games / Columns

System Shock 2 vs. BioShock: Which Is Better?

February 27, 2013 | Posted by Marc Morrison


Title: System Shock 2
Publisher: Night Dive Studios
Developer: Irrational Games, Looking Glass Studios
Genre: Survival Horror, FPS, RPG
Players: 1-2 (Online Co-Op)
Rated: M for Mature

With the recent release of System Shock 2 on, it has given many players a new look at one of the games that helped get Irrational Game’s name out there with a ton of critical acclaim for the time, and a high mark for creative gameplay and mixing of genres. The recent GOG release does a good job of showing Levine’s motifs, how he approaches games, and the overall thing he’s trying to accomplish. I’ll begin with some thoughts on System Shock 2 and then show how the game is like BioShock but also how it’s different. This won’t be a traditional review, largely because most everyone who would be interested in picking up SS2 already knows it’s good. But I will give it a score, based on my own thoughts, at the end of my impressions.

System Shock 2 is a hybrid FPS/RPG with a very heavy dose of Survival Horror mixed in. You start the game as a recruit going through military training. You pick a starting class; Marines (soldier class), the Navy (engineer class), or the O.S.A. (psychic user). Then you’re given three choices for perks to customize your solider with it culminating on you waking up on the Von Braun amidst an insane AI trying to kill everyone, human/alien hybrids gunning for you, and chimp’s with psychic powers that shoot psi-blasts at you.


The core gameplay is that of a shooter, but it has a lot of RPG trappings. You have an inventory screen that you bring up with a press of the button. This deactivates your gun, while you use the mouse to click stuff in your inventory or on the HUD (your journal and map, etc.). Switching between the two can get a bit hectic, but it generally works. The gunplay itself is satisfying with enemies going down in one or two shots (depending on the weapon), and with different ammo, enemies dying much quicker.


You’ll be given quests to undertake; such as trying to restore power to the ship. This is your main overall quest, but multiple quests will spin out from this, like figuring out how to open a cargo door, or getting a radiation suit in order to survive irradiated areas. You’ll find audio logs, research chemicals, Nanites (the in-game currency), and just general every-day items, like a game system or a potted plant. You’ll learn to watch out for security camera’s, hack vending machines (with your Nanites), and occasionally see ghosts all through the course of this game.

The setting/audio work for the game is extremely creepy sounding which provokes a sense of dread within the player. Environments are spooky and bereft of life; the corridors are filled with dead bodies and damage, which helps immerse the player into a world that is not exactly going swimmingly. The overall look of the game holds up supremely well, being built on the old Thief engine. It’s not the best looking game on the market (which would be a joke), but considering it’s almost a 14 year old game, it holds up visually and audibly damn well.


There is a little technical weirdness in the game. Modern FPS gamers will likely have to alter the control scheme some. The default is having W move forward, S is zoom in and X moves you back. Also A and D are used for leaning left and right, respectively, while Q and E are your walk left and right buttons. Most games will likely set the controls to the (now) traditional WSAD keys, with Q and E being used for leaning and having the S button be the zoom in. The bigger issue was game-related and that was that I got stuck in the level geometry a few times and had to reload a save. Once instance was there was a pipe with a small gap and a grate covering a hole to another floor. I crouched and jumped making it into the gap, but the grate wasn’t removable or destructible. I also couldn’t get out of the gap because I had to jump out of it, but the low ceiling prevented this. I spent about 10 minutes trying to figure out a way to get out before having to just reload a prior save. Issues of getting into a space and not being able to get out weren’t hugely prevalent, but it occurred about 4 or 5 times, so I did start to take notice. Aside from these quirks, the game runs beautifully under Windows 7 and none of the past problems that have plagued the game’s prior disk release have crept up. Night Dive Studios and have done good work on making the game run on modern systems.

Overall, System Shock 2 is highly recommended to be picked up and played. It looks good, has some uncomfortable audio, and was way ahead of its time in 1999. It’s not the most elegant game in the world with how some of the gameplay systems interact, but the fact it even has those systems in place says volumes about how revolutionary it was (as well as its contemporary, Deus Ex). Games today are still lifting ideas from both games and audiences still enjoy them.

Game Rating: 8.9 out of10

So how do System Shock 2 and BioShock compare, and how are they different? I’d say both games share about 85 percent in common with each other, gameplay/world-wise, but they different in some key ways.

Firstly, BioShock isn’t a RPG, nor are there much survival horror aspects. In System Shock 2 you have an inventory that you are constantly checking, repairing items, equipping different ammo, or just messing around. BioShock had nothing in comparison except for a weapon/plasmid selection. That was it, really. BioShock had a few RPG elements, mainly just the upgrade system with Plasmids and Tonics. System Shock 2 has stats that govern what you can/can’t do. If you want to hack a door, but its level 3 and you’re only level 1, you’ll need to upgrade your hacking skill in order to do it.

The setting and sense of style is also different for both games….obviously. BioShock takes place in an underwater futuristic city in 1960. System Shock 2 takes place in 2114 on board a few interplanetary ships as they are being infected. The licensed/”old timey” music from BioShock is obviously not present in System Shock 2. It has a far moodier score, with random interludes of sound effects to keep you on your toes. BioShock felt more vibrant due to the music, but System Shock 2 creates a much better mood to get you into the game.

These are two of the big ways the games are different. Here’s a small (incomplete) list of how the games are the same, either being completely the same, or else having the same function in each game:

1. Both games start you off with a wrench. And you have to destroy some rubble early in the game (like 2 minute early) in order to progress through the level.



2. Both games have magical (for lack of a better term) devices that can reform your body once you die. In BioShock it’s the Vita Chambers while in SS2 it’s the “Quantum Bio-Reconstruction Device”. While the Vita Chamber was free in BioShock, the device in SS2 costs a bit of your currency.

3. Audio logs. Both games have them, but SS2 has a lot more of them to be found. They help give backstory on what is going on which is nice, but the logs in SS2 are a bit more helpful since they sometimes contain codes for doors and lockers.



4. The entire narrative structure in both games is the same. I won’t get into spoiler territory but SS2 follows a narrative path, A to B to D to C, and BioShock follows the same beats. To be fair, not a lot of games pull this off, Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2 are contemporaries, but you can see some of what is going to happen. Likewise, when you replay the game after knowing the “twist”, you can see how the games are structured quite well.

5. The “Magic” system in both games is present, with SS2 its psychic powers, with BioShock its Plasmids. Functionally, they work the same, which is to provide alternate means of attacking enemies, making your character more resilient, etc. I’d have to give the edge to BioShock’s system, just because it’s easier to use. In SS2 you have to equip a Psi-Amp to use your powers which can make it cumbersome. You can use hotkeys to mitigate the problem, but it’s not as smooth as in BioShock. Likewise, the power selection in BioShock (while having less powers) is far more streamlined and easier to use. One thing you can do at the start in SS2 is charge up your powers for larger damage to enemies. If you charge too much though, it’ll cause feedback to you and you’ll damage yourself. It’s a good way of keeping tense during the game, and making the Psi-system a bit more interactive.

6. Both games have hacking/research systems. They are different in terms of gameplay, but the overall function is the same in both cases: turn off security cameras, hack turrets, gain bonuses on your enemies and such.

7. Even some of the general items are the same. Notably chips, alcoholic, cigarettes and the like. The items in both games do the same things, either restore a bit of health, or restore a bit of your “magic” bar at the expense of a little health. The only difference is that in SS2 you pick the items up in your inventory for use later. In BioShock, you just use them when you find them.

The above examples are only a small amount of gameplay systems that are present within both games. There are dozens of other things that both games share in common, frankly too many to list here. If you enjoyed BioShock, it is well worth picking up this game, to see some different takes on the formula. The game is also just a good example of classic old-school FPS/RPG action. While the game might seem a bit archaic by today’s standards, it was revolutionary when it came out with a lot of systems still kicking around in today’s world. It is significant as a game to be enjoyed even by BioShock fans, and any fans of the RPG/FPS genre.


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Marc Morrison
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