Sunday, May 20, 2007

Hacker Evolution Review

Hacker Evolution, developed and published by Exosyphen Studios.
The Good: Numerous commands and programs keep the game varied, success does not depend on typing speed, interesting puzzles to solve in a realistic environment, multiple solutions, modifiable
The Not So Good: Severe penalty for required actions, extreme difficulty, method of reducing trace levels is silly and unrealistic, fixed interface arrangement, short
What say you? An enjoyable but very difficult puzzle game about computer hacking: 6/8

Ever since networked computers came about, there have been people trying to gain access to information that they are not supposed to have. Of course, doing any of these activities is highly illegal, so computer games can allow the aspiring hacker to live out his (or her, although we all know it’s only “his”) fantasies. A well-known game of this type was Uplink, a game that launched Introversion and lead to quality games like DEFCON and Darwinia. Uplink was a decent game but it was repetitive and not that realistic, as everything was accomplished through a GUI instead of from command line entries. Hoping to fill that void is Hacker Evolution, the next in the line of hacker games by developer Exosyphen Studios.

The graphics of Hacker Evolution are certainly realistic, as they depict a stylized Unix environment where you run programs from a command line. If you’re used to these operating systems, there is almost no learning curve, as all of the tab completion and Unix terminology is intact (like my old friend ls). It’s sort of funny that a game that features a Unix-inspired interface is not available for a Unix-based OS (although future plans include a Linux release). All of the links you have discovered will appear on a global map, and conducting scans and bouncing links can be accomplished by clicking on the map. You can’t modify the user interface, though, as windows are in fixed positions and can’t be resized. The game adjusts to your desktop resolution, but all of that extra space earned from running above 1024 by 768 is wasted. For instance, the mission objectives window takes up the whole screen (well, you can’t select anything in the background); this information could be easily be always accessible is the user could rearrange the setup. The sound is appropriate for the genre, with techno music that is mostly non-annoying (there is one song I skip, though) and the computerized female voice is comforting. Overall, Hacker Evolution delivers realistic graphics that could be more functional and decent sound effects and music.

Hacker Evolution comes with a series of ten missions (including a tutorial) where you’re trying to repair the damage to the world economy reaped by some evil hackers. The gameplay consists of typing in commands to scan for new servers, gain access to those servers, and obtain valuable information. The usual slew of basic Unix commands are present (cat, del, ls, exec) for file and directory manipulation. Before gaining access to a new server, you must decrypt the key and crack the password, both of which are done by using the appropriate command line entries. After you can access, you can transfer funds from their account and download and upload files. If you have gained complete access to a server by decrypting them and crack all the ports, you can bounce links through them that will increase the time before you get traced (discovered) by the host. You don’t lose the game if you are traced, only if your global trace level reaches 100%. With the money you “earn,” you can decrease your global trace level (10% for every $500) or purchase new equipment that can increase trace time, decrease download time, or increase processing speed for cracks and decryptions. Using cash to decrease your trace level is an odd, unrealistic dynamic that doesn’t really make any sense.

The puzzles themselves are very well designed. Although you’ll generally be doing the same thing each mission (finding specific files and copying or deleting them), there are almost always multiple paths to victory. There are little clues scattered around each of the servers (mostly on ports you don’t need to access) that can unlock new servers you don’t necessarily need to win, but they provide an alternate way of getting your required information. Plus, it’s fun to look through restricted information (virtually speaking, of course). You need to find a good balance between the trace increases you’ll get from cracking these options servers, though, as accessing that new server might not be worth the amount of money you’ll need to spend to decrease your trace level back down to reasonable levels. Money is also scarce in the game and most servers don’t have any. You can, I discovered, transfer a small amount of money and not get traced instead of all of it at once. Ha! I hacked a game about hacking! You can’t save in the middle of a mission, but that isn’t really realistic and most of the levels only take about half an hour (or less) to complete. With only nine levels (plus the tutorial), Hacker Evolution is over far too quickly. Luckily, the game support mods for those who want to figure out what the simple text files and directory structures mean.

Hacker Evolution is not without its problems. The penalty for cracking passwords is way too brutal. The game forces you do to this on pretty much every level, and you're given a 15% increase in global trace level no matter how close they were to tracing you. Half a second from being traced? 15% penalty. Forty-five seconds from being traced? 15% penalty. This makes no sense. Even worse, your global trace rating carries over from level to level; since you'll be required by the game to start each new puzzle by cracking (a 15% penalty) and decrypting (which carries a 5% penalty) new servers, if you ended the previous level with more than about a 70% trace level, you might as well start the entire game over from scratch. This means starting a new puzzle costs you at least $2000 in cash right off the bat to offset your global trace increases from cracking and decrypting (and more money is needed as you progress through the level). The money in the game is so scarce that reducing your trace level will deplete all of the futile cash you had leaving hardly any room for computer upgrades. This is a fixable problem, but it means that almost everyone won't be able to complete the game if they crack one more server than needed. It's too bad that the game is so difficult, since the remainder of the gameplay is very solid and quite enjoyable.

Other than the impractical tracing levels, Hacker Evolution features a realistic and enjoyable game. It’s quite fun to type in commands, discover new servers, and follow the game’s adequate storyline. While the actions you complete may be repetitive, the methods are different and having varied answers means that you can play the same level with different means each time. I like Hacker Evolution more than Uplink because it offers more varied tasks to complete and a central storyline to follow. Plus, Hacker Evolution feels more realistic, since you’re typing in commands in a console instead of using a childish GUI. The plan to release an editor only sweetens the pot. The game is more difficult and frustrating than it should be, but the core gameplay is quite enjoyable and Hacker Evolution is recommended to anyone looking for a interesting and realistic puzzle game.