Developer: Team Fractal Alligator
Publisher: Surprise Attack
Release Date: August 12th 2015
Price: £6.99 [Disclosure: Game copy supplied by Publisher]
I’ll try to keep this introduction short and simple and not bore you all with the much-debated semantics of what “hacking” actually means. Let us, instead, convene that we’re talking about the act of breaching a computer system’s security for fun, sport or profit. In this respect we have three other types of hacking, this time based on context or depiction: the first one is real-world hacking in which the perpetrator, usually in a very relaxed fashion, exploits a vulnerability within a system and extracts useful information, then shuts down their laptop and casually leaves Starbucks; the second is the exciting “Hollywood Hacking” in which the hacker types really fast, their activities are being tracked, everything is a race against time and John Travolta has a gun to their head. The tools being used are an absurd array of monitors and complicated 3D graphics displaying the hacking activity. This is what hacking simulators are all about and what Hacknet strives to achieve.
Oh, you’re right. I did mention a third type of hacking. The third type is CSI type hacking displayed on lazy TV Shows that say stuff like “I’ll create a GUI Interface in Visual Basic to track the IPs”. If you don’t understand why this phrase is both stupid and hilarious, then be warned: I work a day job as a software developer and the following review will contain copious amounts of me nerding out.
Hacknet‘s genre’s checkered past
Back in high-school, some ten-twelve years ago, before writing code for a living I came across the then-revolutionary Uplink from the good folk at Introversion and it managed to easily take up several months of my life. Uplink was less about hacking and more about fast reactions and resource management. The commands were for the most part made up and the game itself was interface-heavy, with graphical depictions of most of your activities and a poignant 80s vibe. Much of the challenge was to accumulate wealth in order to upgrade your mainframe and be able to run better, faster, more efficient programs to help with your hacking. It was tightly designed and for many years the standard by which hacking games were judged.
Others have tried, since then, most notably the Hacker Evolution titles which were more storied, giving you visual elements such as photographs and camera feeds for context, but with each subsequent installment they were simplified, to the point that by Hacker Evolution: Untold, I was playing the game with one hand on the mouse and with one supporting my yawning chin.
Hacknet decides to do away with all this and return to basics, offering a terminal-oriented hacking experience and challenging me to both remember how to properly use a command line and find something that I can call “an interesting screenshot” to put in this review. Most of the commands you use in the game are actual system commands that you can use in Unix-based systems and I was ecstatic to see that even the “press Tab to auto complete” feature was present, as well as navigating through recently entered commands by using the up and down arrows. I warned you about the nerding out aspect, didn’t I?
Hack & bash
The world of Hacknet is a close cousin to ours, featuring such commercial brands as CFC fast food, the software giant Macrosoft and the eOS mobile operating system, any resemblance to actual people and events, of course, being purely coincidental. The game briefly tells us about a famous hacker named Bit that died under suspicious circumstances before dropping us into the tutorial. We are introduced to the rules of engagement which, though some assignments feature a greater complexity than others, are largely the same. Given a target system probe its accessible ports, disable a required number, “hack the ports” (essentially brute force the password) and once inside either find some information, copy or delete a file or crash the system. Then you just have to delete the logs and you’re out of there.
Some later missions involve additional tasks such as finding the target system from an entry point inside a network, work against the clock while you’re being traced back or disable a proxy or firewall defense. The story campaign takes you through various hacker organizations, each with their own code of conduct and rankings. As you progress through the ranks, other groups will reach out to offer you missions occasionally putting you up against a rival hacker or big corporation.
Unlike Uplink‘s randomly generated systems, Hacknet offers a hand crafted world which, on one hand, decreases replayability, but on the other ensures that every single PC or phone that you hack has some sort of backstory. There is much in Hacknet that you can but don’t have to do, the least of which is rummaging through personal files that can be anything from old chat logs from the infamous bash.org to journals, emails or medical records. There is also the occasional easter egg, such as a shoutout to the addictive Cookie Clicker via an early mission that has you hack the servers belonging to the game Point Clicker and delete the client’s save data so that he may return to being productive. The fun part is that once there, you can actually play Point Clicker.
I usually try to avoid judging games on anything other than their own merits, but I feel that it would not be unfair to judge Hacknet by comparing it to Uplink, so this section will largely be me talking about that I felt was missing.
First and foremost, there is no sense of progression in Hacknet other than slowly (ungodly so) revealing the story. Successfully completing missions only grants you the occasional piece of hacking software and an esoteric ranking within the organization. Uplink had you complete missions for cash, which you then used to upgrade your machine to become more efficient at your job and unlock more advanced contracts. You could make a note of a bank that contained large sums of money in an account as proof of money laundering, and then return later and pillage and plunder. Eventually you had to battle a virus that threatened to infect every computer on the Internet. Here, your only limited resource is your memory space which limits how many applications can run at any given time, however, their performance is not impacted by how many you are running.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no sense of urgency in completing the missions. Few assignments have systems that bother with tracing your location, and there is no passage of time otherwise. The pacing is poor as well, with it taking the game up to one hour until someone bothered to trace me, two hours until I actually felt any tension because of this and by the third hour I just didn’t see any point in carrying on.
What bothered me the most, however, was the lack of stakes. Uplink punished you dearly, even by Game Over, if you got caught or failed to delete traces of your presence from the logs. The worst thing that ever happened to me in Hacknet was a blue screen and a system reboot (in game). Another thing that I would have appreciated would have been a means to customize the layout of my workspace. The windows are fixed and tied to a certain theme, however the only means to switch themes is unlocked relatively late into the game, at about the two hour mark.
I know these may sound like nitpicks and to some extent they are. I wanted an improvement over the “hardcore” Uplink but instead I received something lighter that, granted, more people can enjoy and I really can’t hold that against Hacknet. After all, if I really want something like Uplink, I can bloody well go and play Uplink. As it stands, the game is not bad, definitely not terrible but my humble opinion is that it could do with a bit more tension and sense of progression. It’s a good game that could have been great and I suppose that’s fine.