person perspectives into a cohesive whole with full body awareness. Basically, you can see your hands and feet just by looking down, which makes you feel more immersed in the world.

System Shock, like Half-Life 2 and Halo before it, features an iconic pistol that feels great to use.

The original game's famous wireframe cyberspace sections for hacking have also been redesigned, tapping into the original aesthetic but with improvements to readability and control. It now resembles something more in the vein of Descent or Forsaken, and plays like a true 6DOF shooter that looks and feels great.

Beyond the visuals, Citadel Station is presented as a seamless whole, with loading times occurring either when using lifts or during the transition into cyberspace. It's a huge, logically-constructed ship that you'll learn to navigate as you play.

System Shock is a PC-only release for now, with console editions planned but not dated, so I tested it on a few PCs with varying levels of performance.

The wireframe graphics of the original cyberspace sections have been swapped for a more modern, readable look - while controls have also been improved significantly.

Despite relatively barebones settings, with only textual hints as to the performance impact of different choices, the presence of DLSS 2 and relatively modest system requirements result in a game that is playable on a wide range of hardware. Visual quality isn't notably different from medium to ultra, with tweaks to SSR and ambient occlusion being most evident. The lowest setting, however, does eliminate shadow-casting lights and significantly degrades the visuals, so I recommend against this unless you're using a minimum spec PC.

On a top-of-the-line rig with RTX 4090 and Core i9 12900K, the remake can run at a full 8K resolution with max settings and without DLSS at a steady 120fps. GPU utilisation here is between 50 and 70 percent, so there's room for even higher frame-rates if desired.

I also tested the game on a laptop with an RTX 2080 Max-Q and Core i7 8750H, which produced a steady 60fps at 4K using DLSS balanced at ultra settings. For context, this mobile GPU resembles a desktop RTX 2060. Alex ran the game on an RTX 2070 Super system with a Ryzen 5 3600 processor, where 1440p 60fps was also possible with DLSS balanced and medium settings - with low GPU utilisation suggesting higher settings should be easily attainable.

There isn't a huge difference between medium and ultra settings, although low does come with some more noticable cutbacks.

Performance isn't an issue then, but unfortunately our old Unreal Engine 4 nemesis, shader compilation stutter, does make an unwanted appearance. The severity of these dips will vary depending on your CPU - the 12900K system exhibits comparatively shorter hitches than the Ryzen 5 desktop or the Core i7 laptop. On the less powerful machines, stutters can last more than 100ms, leading to the familiar hitching exhibited in nearly every Unreal Engine release these days.

Thankfully, while it is frustrating, these stutters are ultimately less frequent and slightly shorter than many recent higher-spec Unreal games, such as Jedi Survivor, The Callisto Protocol and Scorn, so it is less distracting but still a bummer. There are also loading hitches when using elevators or entering cyberspace but, given that these are effectively loading screens, it's perfectly acceptable.

Frame-time hitches can eclipse 100ms on mid-range systems - not ideal.

To summarise the graphical outlook then, Nightdive has successfully merged the lo-fi aesthetic of the original with modern rendering features to great success; it looks fantastic and is exactly what I'd hoped for. It also seems to offer fast performance with high frame-rates possible even on mid-spec PCs. Alas, shader compilation stutter is an issue like most other UE4 titles but, thankfully, the frequency and length of the stutters is less severe than usual.

That brings us to the audio - where the developers opted to branch out in a new direction, with a more ambient approach to audio with occasional fast-paced music tracks kicking in when combat heats up. I'm also fond of the voice samples assigned to enemies placed around Citadel Station - it's the kind of thing that was used heavily in games like Thief and System Shock 2 and it greatly improves the atmosphere. I wouldn't say the sound design is as memorable as the Dark Engine games, which have been burned into my brain, but it's still successful and important to the experience.

The multi-layer interface returns for the 2023 remake - to great effect.

Immersive sims are of course deeply rooted in the freedom afforded to players of classic pen and paper RPGs, with System Shock being designed to let the player tell their own story through direct action. It's all about cause and effect, but this relationship isn't explicitly spelled out. It asks the player to think about the items and how they could be used to progress through the sci-fi dungeon that is Citadel Station.

Enabling this interaction required a multi-layer interface, with an FPS-style character movement plus an adventure game style mouse cursor to interact with objects. This fusion greatly increased the interactivity possible within the world and it's something that could only have existed on the PC at this time - and it also became one of greatest challenges in adapting System Shock for a new audience.

After all, this is a game that demands the player to pay close attention. There is no floating waypoint nudging you in the right direction and your goals aren't explicitly spelled out. You'll need to listen carefully to audio logs, read through journals, poke and prod the various systems and generally learn each map layout. The further you progress, the more information the game tasks you with retaining.

Here's the latest BioShock content we produced: a look at the BioShock Collection for last-gen pro machines.

Compared to the original, this remake does a fantastic job of polishing up the interface and organising everything into something that is easier to use without sacrificing depth. The dual-layer interface remains to some degree - press tab and a menu system appears divided up into easily-digestible sections including a grid-based inventory, a map system and a database. It's all cursor-driven, even when using a gamepad. You can still pick up or throw countless objects strewn about the Citadel.

It's this combination of interface design with a respectable level of freedom that impresses. I enjoyed Bioshock and it was clearly the right game for the era, but compared to earlier Shock titles, it was simplified to create something more easily digestible. I would instead describe System Shock as refined rather than simplified and that's an important distinction.

It's from all these details that I've come to the conclusion that this is one of the finest remakes ever made. It's on par with the best of the best, including Capcom's world-class Resident Evil remakes. It's clear that the development team fully understands what makes System Shock special and they took the time to ensure that everyone else can too. While this remake could never replace what the original accomplished, I do feel that it supersedes that original to become something all its own. It's both faithful yet completely new. It's the ultimate tribute and one that any fan of immersive sims needs to play right now.

About the Author
John Linneman avatar

John Linneman

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

An American living in Germany, John has been gaming and collecting games since the late 80s. His keen eye for and obsession with high frame-rates have earned him the nickname "The Human FRAPS" in some circles. He’s also responsible for the creation of DF Retro.

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