It's been a long road for the System Shock remake. The project began as a Kickstarter in 2016 from Nightdive Studios, a company that has made a name for itself with its work on various classic game remakes and remasters. While the campaign was a huge success — fundraising over $1.3 million with an original $900,000 goal — the game is still not out yet.
The team hasn't been silent about the process involved with bringing this retro game to newer platforms and audiences, however, thanks to monthly updates on the Kickstarter. The remake has been through an engine change and a few different teams, but it's finally on its way towards release. Larry Kuperman, director of business development at Nightdive, was on hand at GDC to give updates on System Shock, and said it's "largely complete." He referred to it as being in "pre-beta"; the PC version has all of the weapons, enemies, and other elements, but the team is still working on the console versions. Kuperman noted that the developers want to release the game simultaneously across all platforms.
While we didn't get hands-on time with System Shock at GDC, we were shown a number of recorded snippets from the game, including a trek through maintenance on Level 3 and one from later on. Based on my brief time with the footage, it seems on track to hit the studio's target for later this year. It also seems to strike a great balance between old and new, between classic and modern, which has been at the core of many great remakes and remasters over the past few years.
Why focus on game remakes?
Nightdive is well known in the business for its remasters of high-profile classic titles that typically aren't available on newer platforms. It began its run with a version of System Shock 2 that was released on GOG, but has worked on a number of games since, including Turok, DOOM 64, Blood: Fresh Supply, and the recent Quake remaster, which was released following QuakeCon 2021. While it started off rough by just taking a version of System Shock 2 and putting it up for purchase, the company realized quickly that it wasn't good enough. They couldn't just put straight ports out; they had to do more.
Kuperman talks about one of these pieces of early feedback, which mentioned this port didn't include a lot of the work community modders had done for the game. Then, the company, which was founded by Stephen and Alix Kick after the former discovered he couldn't play System Shock 2 without an emulator, hired that modder on full time.
Nightdive now has way more experience crafting remakes and remasters. Not only is keeping the game's original content a priority, but it needs to offer something for more modern players who might not have played the game the first time around. For example, in its Turok for the N64 remaster, the studio made a previously unfindable shotgun much easier to find and gave users the option to keep the fog on or turn it off. System Shock will be similar. The studio already upgraded the game for more modern PC players with System Shock: Enhanced Edition, but the remake will contain a version of the original game and a new experience built from the ground up.
"Our goal is always to remake games so that they look like what you remember, not the way that they actually looked when you played them on your 14-inch CRT monitor," Kuperman said.
It's all a balancing act. You have to offer the newer players at least part of the original experience. This was the case with much larger remake projects, like Resident Evil 2, where the core story was mostly the same, but Capcom updated the engine and the gameplay to move away from outdated tank controls.
"Because of the fact that the original game already exists, some of the decisions they're already made for you, right?" Kuperman, who has a background in theater elaborated. "There are a million different variations on Hamlet, right? But Hamlet doesn't win at the end of it in any of them. You have certain givens that you can't vary from."
A journey to a new System Shock
This remake has been rebuilt from the ground up, according to the project's Kickstarter. At first, the game was being built in Unity, but the studio decided to switch over to Unreal Engine 4 a couple of years in.
"Unity is not a great engine to use if you want to make an FPS on console," game director Jason Fader told Polygon back in 2017, citing fidelity and cross-platform support as some of the reasons why the team made the switch.
In February 2018, a Kickstarter update from Stephen Kick explained that while the game first started as a straight remaster, the team had to shift focus, which caused further delays.
"As our concept grew and as our team changed, so did the scope of what we were doing and with that budget for the game," he wrote. "The more that we worked on the game, the more that we wanted to do, and the further we got from the original concepts that made System Shock so great."
Kuperman explained that Nightdive also switched teams around this time. They had been receiving feedback from its Discord and Kickstarter backers that the earlier build was just not what they had expected. He echoes what Kick wrote in his Kickstarter update, noting that people had great ideas, but it just wasn't right for the project. The team has now been working on this version of System Shock for the past four years, going back to some of the concepts that were shared with the 2016 campaign, and making it closer to the original game.
"It was not the vision that we had," Kuperman said of the first build, adding that "We went through a painful process — costly, both in terms of time and money. Refocused, we put together a new team. You're going to see it's going to be very true to the spirit of System Shock."
OK, but how is the game?
I saw what he meant when I got a look at the new System Shock footage. The original System Shock was a combination of a point-and-click adventure and a first-person shooter (FPS). While it used a WASD control scheme on PC, it required the use of your mouse to pick up loot, for example. Also, it came out in 1994 so it has all the trappings of games from that era. However, it was created in an all-new 3D graphical engine, and its range of movement was still innovative for the time. It had mild RPG elements where you could upgrade your weapons and skills, and had hacking puzzles that have gone on to become practically the norm in other games. It may look like Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM, but it's much closer to Deus Ex or other cyberpunk immersive sims that came after it. It became one of the best shooters of all time despite it being horrifically outdated by 2022 standards.
The System Shock remake is now a full-blown FPS, with what I assume is a more streamlined control scheme to go along with it. You no longer have to drag the screen with your mouse or keep hitting A or D to turn around, and you can pick up objects without having to click and drag with your mouse. You do have to click on objects to pick them up, but it's a simple right-click on your mouse, and then you can organize your attached inventory later. You can also assign items to quick slots.
The game also features more robust animation for picking up weapons, for example, or throwing grenades. This is all fairly typical by modern shooter standards, but to see it implemented here shows Nightdive understood a lot needed to be changed to account for nearly 30 years of game development.
What struck me the most, however, was the way it looked. The original System Shock has a familiar level design and user interface, but it's also quite colorful. There are a lot of bright blues, greens, and reds, which contrast nicely with the dark colors used for the design of the Citadel Station. It's quite striking, and makes for a great way to differentiate sections across levels. The remake keeps a lot of the same palette and integrated a bunch of the very crowded UI into the environment. It's still a game where you play as a hacker with a gun, but it's a lot cleaner, there's way less mess blocking your line of sight, and it's just pretty to look at.
You can tell in many ways that this is a remake of a classic game. It doesn't hinge on ideas of photorealism like many AAA titles do these days and has a cartoonish, semi-blocky look. However, the point of the remake is not to redo System Shock, but rather to find the balance between old and new.
"I think that the modern gamer is going to start playing a game and it's going to look and feel the way that a game should look. And we'll bring them in and I think the core System Shock audience will go 'yes!'" Kuperman said.
Since we weren't able to go hands-on with this version System Shock, we can't talk fully about how it plays or how minute details from the game do (or don't) come over. You can still try out the demo available on Steam, GOG, and the Epic Games Store, but it's an alpha build from 2020. There have been other demos in the meantime though, and you can check them out on YouTube.
However, whether you want to play the original game or the remake, both will be available. Nightdive wants to allow you to enjoy the classic titles you may have missed or the ones you remember from your childhood, and that includes providing experiences for the most people possible. This was a studio that started because one person couldn't play System Shock 2 easily, and continuing that mission with other games while making sure the heart of it is preserved has become is foundation.
"Our industry is less than 60 years old," Kuperman said. "And … it's important. At the same time, we're at a point where the future is uncertain. We don't want to see not just the games, but the people that made the games lost to history."
System Shock remake is expected to launch later this year on PC, Epic Games, and GOG. Console editions of the game for Xbox and PlayStation are also in the works.