Hacker Evolution: Reboot
A few months back, when Jeff and I first started up this web site, I reviewed an odd little hacking sim/puzzle game called Hacker Evolution: Untold. Technically, that game was a sequel to another odd little hacker game called Brian Spencer’s Hacker Evolution. The developer of these games, Exosyphen Studios, has had an unexpected amount of success with the titles, due in no small part, I am sure, to the continuing popularity of Introversion’s classic hacking game Uplink. The games happen to look a lot alike, you see. Well, as it turns out, the Hacker Evolution series may look like Uplink, but it is a completely different sort of game. Duality, the latest entry in the series, makes some major changes, making the series more user friendly, but these changes come at a significant cost.
First and foremost, I would be remiss if I did not mention how much of a pain in the ass it was to get a copy of this game. It was delayed without notice at least twice. Further, once the game had supposedly launched on Steam, some sort of error prevented many users from downloading it. The forums were full of complaints, and Exosyphen squarely denied any responsibility, claiming that the error was a result of Steam upgrading something or other. This is slightly doubtful, as other new purchases on Steam downloaded fine, but whatever. I will give big props to Robert at Exosyphen for taking my email and sending me a copy of the game when the Steam version failed to work. As such, my playing was delayed only a couple of days. Currently, the Steam version is working fine, so someone clearly fixed whatever glitch was in the system.
So, now that we have established that you can actually play the game, how is it? Well, good and bad. Here’s a quick rundown: Hacker Evolution Duality is a stylized hacker simulation that is split into two parts. The first is a main single player campaign broken into several levels. The second is an open world mode in which you compete with other artificial intelligence hackers. Both modes play more or less the same: you use a point and click interface you break into and connect with various computers, download files and money, and solve basic logic puzzles. The main difference between the modes is that the single player campaign has the pretext of a storyline, has specifically tuned levels, and tasks the player with accomplishing several goals to complete the level. The open world mode is more of a sandbox with the level changing every time you start up a new game. Between the two, more time clearly went into the single player mode. It’s not that the open world mode is bad, it isn’t, it just suffers from the same gameplay limitations as the single player mode, and lacks any real direction, making it feel kind of pointless. It’s a nice addition, but no one should be buying this game chiefly to play the sandbox mode. The single player mode is clearly where it’s at.
Fans of the series (all 100 of you) should be aware that Duality differs significantly from Hacker Evolution and HE: Untold. Those games were difficult and extremely newbie hostile by requiring the player to input most of their commands into a console, a la DOS or UNIX. Requiring typed inputs made the game feel almost like a text adventure, and lead to a significant learning curve and seriously tired fingers in the later, more hectic levels. Duality does away with the console (though it is going to be reinserted as an option in a future update), and allows the game to be played almost entirely with the mouse. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, the game is far more approachable to a less hardcore audience, and the player does not have to keep all of the commands in their head at all time. On the other hand, the game has been simplified and cut down to a few component parts and it feels like it lost something in the transition.
Players are now given only a few very specific options at any one time. They can attack a computer with a Denial of Service Attack or an EMP attack, both of which slowly recharge after use. If your CPU power is greater than a target’s firewall strength, then you can hack their firewall, allowing you to bounce through the computer (adding to your own CPU strength) or connect to it directly and snoop around. Some computers also have added layers of security, including a voiceprint ID, a retina scanner and an encryption key. All three of these are accomplished via small mini games once a firewall has been hacked.
So, the game has clearly been simplified quite a bit from the first two in the series. You can only execute a few separate commands at any time, and all of these are open from the beginning of the game. In this way, the game feels even more like a puzzle game than the first two. The goal here is not so much to make you feel the freedom of being a hacker, but rather to present you with very limited puzzles that can be solved with these hacker-like solutions.
You can upgrade your own firewall, CPU and system integrity (basically your health) with money you start out with, and can steal from other computers. These upgrades are extremely basic. You literally spent either $5,000 or $10,000 to upgrade these stats to the next level, maxing out at 10, and progression does not carry over between levels.
The player’s three main challenges are time, trace level, and AI hackers. Many of the single player missions are timed, requiring that the player complete all tasks quickly and efficiently. Having a low firewall level, accidentally tripping an incorrect switch, or remaining connected to a computer too long will start to eat away at your trace level, which will fail the mission if it goes too high. Finally, AI hackers will sporadically attack you with D.O.S. and EMP attacks, permanently lowering your firewall and system integrity, to the point that your system dies, or you are too weak to accomplish your set tasks.
The difficulty of Duality cannot be understated: even on easy mode this game is mind numbingly hard. So much so that it will likely turn off many many players. The game was clearly designed with the idea that the player should strive for perfection. Often times the single player levels can only be solved one to three different ways, and the player must execute the all of the correct commands at the correct times or they will face an insurmountable obstacle requiring them to restart the level. Thankfully, this is not as big of a deal as it could be, as the levels load quickly and tended to be about 30 minutes in length (assuming you know exactly what you are supposed to do).
The game is short, a perfect run through of the levels will give the average player only 3-4 hours of playtime, total. Of course, no one will accomplish a perfect run through of any of the levels their first time through, and the game’s developers are counting on this fact. The game’s extreme difficulty artificially extends the life of the game into the 7+ hour bracket, with most players failing levels repeatedly before they figure out the exact sequence of events necessary to allow them to move on. If this sounds frustrating and unenjoyable, this game is likely not for you.
I do have a few major complaints about the gameplay in Duality. First, the game’s limitation to only two methods of attack (D.O.S. and EMP) and the way they work, leads to players sitting around waiting for meters to recharge for far too long. Some levels do not require these tools, but the levels that do can get frustrating and ultimately, boring.
Further, there is no real sense of progression in the single player campaign. As I mentioned before, upgrades are not persistent (and the game is not designed in such a way that they could be), and all of the tools are unlocked from the beginning. The puzzles get more and more devious as the levels go on, but you will be using the same tools in the last level as you did in the first. This may not be so much of a big deal if the player did not feel so consistently weak, but they do, with AI hackers often walking all over you. By the end of a game like this I would have wanted to be just trashing my competition, instead I felt consistently on the ropes.
Further, the game’s introduction of AI hackers is a big double edged sword. While adding in opponents was a nice touch, and keeping the player on their toes is a neat addition, there is simply no way to effectively manage your opponents. Once they start attacking there is very little the player can do except either attack back or wait until the attacks stop. There is no way to defend yourself, other than by going on the offensive. Again, the player only has two attack commands, and both of those have limited effectiveness and long reload times. I can see what the developers were going for here: the game is not meant to be about computer v. computer combat. Rather, the player is meant to be strategic in their thinking, and avoid alerting the AI hackers whenever possible. However, the levels are simply too difficult and obtuse for this to be an option, and at the harder difficulty levels, AI hackers will often attack you unprovoked. A simple solution would have been some sort of command to mask your presence, or defend against hostile attacks, but failing that, this aspect of the game becomes overly frustrating.
That is not to say that I am totally down on the time. There are aspects of it that I find extremely engaging. First, the aesthetic really does call back to Uplink, and yet Duality is clearly its own game. I was a big fan of how the levels changed up the basic map screen. The game is also tiny, with a small footprint, and it ran like a dream on my system. The price is decent, at $25 on Steam. Also, the music is great. Seriously, the music is fantastic. HE: Untold had good music, but Duality ups the ante in this department. Whoever is working on the music over there at Exosyphen needs a raise, immediately. Finally, and most importantly, the puzzles are interesting, intelligently designed, and once the player gets what to do, most of the puzzles make you feel smart for having solved them. This is the mark of a good puzzle game, and Duality accomplishes the task more often than it fails.
So the final word on this game is mixed. On the one hand, certain aspects of the game mark a major improvement over Hacker Evolution: Untold. Even so, fans of the series may be turned off by the changes, and many new fans will be driven away by the difficulty and frustrating wait-around gameplay. It’s hard to know exactly who to recommend this game to, but chances are if you have made it through this review and are still interested, then you will probably enjoy your time with Duality. Just don’t buy this thinking you are getting Uplink, Duality is a different animal entirely, for better or for worse.