Few gaming highlights graced our screens back in 2003, and even fewer were worth remembering. After all, 2003 was 8 years ago now – heck, Half Life 2 hadn’t even seen the light of day, and groundbreaking developments akin to Crysis and Gears of War were still very much pipe-dreams; we’re talking ancient, light-years, even eons ago for the gaming industry. However, there was one little gem in particular that brightened up what was an otherwise dull gaming year. You see, every so often a game slips through under the radar, launching with the very minimum of fuss, and managing to survive via favourable reviews and word of mouth alone. Games such as these are considerably few and far between, yet in March of 2003 a game of such calibre was released, and that game was dubbed Uplink: Hacker Elite.
Haven’t heard of it? Well, I can’t say that I’m overly surprised. A little saddened perhaps, but I digress. You’re in luck anyhow, as thanks to the wonders of digital distribution (read: Steam) it’s not too late to sample this gaming treasure. Think WarGames, but on a smaller, localised scale, and you wouldn’t be far off, this is true British gaming at its best.
Uplink: Hacker Elite, developed by British studio Introversion Software, introduces you as a fledgling ‘Uplink Agent’, working for an un-named multinational corporation dedicated to organised hacking attempts across the globe. As the player, you are required to perform various tasks of dubious legality, received via email, and in return you will be rewarded with copious amounts of in-game cash, which is used to build your ultimate hacking machine. Chances are you’ll have a little money left over too, and this remainder can be tucked away into a hidden Swiss bank account, in an effort to protect your financial empire.
This is a game which allows you to explore the darker side of the internet, from the safety and comfort of your PC. Despite creating an incredible air of realism, you will not face any real world complications from your activities in Uplink. Immersion begins from the very moment you load up the game, at which point you’ll be presented with a relatively authentic login screen. Creating an account resembles something fairly similar to an internet signup service, and before long you’ll be setup with your very own ‘gateway’ (or computer) through which to engage in your questionable activities. Although you’ll receive monetary reward for success, failure will result in the cyber police coming a-knocking on your virtual door; something you’ll do well to avoid.
In-game hacking attempts have been heavily simplified, presumably to cater to the ‘command prompt’ illiterate target audience, and each mission begins via the ‘map screen’. Using this screen, you can bounce your connection through a number of host servers, and as bounces are directly associated with tracking time, the more you use the longer it’ll take for the virtual authorities to trace your gateway. With your connection thoroughly bounced, and a link to your target established, you can then proceed to hack into the computer system in question and steal/delete/edit files as per your mission instructions. A somewhat interesting element to each hacking attempt is that each ‘movement’ you make through the internet leaves a digital paper-trail in the form of logs (similar to the concept of cookies) which require swift removal in order to cover your tracks. As you progress through the game, the initial song and dance surrounding hacking into a computer system can become increasingly complex, requiring all manner of software or gadgetry to succeed. Although most small systems can be beaten with the tried and tested combination of a password cracker and a bit of patience, the more financially rewarding challenges will have a number of intricate requirements associated with them.
There’s a hidden layer of depth to Uplink too, if you feel you’re up to the challenge. As mentioned previously, the process of hacking – at first glance – appears to be overly simplistic, and as the player you have a number of in-game tools at your disposal to help cover your tracks and keep the authorities at bay. However, after deftly hacking into a computer system, you will also be presented with an option to access the command console, which operates as a very basic recreation of the windows command line. Via this console, you have a far greater degree of control over the system you’re hacking into, but as ever there’s little in a way of guidance, and so success is often restricted by the number of necessary commands you’ve committed to memory. In a game where speed is of the upmost importance, learning to manipulate the command console could very well be the difference between success or failure; it’s also the only way to completely eradicate a target computer (by purging the hard-drive and then shutting down) should your elected mission require it.
The intricate recreation of a realistic computer hacking environment cannot be accredited to the gameplay alone, and another very important element of Uplink is the visual style. Designed to replicate the necessary hacking atmosphere, this game is almost entirely text based in nature, with images infrequently utilised in an effort to help speed up gameplay and reduce the, what may otherwise be, steep learning curve. The use of images and animation does feature in Uplink, but it’s subtle and indirect in nature, and only really serves the purpose of providing you with buttons to click through which to issue commands. A lack of visuals also helps to keep system requirements minimal, even by 2003 standards, meaning that Uplink can be run on just about any system: and as a game that serves up the action in a text-based format, it’s also netbook friendly, which is a big plus.
Uplink is far from the perfect game that I’ve perceived it to be, but its numerous positives greatly outweigh the flaws. That being said, it would be unjust to conclude this retrospective without a brief assessment of Uplink’s failings, and unfortunately there is one in particular that I must mention. A rather large issue that plagues this game is the way that it handles mistakes; should you get busted, it’s game over. However, this is an early 00’s style of game over, not the fluffy 2011 manner that we casual gamers have become accustomed to, and the result is that your game file is gone for good; you’re back to square one, as there’s no retry in this game. Of course you can counter this inherently tedious problem by backing up your game save files manually, but this almost feels like cheating, and the addictive nature of Uplink encourages you to beat the campaign unaided by such seedy tactics – well, for the first few tries anyway.
Thankfully, Uplink’s impressive delivery of addictive and immersive gameplay is enough to overlook its flaws, as there’s no better feeling than completing a mission, disconnecting from your target mere seconds from being busted, and receiving your reward in the process. And it’s also for this reason that I deem Uplink to be a Forgotten Classic.
As mentioned previously, Uplink gained massive exposure in April 2006 when it stumbled onto Steam, and today in 2011 it can be yours for as little as £5.99. Quite frankly this is an absolute steal for a game of this quality, and if these words have even slightly piqued your interest, it would be well worth your time investing in this title.
Steam is currently offering Uplink, bundled with Darwinia, for £5.99; two great games for the price of one. Pick up your bargain here.