System Shock 2 Still Stands as Irrational's Finest Work

While Irrational Games has since brought us the excellent Freedom Force series and the impressive BioShock series, the editors at Eurogamer have made the argument that 1999's System Shock 2 is still their finest achievement. Here are some reasons why:

The theme of control also filters into the level design, which is where you see the legacy of Looking Glass most strongly. Its talent for level design was genius verging on madness, exemplified by the studio's earlier work on Thief, especially the levels set in the Bonehoard and Constantine's mansion. Yet where these dizzying spaces could be at odds with Thief's premise of meticulously pulling off heists, they fit perfectly within the decaying sci-fi environments of System Shock 2.

It's terrifyingly easy to lose your way amongst the twisting corridors of the Med/Sci and Engineering decks, and there's nothing quite like the being lost to make you feel utterly helpless. Even once you've mastered the layout of the Von Braun, the game then moves you to another ship, the Rickenbacker, where the level logic begins to break down. The environments are a mess of organic matter splurged from The Many's quivering biomass that messes with the ship's artificial gravity, turning walls into floors and ceilings into walls. At its end, the game ditches the notion of space entirely, moving into cyberspace where the level logic is determined entirely by SHODAN's whims.

On top all this is the simple fact that the Von Braun is just an abysmal place to be. System Shock 2 is not a game that tries to make you jump, nor does it especially try to generate tension. Instead it relies on a general tone of absolute, unparalleled wrongness to create an atmosphere that remains unique to this day. The enemy design is fantastic, Former crew-members stalk the decks of the Von-Braun wielding lead pipes and shotguns, moaning "I'm sorry" and "kill me" as they attempt to kill you. Later on you encounter shrieking lab monkeys that launch psychic attacks from their exposed brains, robots that approach jerkily as they passively stating their murderous intentions. Worst of all are the Cyborg Midwives. Stripped of their organic skins to reveal bloodied metal joints and organs, they are the antithesis of motherhood.