Written by: Rik

Date posted: January 24, 2010

I know very little about actual, real-life hacking, but I know enough about computers to be able to scoff whenever such activities are recreated for the purposes of a Hollywood movie. Whether it’s massive numbers on a screen counting down until the end of the world, the convenience of on-screen messages being displayed in layman’s terms (Are you sure you want to delete this person’s identity?) or simply the general ease with which systems can be compromised – a few seconds’ frenetic typing normally does the trick – the nerd within will always want to scream out in protest.

Some systems are protected by a simple password. Others might use an Elliptic-Curve Encryption Cypher – which looks like this.

Equally, the people portraying the hackers themselves are much too photogenic – are we really expected to believe that Hugh Jackman and Angelina Jolie spend hours hunched over a computer screen honing their skills, fuelled only by cold pizza and Dr Pepper? Even so-called ‘nerd’ actors are much better looking than anyone you might actually meet in real life. That Justin Long – he’s an attractive man. You heard what I said.

Anyway, without necessarily knowing exactly what is involved in computer hacking, I’m pretty sure it’s a fairly tricky enterprise, with a reasonably large brain and at least some kind of aptitude for numbers being required. I imagine it’s a bit like having a responsible and highly-paid job, except you’re not really supposed to be doing any of the things you’re doing, and you don’t have to wear a suit. Whatever, it’s difficult, and certainly beyond the capabilities of the unwashed masses.

Fortunately, though, the world of gaming is, as ever, on hand to provide a simulated hacking experience that brings something requiring a certain level of dedication, ability and commitment within the realm of the average computer-owning nobody for a small cash fee. Yes, you too can now pretend to be a hacker, thanks to Uplink – a game that’s challenging enough to make you believe you could do it for real, but without being so simple that progress is achieved by idly smashing your fist into the keyboard (although you may be tempted to try this at various points).

Set in the year 2010 – you know a game qualifies as ‘old’ when its nightmarish vision of the future arrives without incident – you take the role of a novice hacker looking to make it big. However, with no reputation for success and with only a low-spec computer and limited software at your disposal, you’re initially only able to take on fairly basic jobs, such as hacking into a system and copying a small file, for little financial reward. Still, pulling off a number of jobs successfully (ie without being caught) will see your reputation, and your bank balance, grow, and soon you’ll be able to progress to more difficult jobs requiring more complex systems to be hacked, cracked and bypassed.

Uplink is both atmospheric and engaging from the very start, when it quickly becomes clear that the intention is not for you to believe you’re playing a game about hacking, but that you are an Uplink agent about to embark on a potentially very dangerous career path. Aside from a very simple tutorial – and again, this is presented ‘in-game’ as an introduction for new hackers, rather than something that is external to the game world – during which only the most essential of information is imparted, you’re essentially left to work things out for yourself.

It’s best not to connect directly to the system you’re hacking. On this screen you can bounce your connection around the world.

This isn’t quite as daunting as it might be. The interface is reasonably easy to navigate, and while there is some futuristic jargon here and there, at no point does there seem to be any intention to confuse, misdirect or frustrate the player unnecessarily. The hacking world isn’t entirely open to you from the beginning so there’s you’re unlikely to be able to take on missions that you’ve no chance of completing, and all software and hardware upgrades are explained within the game in plain English, as you might expect if you were buying them for real.

Still, it’s hardly plain sailing either. Most fundamentally, there’s no option to save your game; instead, your progress as an agent is simply updated automatically each time you exit the game. If you make a mistake, you won’t be able to airbrush it from history by simply going back and not making it next time. And speaking of mistakes, you’re not really allowed to make too many: getting caught in the act is the biggest no-no (and often means ‘game over’), but your actions can also be traced back to you if you fail to adequately cover your tracks.

This naturally encourages caution rather than idle experimentation, and if you’re a nervy gamer, even the basic early missions are fairly tricky affairs. The natural tension of each situation is generally compounded by the presence of some suitably urgent background music, not to mention the constant beeping of your ‘Trace-Tracker’, one of the most basic but essential pieces of software in the game, which indicates roughly how close you are to getting caught by emitting a high-pitched beep that increases in frequency as time starts to run out (thankfully, it also includes a more accurate visual indicator).

You have to do quite few to get to the stage where you can execute them with confidence. It’s mostly a case of remembering what to do in what order, which isn’t in itself particularly challenging, but when you factor in the pressures of time and not being able to make mistakes, you’ve got something approaching the genuine feeling of danger that must come with performing illicit cyber-tasks for real.

Once the basic missions start to feel routine, you’re probably ready for something more complicated – and interesting – such as altering academic, social security, or criminal records for your employer. At first, a steady hand is required simply to get the job done, but with time you’ll become cocky enough to add ‘humorous’ convictions for public nudity to the previously blank criminal records of innocent men. Not all missions offer similar opportunities for such japes, of course, but whatever the job, pulling it off successfully, especially if it’s with seconds to spare before getting traced and caught, is immensely satisfying.

Occasionally you’ll have cause to record the voice of a system administrator to gain access to voice-activated systems.

As you progress, though, it starts to become more difficult to establish what kind of missions you should be taking on. While all jobs have a difficulty rating, until you accept one you have little idea of what might be involved. The most pertinent questions revolve around whether you have a decent enough rig and all the necessary software to be able to pull the mission off, and again it’s hard to tell without either being ridiculously cautious by taking easy money and pre-emptively upgrading – perhaps unnecessarily – or by diving straight in. You can contact the company offering the job for a rough guide to the kind of system you’re trying to hack into, but this normally only extends to a bland statement that you should “expect a Firewall”.

This is all fair enough, to a point – I mean, you are supposed to be a hacker, breaking into systems without permission, so the answers shouldn’t all be laid out for you in advance, and there should definitely be more than an element of danger when doing a mission for the first time. On the other hand, I do think the question of what kind of software and hardware you need for a mission could have been handled in a slightly more forgiving way, especially given that many upgrades are pretty pricey, and it seems to me that the difficulty rating of some jobs isn’t always particularly accurate either.

For example, missions involving theft of corporate data stored on a LAN seem to appear pretty early, but involve a hefty outlay on software, are tricky to pull off and don’t seem to offer a reasonable amount of financial compensation when you get the job done. By contrast, jobs that involve hacking into banks or the global criminal database are more straightforward and pay better. And the only way to really find out about a job is to try it out, which does have potentially disastrous consequences when you consider that your progress through the whole game could be erased by the time you’re through.

Like I said, though, this is all part of what the game is, and I’m certainly not going to criticise the game just because I’m a scaredy-cat who wants to save every five seconds just in case something goes wrong. Besides, if you were allowed to save whenever you wanted, and if all of the information you need to find out for yourself was included in the manual, then you’d be looking at a game that wouldn’t last more than a weekend. And, hey, if you really find it all too unforgiving, then I’m sure there’s all kinds of help on the real-life internet that should fill in some of the blanks for you.

You can’t read the text from here, but we’ve added all kinds of childishly amusing convictions to this guy’s record.

Still, while we’re speaking of longevity, Uplink isn’t a game that’s going to last forever even if you aren’t a dirty cheater. Although technically it’s an open-ended game, it’s really one that’s about completing set missions, of which there’s only a limited number of types, and once you’ve mastered them all it’s unlikely you’ll want to keep doing so for too long. There’s also the opportunity to take place in a set of storyline missions that exist beyond the usual freelance stuff, and it does provide a bit of context as well as one or two different challenges, although as an idea it feels like a slightly underdeveloped, making it hard to really give much of a toss about what happens.

Such shortcomings perhaps aren’t surprising when you consider that the game was developed by (literally) a handful of people on a limited budget. However, none of this should stop you from giving Uplink a go, and enjoying it too. It’s an involving and original little title which draws you in from the moment you start playing until you’ve spent many an hour hunched over your PC cracking passwords, bypassing firewalls and deleting files. For a game that sets out to make you believe you’re a hacker, that pretty much counts as a job well done in my book.