As I’ve said before, I never understood why fake hacking never took off of as a genre. Hacking as portrayed in movies seems like the kind of tense, fast-paced, moderately puzzle-like action that fits a video game perfectly, and lucky for me I guess, the guys at independent developer Introversion Software agreed. Their first release features “hacking” that’s pure Hollywood flash, but also strikes a decent balance between being complex and accessible, clever and fun.
Uplink takes place in the dark, distant future of 2010, where corporations regularly purchase the services of cyber mercenaries to trash their competition – who are always foolish enough to place their gigaquads of sensitive data on central mainframes accessible directly from the Internet. You’re a new hacker entering the scene, and the Uplink Corporation is essentially a job placement service. You’ll browse their boards and accept randomly-generated tasks at levels you think you can handle. Success raises your Agent rating, which unlocks more complicated jobs. You’ll eventually uncover a set of story missions that let you decide the fate of the World Wide Web, but it’s also entirely possible to keep plugging away and seeing how much money you can accumulate, or how many servers you can breach.
You do all your dirty deeds through a “Gateway” computer on loan to you from Uplink Corp. This Gateway has its own set of hardware and software, and can be upgraded in sensible ways – more storage to hold more stolen files, faster processors to execute tasks quicker, etc. If you’ve outgrown your hardware’s limits, you can drop large amounts of heisted cash on a new chassis with greater potential performance. The Gateway also acts as the buffer between you and the game’s alternate reality. If a sloppy hack comes back on you, the virtual investigators seize your Gateway (and delete your save file). You’re then forced to start over with a new identity. It’s a severe enough penalty (assuming you don’t just back up the save file) to give serious hacks a little extra pressure.
The game’s version of hacking is handled entirely through a series of programs purchased from Uplink’s store. It’s as simple as using the designated tool for the job, and keeping your software upgraded – a level 3 encrypted file is defeated with a version 3 decrypter. The number of tools per hack increases with beefier security, and soon you’ll be needing to deploy cypher decoders and firewall disablers before you can get at your target files. Some of the more clever stuff has you looking up an IT admin on a corporation’s public directory, calling him and recording his voice with a dedicated program, and then playing the recording back to fool the system’s security – but it’s all by the numbers, and none of it is freeform. You either have the tools, or you don’t.
Keeping the authorities off your back is the other critical part. Any time you attempt to breach a server’s security, your line will be traced. You can slow this by bouncing your connection around – done simply by clicking on servers around the map – with any servers you have admin access on adding bonus time to the trace. This means every proper hack begins by cracking a suitable number of random servers for admin access, adding some government or financial computers in there for good measure (they have the highest security), and connecting to your target only through a spiderweb of routed connections. Various programs add movie-style rapid beeps or snaking red lines on the map to indicate how close you are to being caught.
You can always disconnect at any time, but in a neat touch, the investigators don’t stop when you do. Every single server in the game keeps an accurate log of activity from the point the game begins – including routed connections – and the investigators will follow this trail all the way back to your Gateway if given enough hours. Log deletion programs let you cover your tracks, and as long as you break the trail on any of the servers you used, you’re safe. Fail to do this, and you’ll likely load up your next game to find your Gateway seized. Some later missions even have you playing the role of investigator yourself, tracking down some rival hacker that didn’t clean up his mess, or altering logs to frame someone else entirely.
All of this takes place in a simplified, Windows-style interface driven entirely with the mouse. A big ol’ “Start” button analogue lists out your available programs, and clicking on target fields will deploy your menagerie of decrypters and crackers. Your connection map is always shown in the upper right. Running programs are listed near the top center, and you can use slider bars to manually spread the allocation of available resources – more and faster processors give you more resources to throw around. A series of buttons lets you skip time, to wait for a news report or get a new set of mission choices. Finally, in a neat touch, every program or downloaded file (even the tutorial!) takes up space on your Gateway’s hard drive. You can access a graphic of the drive to copy or delete files, or even defrag free space.
As stated, it’s “hacking” only in the most generous, Hollywood sense, and the only typing you’ll do is to change a data entry or utilize the server’s console to delete entire folders at once. It is good fun though, and even though all hacks are rigidly linear, you often do come out feeling a little bit clever after successfully copying an entire file server, crashing a company’s mainframe, or forging an arrest warrant. A rolling (and accurate!) news feed lets you read about the results of your nefarious deeds, plus plenty of bluster from the government security experts out to get you. You can even play the stock market against corporations you’re about to ruin, if you can find the market server and plan ahead.
LAN hacking was added in a later patch, and is a slightly different beast to the rest. You’re probing and taking over machines in a chain to slowly uncover the corporation’s internal layout, and it’s a bit more “puzzly” than everything else. It’s damned expensive, making this strictly a late-game proposition. Still, it’s also some of the most rewarding work, requiring you to find (and dupe) modem numbers or wireless frequencies to proceed. Various terminals within the LAN are even hacked like “normal” servers, giving extra tidbits, or the next piece of the chain.
Naturally, though, it’s disappointing that there aren’t more freeform elements. You can’t acquire data on your own and then try to sell it later – files are only good to you if you’ve taken a mission specifically requesting them. You can never shut down a corporation completely – even if you crash all their servers and delete all their research, they’ll just “regenerate” given enough time. You can’t really throw anyone in jail for any reason – you can click the arrest button, but there’s no notice that it ever happens unless it’s part of a mission. About the only time you can go off on your own is by successfully transferring millions of credits from a bank (the most difficult hack in the game), but pulling it off also grants you so much money that it essentially ruins the rest of the game.
The interface is simple enough and handles the speed and precision needed. Dragging program bars (like copy and delete commands) around with a left click and releasing them with a right click rarely trips up. The UI always presents you the information you need, and sorts it intelligently. The only real complaint is that text fields don’t auto-delete. You’ll need to click and backspace through the “Type name here” sorts of labels before you can input your commands. Further, your typing stops registering if the mouse cursor moves off the field, which is almost inexcusable in the heat of a tight hack. Luckily, that’s the most serious flaw.
It’s also worth noting that a failed hack doesn’t end your game immediately. Some may not enjoy that you can continue on playing, not knowing that an invisible timer is now ticking down until Johnny Law deletes your save file. Cleaning up your logs really is the only way to stop an investigation, and if you’re too slow or miss one, your fate is sealed. The only (in-game) way to save your save file at this point is to buy an upgrade that will blow up your Gateway, but preserve your account and bank balance. None of these surprises are exactly welcome, but the earliest hacks will usually just send a chiding email if you make a mistake. By the time you’re hacking banks, you should already know when and where you screwed up.
Sound is limited to UI notifications and a custom soundtrack. The notifications are perfectly suitable chimes and swoops that match the interface style and provide useful cues – not too much to say here. The soundtrack is early 2000 synth music – think the intro theme to Deus Ex. I’m not a fan. It’s easy enough to disable the music though, and play some thematically appropriate beats from The Crystal Method or Orbital in the background. I remember being a particular fan of hacking to the Snatch soundtrack when this was released in 2001.
As a final note, I have to commend the sheer amount of Easter eggs Introversion placed in the game. I don’t believe they miss a single reference to classic hacking flicks. The WOPR from WarGames is out there for you to find. OCP’s servers from RoboCop can be accessed. Keep an eye out for the “backdoor” pi icon from The Net. The classic password from Sneakers will have a use here, and these are just the ones I’ve found. The original disc also featured a “Game Bible” in four parts chronicling the development of Uplink, and requiring some real-world tech savviness (like toying with hex strings and Steganography) to decrypt. These guys clearly love the genre.
It helps that they still don’t have much competition (only the Hacker Evolution series comes close), but Introversion’s first title is a pretty brilliant execution of the concept. It’s fun, it’s tense, and it doesn’t bog itself down in authenticity or requiring technical knowledge. I do wish there were more freeform elements, or even some non-linear solutions to the basic hacks, and this is certainly going to affect anyone’s replay value. Still, if you’re interested in the idea, Uplink is a enjoyable go at taking down the system one server at a time.
Fake interface is believable and works well. Some players may not like the simple hacks (and no typing!), but it’s certainly kept accessible. Plenty of little surprises to find.
Very little freedom given in how to go about your deeds – just buy the needed program and use it. Limited room to explore, and essentially no chances to get into meaningful mischief outside of missions.