Uplink Playtest Review by Mark Green on 12/05/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
It's a computer RPG written by three people, with no graphics, and no combat. Does it work? Oh yes.
Author: Chris Delay, Mark Morris, Thomas Arundel
Category: Computer Game
Company/Publisher: Introversion Software
Page count: N/a
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Mark Green on 12/05/02
Genre tags: Science Fiction Espionage
Uplink is a revival of what is actually a very old genre of game: the hacking game. Hacking games went through a popular phase in the time of the Commodore 64 and similar (anyone remember System 15000?), where they were basically puzzle games involving following chains of clues to work out passwords and access codes. Uplink describes itself as a 'simulation', but it takes a far more traditionally RPG-like attitude to the hacking genre. Like the older hacking games, though, it also goes for 'cheap' role immersion by juxtaposing IC and OOC (because, like, you're using a computer.. and your hacker character is using a computer too... wow)
Uplink comes with practically no documentation: all there is inside the case is the CD and a strange card, printed in gloss black on a matte black background (!), bearing the words "Uplink - Introversion Software - Trust Is A Weakness" and a series of strange, meaningless hex numbers. Fortunately, installation is a doddle (standard autorun fare). It's also worth noting that, thanks to the lack of graphics, Uplink doesn't require a massive PC to run. It also has a Linux version bundled on the disk.
Starting the game for the first time tells you what's going on. The game year is 2010, and Uplink is an agency which hires out hackers to perform work for corporations. Anyone who wants can join, and the Uplink Agency don't store any records themselves to protect their agents from being traced and caught. As a further safeguard, all agents rent a 'gateway machine' which they use for the actual hacking work. If an agent is caught, Uplink destroy the gateway and the agent's account, but the person is safe since no record of their identity was held. (Of course, this rather surreal background is just a way of pulling off the role juxtaposition, but it doesn't require too much of a feat of disbelief suspension.)
Having created a username and password from your agent, and answered a question related to those strange hex numbers on the card (a copy protection mechanism guaranteed to induce nostalgia trips in those who remember codewheels - fortunately, you only have to do it when you start a new agent), the game begins with a basic tutorial to tell you what's going on. Thus, the lack of documentation isn't too serious. The only grumble here is that the game options screen isn't accessible on the first run (because it drops straight into the creation sequence) so if you need to turn off the music or alter the resolution, you can't on the first run. And if something is making your machine crash, you can't change the options to fix it, although the authors have thoughtfully provided an 'uplink safe mode' which makes the game as well-behaved as possible in case of difficulties arising.
The structure of the game is initially quite simple. The game is entirely played from a faux-desktop interface that's just normal enough to be usable while resembling Hollywood-film style hacking systems as far as possible. Connect to the Uplink BBS, get a mission, and go do it. Get paid and you can buy new hardware and software (ie, equipment), and completing missions also increases your Uplink Rating (ie, experience level) to unlock new missions. There's also the 'Neuromancer rating' (ie, alignment) which reflects your morality - as seen in the hacker mentality, of course. So breaking into big corporations is Good, but ruining people's lives is Bad.
Missions invariably involve hacking into other systems. This is done by using the software you also obtain from the Uplink BBS. There are five security mechanisms that appear. Password screens are hacked either using Password Breaker (which always works eventually), or Dictionary Checker (which is faster, but not guaranteed to work). Voice Print systems (this is 2010, remember) require you to find out who the authorized user is, phone them to obtain a speech sample and then use a program to transform it into the required security phrase. Elliptic-curve systems (uhhh... what!? Basically, they're just an excuse for the authors to work in a funky matrix-style screenful of scrolling numbers) are also simply broken by running the Decypher software. Proxies and Firewalls don't stop you getting into a system, but they do prevent you changing things whilst there. They can be broken in a number of ways, using different combinations of software.
Now, at this stage you may be thinking that this sounds a bit lame and mechanistic - connect to the site to be hacked, run the appropriate software, do the mission and leave. Well, there is a little of this, but there's an important factor I haven't mentioned: the trace.
The moment you do anything suspicious on any site, a trace begins. The trace effectively imposes a time limit on everything you do on that site. The system tracks the progress of the trace through another piece of software. The Trace Tracker, like much of the other software, comes in multiple versions with higher versions being more expensive; the higher version you have, the more precise the display is. As well as the display, there is also a continuous beep-beep-beep on the soundtrack that slowly speeds up as the trace gets closer.
If the trace actually completes, you're in serious trouble; usually you'll at least have to pay a fine, but very often you'll be considered compromised and kicked out of Uplink with a terse game over screen. And did I mention that you can't save your game on command? It's autosaved, but you can't just save and restore if a hack fails. Let a trace complete and you may well have lost your character. This is a game of hard knocks.
The trace makes time management imperative. You have to have all the software ready before you log in, and have a decent plan. The speed with which your software runs is determined by the version of the software you have, and your system's processor speed and bandwidth (ahem stats ahem). You can reallocate processing power between pieces of software you have running during the hack, which is often essential to ensure things finish in time. And don't forget - even once the software is done, you still have to interact with the site you hacked into to accomplish the mission. A very nice touch is that the higher level missions don't just require hitting sites with more security - they require you, the player, to do more. Initally it might be a simple matter of deleting or copying a few files. Later missions have you falsifying academic or police records, or infecting machines with viruses. And finally, you could wind up doing elaborate missions involving hacking multiple machines. You'd better know what you're doing.. or be able to figure it out quick.
You can also affect the trace by routing your connection. The game provides a map with which you can route your connection around the world to make the trace more complex. Doing so is essential - use a direct connection and the trace will complete instantly - but you can influence the amount of time the trace will take by choosing your route carefully. Route through government systems and they'll be reluctant to divulge their logs; if you're hacking a corporation, routing through their competitors might shift the blame. If you have a legitimate accout on a machine, routing through that slows down the trace; route through a machine you administer and it'll slow down even further.
And yes, all of those things are actually tracked and make a difference. As you may have just realised, this game is a lot deeper that it appears on first glance; and this is just one example.
For example, any system you can hack you can also connect to legitimately, and some will have useful public functions. So you can connect to a bank system and open your own account. (Nobody will ever give you a mission to hack an admin account on a bank - but you can, and you could get rather rich if you did...) You can connect to the Stock Exchange and buy and sell shares in the companies in the game - and their values will change based on your hacking activities on them and their competitors. Hack government systems too often and it will start to appear on the news servers, and the systems might go away. Screw up and get a criminal record, and you can hack the Criminal database to delete it.
Most notable of all is the fact that the game runs NPCs who perform missions just like you.. so if you can get a mission to trace a hacker from logs, or frame someone for hacking, so can an NPC - and the hacker they're tracing or framing might be you. Fortunately, there's software around for deleting logs - but that's one more thing you've got to do while the trace is pinging in your ear. As your hardware becomes more sophisticated, you can install security hardware in it, to enable you to monitor if somebody tries to physically compromise your Gateway machine, or destroy your own Gateway to prevent yourself being caught.
And did I mention there's an overarching plot as well, seperate from the missions? And did I mention that a lot of the plot is driven by your actions? And did I mention that you can play the plot on one of two sides, and your actions (well, ok, one particular action) determines which it will be?
I hope you're getting the picture by now. While Uplink's underlying game might be pretty simple, it has so many good ideas and so much coherence that it becomes an intriuging system. Most of all, it gets many design factors right that many, many games get wrong.
It's not perfect, of course. Most notably, at higher levels a lot of the tension goes out of the hacking, as you can run software so fast that the trace becomes largely irrelevant - or even disable the trace completely. Once you know how to complete a particular type of mission, doing it over and over again is unlikely to introduce much variety, as most of the computers you'll hack are mirror images of each other with different company names on the login screen. The loss of combat has brought with it a loss of the concept of spatial tactics, which can be vital to introducing variety in traditional CRPGs. And the plot, although interesting, does pass through a fixed series of tasks every time - although the circumstances which will apply to carrying out those tasks will vary. Uplink has a limited lifespan; it can turn out to be very short or very long depending on how quickly you get used to its environment, but when it's done, it's done.
In spite of these failings, Uplink deserves the attention of any gamer interested in the genre or in a different view of computer roleplaying. It is not a game for everyone, but equally it shouldn't be let pass by. Recommended.