Nerds. Chances are you used to make fun of them back in high school – or even were made fun of for being one. Throughout the history of humanity dumber, but stronger individuals physically and emotionally harassed nerds, no matter that without nerds mankind would still live on trees, eat bananas and throw feces at each other. Heck, I’m willing to bet that the first monkey that thought about getting off the tree and relocating into a spacious cave often had to dodge coconuts and banana peels that other, less intelligent apes were throwing at him for being such a geek. But no matter what nerds prevailed, hiding in dark corners of school hallways, avoiding the inquisition during the Middle Ages and inventing fearsome weapons that could protect them from their pursuers. But real power came to nerds only at the end of the 20th century, with the invention of computers and their increasing influence on the daily life of the whole population of the planet.
Many nerds quickly realized what kind of power lies within their grasp.... Err, I was talking about computers of course :-) With government and corporate dependence on computers and networks increasing all the time, a new breed of nerds was born – computer hackers. Those individuals are some of the most dedicated, talented and ambitious nerds that the world has ever seen. They are the ones spending day and night in their gloomy rooms, eating nothing but cold pizza (with jolt, coffee or coke being the drink of choice) while attempting to hack into yet another computer system or network. Those are the guys (and very rarely girls) we read about in newspaper articles with screaming titles like “NASA's Computer Mainframe Was Compromised By Unknown Cybercriminal”, or sometimes “Computer Hacker Gets Five Years In Jail”. No matter what kind of article it is, every kid knows that being a computer hacker is super-duper cool, or “elite” in hacker slang. By taking the next evolutionary step from Nerdus Commonus to Hackerus Elitus, some nerds become smarter, some richer, while yet others worldwide famous. Being a hacker (aka a nerd) became fashionable and desired, probably in the first time in mankind's history. After all, who wouldn't want to be able to hack into any machine in the world, see classified government information files, deface popular Internet sites or make illegal wire transfers totaling a couple of million dollars into your own offshore bank account?
The movie industry promptly replied by releasing a few hacker-themed movies and introducing a generic “hacker guy” personage into many action flicks. No noteworthy games about hackers were made until now, however. Enter “Uplink: Hacker Elite”. Released last year exclusively online by UK based Introversion Software and finally having gotten to the North American market with help from Strategy First (North American retail version features some minor improvements), “Uplink: Hacker Elite” takes you on a journey through the mind of a hacker. It's very hard to classify the game, as it doesn't really fit into any existing genres, so let's just call it “hacking sim”. You start the game as a novice hacker, signed by Uplink Corporation, a fictitious firm providing matchmaking services for professional hackers and employers in need of their services.
As you start the game, you sign a contract with Uplink, which provides you with access to a gateway computer that you could use as your own and access to internal services machine, all that for a monthly maintenance fee of 300 credits. After that you are your own boss, and start the game by connecting to the Uplink Internal Services machine, where you can view and accept available 'jobs', buy and upgrade hacker tools and your gateway machine's components, view news articles related to your new “profession” and view global ratings for all Uplink agents (including yourself).
The hacker rating you have is crucial, as with every new “level” you gain, more complicated and well-paying jobs will become available for you. And did I mention that you will gain new levels after completing a certain amount of missions? After all what comes around, goes around. Also after you successfully complete a mission, the employer will transfer the promised amount of money to your bank account, which you in turn may use to buy and upgrade your hacker programs, computer components, or buy stocks on the International Stock Exchange (and obviously pay your monthly maintenance fees to Uplink Corp.). If you want to upgrade your gateway, there are various computer models available to choose from, each with a different amount of CPU, storage and security slots, and different price tag of course. You can also upgrade the components of each computer, the prices varying according to the speed or capacity.
Generally, the faster your machine is, the faster it can break passwords and perform other CPU-heavy tasks, while storage capacity dictates how many programs you can have on your machine – just like in real life. One peculiar components category is titled “security” and it features such nifty things as the “Computer Nuke” - a device that instantly fries your computer upon activation (while destroying all incriminating evidence, of course) or “Motion Sensor” that alerts you of possible law enforcement activity next to your machine. While those devices carry a hefty price, they're invaluable as they'll be able to keep you out of jail in case you botch one of your jobs and get traced.
Speaking of the actual jobs themselves – they vary in difficulty and content; some of them will require you to hack into rival company's computer and sabotage or steal some files, while others have you hack into government computers and modify some files relating to some people – like giving a passing grade to a university student in trouble, or on the contrary adding a criminal record to some poor SOB's file and getting the cops to arrest him. As usual you are free to choose any mission available to you from the jobs list on the Uplink Internal Services machine – and the best part is that no mission will ever be the same, since they're randomly generated by the game every time. Another good part is that you're given an option to 'compress' time when you see no suitable missions for you – just click on a button and the time will flow faster, and when you'll finally see a new mission appear, click on it again and return to real-time (all “hacking” is done in real-time of course). But as your skill and rating progress, you will uncover the real plot of the game – a devious organization called Andromeda Research Corporation, hell-bent on releasing a deadly virus that will completely destroy the Internet, called Revelation. And when you'll discover their devious plot you'll have to choose your allegiance – will you help ARC bring down the Internet, or will you help their rivals stop them? The choice is yours, and whichever way you'll choose won't be easy anyway.
So how does the actual “hacking” work? Well, first of all you have to choose the computer you want to hack (while making a thick web of connections to other computers all around the world before that – so it'll take the target computer a longer time to trace you) on the world map in your interface, and connect to it. When connected, you'll use various hacker programs available to you - bypassers (for monitors, proxies and firewalls), voice analyzers, password breakers, decyphers and more in order to achieve your goal. Actually what you'll see on your screen will be a full-features simulation of an operating system and various tools, equivalents of some of which actually exist in real world... Even the protection schemes that you will encounter are almost all the same like in real world – passwords, firewalls, monitors, proxies, voice analyzers and tracers. And of course the machines you have to hack have different levels of protection, different IPs and different administrators.
Mostly you will operate with your mouse and do things that are pretty similar to what you'd do in any Windows environment or Linux GUI like G-Nome or others... Since you'll usually be racing against time, you’d have to act pretty fast, which leads me to conclusion that “Uplink” isn't exactly a game for people that can't operate with their own computers very well. Also while the in-game database on the various protection schemes and tools that you'll be using is very helpful, I think that some previous (even if very remote and general) knowledge of computer security would help players new to Uplink a lot.
Once you understand the way the game functions, Uplink quickly becomes very fun and addictive. Trying to finish yet another mission in the last ten seconds that you have before the trace on your location is complete really pumps your adrenaline level up. But at the same time the gameplay still isn't perfect. One of the main problems with Uplink is its lack of save option – no, don’t get me wrong, when you quit the game and get back in you will be able to choose the profile (agent nick) that you were playing with and start from the place where you've left the game, but whenever you get busted by the cops too many times (three times actually) your profile is gone completely – so if you were working on making your hacker #1 for a straight week and got really far inside the game and then suddenly got busted, you'll have to start from the beginning.
Fortunately, if you can find the saves directory you'll be able to make backups of your profiles yourself, just by making a copy of your profile, but it does get old pretty fast – and wouldn't it be much more convenient to let the players backup their profiles through the game? Another problem occurs after of week or two of gameplay – you will simply get tired of doing the same things over and over again (there are only six or seven categories of missions – and while no mission is ever exactly the same, you will have to act the same way in order to successfully accomplish each type of mission) and finally stop putting the CD in. As well, in the long run you won't have any incentive to keep replaying the game over and over again – while in some games there are online scoreboards that list the best scores of the players, there's no such thing here, and so you can't really show off your 'skills' to anyone. But then again, in the first week or two you won't be thinking about that, as you'll be really 'into' the game that whole time.
There's not much sound to speak of in Uplink – the only sounds you will hear are the pseudo-operating system sounds and the occasional tone dialing of your machine's modem. Nevertheless a game like this doesn't require much sound at all, and what sound is in there, was done adequately. The music is all computer-made, and sounds like the old C64 modtracker files, so loved by many 'oldschool' computer users. The tracks themselves are well done and manage to immerse you more into the game, but the problem is their scarcity. I could count only two different tracks in there that keep repeating over and over again, and in a matter of a few hours the music had to be muted and replaced by my own music playing in Winamp in the game's background... I believe more music variety really wouldn’t hurt Uplink at all.
The graphics, while very simplistic, nevertheless do their job very well – after all they're only supposed to emulate an operating system in this game, and not be eyecandy. All the menus are very well visible, and are very easy to use. The only occasional glitch that I've encountered happens with some of the menus that start overlapping each other, and can happen after only one exact combination of actions. It can be easily corrected by closing the world map however, and has no real influence on gameplay.
Overall “Uplink: Hacker Elite” is a unique and very well thought through game. It’s not the best game in the world, but it's far above average. If you ever wanted to take a break from mindless shooting in your games and have a look at a simplified version of what hackers do (without going to jail of course), give it a try. Of course being produced by an independent developer the game doesn't have the best graphics and sound in the world, but it's all still very acceptable. The gameplay is really the strong point of the game, and while it might not last on your hard drive for longer than a week or two, it will still keep you hooked to your monitor until early morning for the time that it'll be there. And hopefully Introversion Software has made enough money to be able to make Uplink 2: because I really can't wait for a slightly tuned-up sequel... Heck, I'll be one of the first to buy it if it ever comes out.