Reviewed: February 25, 2003
Released: March 11, 2003
Imagine, one day you are sifting through your mail. Junk…junk…bill…junk…bill…hmmm… What is this? A small package, perhaps a CD mailer, with no return address. Out of curiosity you open the package to find an unlabeled CD and throwing caution to the wind you pop it into your PC. The disc spins up and you are presented with a cryptic login screen and the option to “Create a New Account”. Intrigued, you select a login and a password and are instantly welcomed into the underworld of professional computer hacking.
Such is one possible scenario to explain Strategy First’s latest release, Uplink: Hacker Elite, a game; no wait, a simulation, that explores the often romanticized world of computer hacking, not as a hobby, but as a career. Borrowing all the high-tech elements from classic hacker movies like Sneakers and Hackers and cyberpunk novels like the William Gibson series you are literally “immersed” in a world of white-collar crime from the moment you start playing.
Never before have I become so caught up in a game that I literally checked my modem to make sure I wasn’t really online, and no game has ever created the urge for me to peek through my window to check for an FBI surveillance van parked across the street. Of course the most amazing thing about all this is just how simple the concept and how perfectly executed this game is.
Rather than going for some super-phreak style of hacking that you might have seen in movies like Weird Science, Introversion Software has wisely chosen to keep this game rooted in believable technology. The game takes place in 2010 so there is a little “forward thinking” as far as system specs. The 60GHz CPU in my Gateway hacking system is well beyond what we have now, and memory storage is measured in Giga-Quads and your Internet connection is measured in Giga-Quads/sec.
By keeping the interface simple and the technology real, the designers have created a very believable atmosphere that will keep you on the edge of your seat and on the edge of paranoia as you begin your career of professional hacking.
Once you have been accepted as a freelance hacker for the Uplink Corporation you are given a “low interest loan” of $3,000 and a modest gateway computer located in a nearby city. This is the computer you dial into from your remote location and is used as a “buffer” to conceal your identity and hopefully keep you out of jail. You pay a monthly fee for the upkeep on this system but you are free to make modifications as necessary. Installing a faster CPU, modem, or additional memory will be critical to your success, as your hacking assignments become more complex.
There are three short lessons that will get you comfortable with the interface and the basics of how to hack into remote systems and not get caught, and then you are tossed to the wolves. You log into the Uplink Internal Services System that maintains a listing of all available jobs, a news server, online help, and other useful information.
Missions are assigned a difficulty factor with the more difficult missions offering a greater financial reward for successful completion. Some missions require the hacker to have a prerequisite ranking, so not all jobs will be available to you at the beginning. It’s best to start slow with some simple hacks, earn some money, upgrade your system, and get comfortable with the interface before you tackle the more complex assignments.
Upon accepting an assignment you are sent an email outlining the specifics. You may need to delete files from some target system or perhaps steal information, copy it to your memory then attach the file to an email response. Other missions may have you accessing a database to manipulate data or even hack into the stock exchange. It’s all very real world stuff which just makes the entire game that much more believable.
As an aspiring new hacker you will need to install a good selection of software to do your dirty work. The first thing you need is a password breaker and some tracing software. All of these software packages can be purchased from the Uplink Internal Services and many offer version upgrades that will increase performance for a cost. As you load each program into memory your storage decreases appropriately, so if you are required to steal a large file you may need a memory upgrade.
Each loaded program is listed under your CPU Utilization meter and you can independently adjust the amount of CPU cycles each program is using. All programs are divided equally, so if you want to speed up the password hack you can take away cycles from the trace software and increase the power of the hacking software to get the password that much faster. Balancing the program/CPU load becomes exceedingly crucial in the more advance hacks.
One of the most exciting situations that takes place throughout the game is the hack trace that begins the moment you log into a system with a hacked password. The amount of time it takes for the trace to complete is based on several things such as the level of system you are breaking into and how many nodes you are bouncing your calls.
Those of you that remember the scene in Sneakers where the group of hackers place the call to the FBI director will know exactly what I am talking about. You are given a world map with various nodes (computers) that you can pass your outgoing call through. The more nodes you pass this signal through the longer it takes for the trace to get back to you. Each time you successfully hack a new computer that system becomes a new possible node for you to use to create an intricate web around the world. You can bounce a signal through a dozen nodes spanning thousands of miles to hack a computer right next door to you.
The difficulty of the game ramps up significantly as you continue to take on more challenging assignments. Later on you will need to start using log deletion software to remove any traces of your hack. You will also need to install security measures on your gateway system, so your true identity is never revealed. You need to crack through firewalls, probe IP addresses, and even utilize voice analysis software.
If you think you need a network certification or some high tech degree to understand or enjoy this game you might be surprised. I was a network administrator for many years before I started writing game reviews, so I picked up on most of the techno babble as it was thrown at me. For those of you less technically inclined, there is an easy-to-understand database that has every item perfectly described in layman’s terms.
A quick look through the screenshots will clearly indicate this game isn’t going to be showcasing your new 3D accelerator. While OpenGL is supported you really don’t need more than a 16mb video card capable of 640x480 resolution and a reasonably fast processor.
The few graphics that do appear mainly consist of a world map, a schematic diagram of your gateway system, and a simple but effective GUI interface that is as generic as it gets, almost as if the designers wanted to imply that Windows and Mac OS’s may be obsolete in the next seven years. Some of the systems you hack into will have charts and diagrams, and a few even have photo inserts in the databases, but for the most part you are simply scrolling through text-only directory listings.
The interface is totally iconic and point and click. If you load the File Copy software an icon bar appears and you click that on the file to be copied and the bar slowly fills up. Once filled, you can drag and drop that bar on your memory bank to copy the file into your memory. The email system is pretty standard and has buttons for Reply, Delete, Attach File, and Close. You can open multiple windows and stack them just like a real GUI interface.
By design there simply isn’t a whole lot of sound possibilities for this game. You have some generic beeps, tones, clicks, and other computer noises. There is some really good techno-synth music that blends into the background. I’m not sure how much music is here, but I’ve logged more than 20 hours with this game and it hasn’t gotten annoying yet. It’s very rhythmic and provides a great deal of tension, almost like a suspense movie score.
This is a tough call. First of all, the game is only $30 putting it in the budget category the day it releases. Even after 20+ hours of hacking I still have countless assignments waiting for me, plenty of money to earn, upgrades to buy, and new skill levels to attain. I’m guessing there is easily 40+ hours of intense and quality gaming that will require plenty of strategy, planning, and common sense.
Gameplay is totally nonlinear. You get to pick the missions you want and ignore the ones that might be too risky or that simply don’t appeal to you. You choose when and how to upgrade your computer and which software to install. This is one of the few simulations that actually lets you exist in a virtual world with no concrete objectives or structure.
If you have ever wanted to delve into the underworld of elite computer crime without assuming the risk of jail and a nasty FBI record then this is your perfect escape from reality. Uplink: Hacker Elite presents a very convincing simulation with its carefully crafted interface and authentic use of network terminology. Whether you are a computer geek or just somebody who has seen one too many hacker movies, this game will suck you in like nothing else you will play this year.