Hacker Evolution: Reviewed
Hacker Evolution: Untold is a tough game to review. For that matter, it’s a tough game to play, as well. It is a game that defies its own expectations, bends genres, and makes some unfortunate gameplay decisions that hamper the experience. It is also a singularly unique experience, and one that will find a lot of fans with the right audience.
Hacker Evolution: Untold (technically Brian Spencer’s Hacker Evolution: Untold) is the sequel to Hacker Evolution, both developed by Exosyphen Stuidos. Exosyphen is a Romanian studio, established in 2002, and they have developed a number of smaller games, including the two Hacker games, as well as games for the iPhone, iPad, Blackberry and Windows Mobile platforms. While not exactly two guys in a garage, they certainly qualify as an indy developer.
Hacker Evolution: Untold bills itself as a hacking simulation game. In doing so, and certainly through its appearance, the game invites immediate comparisons to the utterly fantastic Uplink, by Introversion. In both games, the player assumes the role of a hacker, can break into servers, steal money, upgrade their hardware, bounce through servers using mouse clicks, and must avoid being caught by the authorities. Both games also are played through a non-dynamic interface consisting of a map, some informational widgets (CPU, emails, etc) and your code input.
However, it is in the differences between the two that Hacker establishes itself as it’s own product. Make no mistake: Hacker is NOT a clone of Uplink. Whereas Uplink provided the player with a persistent planet to hack, Hacker is broken into definite levels, each with specific objectives. Once the player has completed that level, he proceeds to the next. The way these levels are set up, and the objectives to be accomplished, make the game feel more like a puzzle game than a true simulation.
Take for example an early level: you are told that someone is waiting outside your apartment in a car with ill intentions towards you. You are given a series of public servers, consisting of a local bank atm, the registry of motor vehicles, a cell phone tower, a traffic control computer, etc. You must figure out which of these servers to break into (first by scanning, then decrypting, then cracking the passwords, then connecting) and search around for useful files. As you proceed through the level, emails pop up giving you direction to your next objective, such as transferring money out of the ATM or deleting the correct file in the traffic computer so the light will remain on red indefinitely. The objectives are all laid out ahead of time, and once completed, end the level.
On it’s own this would not be a problem. A level based hacking game is fine, and the challenges the game presents are both compelling and intelligent. The problem here is that completing certain objectives out of order (which is not only possible, but likely in many circumstances) can easily flummox the game, and halt the story. It will still be possible to finish the level (usually) but, say, hacking the back ATM before you are supposed to will prevent you from getting the correct email telling you what the next part of your mission is. You can still figure it out on your own, but this is a significant flaw, and one that speaks to larger issues with the game.
Hacking is all about curiosity. It is about breaking into the personal data of someone else and taking a look around for anything interesting. By the transitive property, a hacking game, certainly one as realistic as Hacker Evolution, should reward curiosity. On its face, it does. Breaking into non-story related files can reveal locations of additional servers with interesting files, or large sums of money to upgrade your computer. However, the game places a huge limitation on your ability to explore: your global trace level.
The global trace level is the game’s version of a health bar. When it fills to 100%, it’s game over. Nearly every action you take in the game increases your global trace level. You can reduce the level in one of two ways: by deleting the log files of servers you have hacked, and by spending money to reduce it through a “killtrace” command. However, deleting log files will only reduce your trace level by a small amount, and money is a very limited resource in many of the levels. It is very possible to get yourself into a situation where you can no longer reduce your trace level by deleting logs, and you have no more money to spend, and it just so happens that your trace level needs to be under a certain percentage to complete the level. So, it’s a problem.
In essence, there is a “correct” way to play each level of Hacker Evolution, and it is not open for much interpretation or experimentation. Doing much of either can easily result in failure. In this way, the game is much more like an old-school text adventure than a hacking simulation. You must hacker certain servers in a certain order, use your commands at the exact time they are supposed to be used, or you will get stuck.
This text adventure comparison is strengthened by the fact that the game is played almost exclusively through typed commands. Whereas Uplink used the mouse for most of its gameplay, Hacker Evolution requires that you type in every command, type the name of every server, etc. In that sense, it actually adds to the feel that you are a real hacker, illicitly breaking into servers with a few keystrokes, but it becomes exhausting, and really starts to feel a bit like Zork: Hacker Edition. After a while, “crack public.serv.net 5454” seems equivalent to “Open mailbox” or “Go north.” If you do not enjoy typing, this game is NOT for you. If you are an I.T. professional, you will probably get some kicks out of it.
There are a few additional points I would like to make. First, the story. Ostensibly, the player assumes the role of Brian Spencer, and lives in a world where computers have become sentient. There are grandiose references to conspiracies and corporate fraud, and the game clearly thinks it has a great story to tell. On the whole, however, I was pretty unimpressed. Do not come here expecting to be riveted by a compelling narrative. The gameplay is the draw, not the story. Second, the music is bitching. I tried, and I really could not come up with a better, more descriptive word. A techno-punk soundtrack really amps up the hacking action in the game, and adds a great feel to the game’s atmosphere.
So, to sum up, like a digital yo-yo, this game has its ups and downs. Do not go into the game expecting the gameplay or the quality of Uplink. This is an entirely different animal, though one with similar spots. If you are a fan of text adventures, enjoy hacker fiction, enjoy actual hacking, or are just looking for something unique and relatively inexpensive with which to kill some time, Hacker Evolution: Untold is worth a look. The game is currently available on Steam for $14.99, though I got it on sale for significantly less. There is a free demo available, so if you are on the fence, I encourage you to give it a shot, at the very least.