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Uplink: Hacker Elite (PC) artwork

Uplink: Hacker Elite (PC) review

"There is a brilliant idea that inspires Uplink: Hacker Elite, and it largely rests at the intersection of the state of present day technology, and the timeless intrigue that surrounds crime and criminals, so deeply-rooted that it taps human nature. There have long been games depicting crime, going all the way back to the Atari 2600, and the monumental Grand Theft Auto series is inarguably the one that has most recently brought the issue of game crime and violence into the limelight..."

There is a brilliant idea that inspires Uplink: Hacker Elite, and it largely rests at the intersection of the state of present day technology, and the timeless intrigue that surrounds crime and criminals, so deeply-rooted that it taps human nature. There have long been games depicting crime, going all the way back to the Atari 2600, and the monumental Grand Theft Auto series is inarguably the one that has most recently brought the issue of game crime and violence into the limelight, with its mass-slaughter and rise through organized syndicates.

The type of crime explored in Uplink is not quite so salient, and is more tilted to the focus of digital criminality and white-collar type crimes. I’m not talking about the stuff of the cyberpunk genre, which is often just a subset of science fiction; games like Shadowrun and Neuromancer do not fall into the realm of hacking that Uplink attempts to recreate, but of a paranoid dystopian vision of the future. These are interesting, and have their place, but Uplink doesn’t take it quite this far. I’m talking about the manipulation of technology in the context of the world we live in, as it is, right now.

Recall the film Mission: Impossible, or Goldeneye (or probably a handful of other 007 films), or Enemy of the State, or, perhaps more directly, Hackers. What do they all have? Action. Action has its own genre in videogaming, just as it does in film. What else do these films have? Technology, and the depiction of the hero or villain overcoming it with computer hacking savvy. Tapping into bank accounts and social security files, accessing major mainframes, disabling important security systems, copying a NOC list of disavowed secret agents – these are the types of abilities that have found their way into the action hero archetype; with the physical capability to kick the tar out of any potential challenger now comes a technological acumen that proves just as critical.

I have watched these films, and others, countless times, and, just as the action itself has always been exciting, so too are the abilities of the characters to make gains and alter lives by hacking computer systems; it’s a new means of power and control that has worked its way into popular culture about as subtly as technology itself has. I’ve always enjoyed having action games like Final Fight to beat people up hand-to-hand, or Goldeneye to wield weaponry and gadgetry and make progress in a semi-stealthy manner. I thought Uplink was going to be an opportunity to feel powerful in a different way, more in tune with current technology; I’ve punched and shot all the guards, now let’s break into these computers!

And really, that’s exactly what it is – an extremely stylish, incredibly Hollywood-like version of computer hacking. It isn’t realistic – real hacking involves manipulating thousands of lines of tedious code. It’s the stuff you see in the movies. This is what I was asking for going in; I now realize that this is not enough, in and of itself, to sustain long-term interest.

Uplink is, essentially, a computer interface, which I suppose is suitable, given the nature of the work. The presentation is one of high quality; the level of immersion one feels when first starting out is uncanny. Your first job is going be to simply registering with the Uplink Corporation, to which your “computer gateway” automatically connects when you start the game. The Corporation is a mysterious business through which remote, freelance agents can get work from other multi-national corporations; Uplink provides the hacker with the connection and a gateway, through which the hacker cannot be directly traced in his wrongdoings. Essentially, you’re connecting through Uplink to read the latest news on the work of your fellow hackers and to search electronic ‘job postings’ for which different companies are seeking Uplink agents, and for which they will pay, sometimes handsomely.

Once you’ve registered, you’ll be starting off with small-time crimes such as breaking into databases to destroy or retrieve important files. Every mission is assigned a certain difficulty level based on the nature of that job, and a reward suitable for the risk involved, and you cannot attempt missions that are far beyond your own experience; as you successfully complete missions, your status in this semi-underground community will rise. With the money you earn, you will buy more sophisticated hardware, software, gateways and tools to make your jobs more manageable.

The initial experience is extremely entertaining; the entire interface looks as if it were lifted directly from an action or espionage film, and the subtle techno beats that serve as a soundtrack further convince you of the sneaky, underhanded work that you’re performing. You’ll be getting your feet wet for the first few missions, and acquiring the basic software programs as you go. For example—

You’ve accepted a mission on the job postings, and the company has e-mailed you. You are to hack into the VirtuaTech internal system and destroy a particular file, VT-Data 1202. To perform this, you must connect from your gateway to the company computer system; however, to ensure that you can complete the task before you are traced, you must bounce your connection through other sources to mislead the authorities. The connection interface is very intuitive—it’s a high-tech world map, and you just click the different locations you want to send your connection through, concluding the connection path at your destination, VirtuaTech. The computer dials the number and connects, bringing you to the VT authorization screen, which is a username and password prompt. Will you have a user account with this company? Of course not. Just access your software programs and open your password breaker and your trace tracker – this will let you know how close you are to being traced and stopped.

Begin the password cracking program, and watch as it goes through the different letter and number possibilities, slowly cracking a code, one digit at a time, while the ‘beep…beep…beep’ of the trace tracker gets more frequent, indicating that you’re running out of time and your connection is being followed. But you’re in; quickly access the file server, locate the file mentioned in the email, and wipe it out. Disconnect, and, to cover your tracks, access the first server you made your connection through and delete your logs, so you don’t get caught. E-mail the corporation to let them know you’ve completed the job, and they will credit your bank account with the money that was promised.

Completing your first mission and earning your first paycheck is exciting stuff, and you’ll be looking forward to taking more jobs, buying new equipment, and eventually rising in the ranks. Later missions with see you altering social security files, accessing bank accounts, following transfers of suspiciously large amounts of money, and altering academic records. There is also the opportunity for your own personal ingenuity, if you’re willing to risk being caught and having your career come to an end. For example, in your work with following one of these very large bank account transfers, it’s possible—not easy, but possible—to quickly transfer that money to your own account and erase any record of this having ever occurred, making you a rich man and recognized hacker in the process.

Unfortunately, Uplink grows more complicated without truly progressing past these first, relatively straightforward missions. You will eventually encounter much more sophisticated security systems and be given tasks that sound a lot riskier, but what it really comes down to is doing a whole lot more of the simple menu-driven clicking and connecting and disconnecting stuff that you’ve already done. Just making things a little more complex, with different words, and more time-consuming, does not really reflect growth or progress in a conceptual sense; Uplink has really laid it all out for you in the very first missions you undertake, even though you’re only using the basic tools and attempting the basic jobs. Even the storyline, which doesn’t approach you until some time into the game and attempts to give some method to the madness, does not really alter the experience or involve the player to a greater degree. An agent is dead and his computer has sent you an e-mail, as programmed to do, seven days after his passing. Unraveling the mystery will involve the same stuff you were doing to perform primitive hack jobs, and won’t prove to be wholly satisfying regardless.

Uplink makes an absolutely mesmerizing first impression, especially if, like myself, you’ve taken notice of all those technological hacking scenes now sufficiently populating today’s action and thriller films. This is a very rewarding adventure for its first few hours. What becomes obvious, all too quickly, is not just that Uplink does not possess longevity due to the very nature of its work, but that all this hacking stuff is only really cool with the action stuff; we’re missing the other half, the human half. Throughout your work here, you will be distinctly singular and alone, and some 3-line emails and tiny photographs in hacked personnel files will not be enough to convey any different. Action movies, and thus, action games, where you’re battling with actual people, are inherently interesting because you feel like you’re actually interacting with others. This here is a lone computer terminal, where James Bond or Ethan Hunt have never logged on with a greater purpose in mind.

dogma's avatar
Community review by dogma (September 14, 2006)

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