Uplink is too far removed from reality to provide more than an extremely crude representation of hacking. It does do a very good job, though, of establishing the atmosphere.
Publisher: Strategy First
Subtitle: Hacker Elite
Price: $29.99 (free demo available)
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Everyone
Developer: Introversion Software
US release date: 2007-07
When I first downloaded the demo of Uplink (later renamed Uplink: Hacker Elite), I stayed up most of that night stealing fake data and selling it to whoever was willing to pay me. I was wired on Mountain Dew when I emerged bleary eyed, and even though the game was over, I was absolutely terrified that I'd be caught.
Uplink is too far removed from reality (it's set in the year 2010) to provide more than an extremely crude representation of hacking. It does do a very good job, though, of establishing the atmosphere. Adrenaline will pump and paranoia will reign. Although a purist will no doubt be upset that the interface is pretty and the ease with which you wield a password cracker, they should keep in mind that this game has a lot more to do with movies about hacking than the activity itself.
The gameplay in Uplink largely centers on taking anonymously posted jobs off of a message board, and then engaging in some sort of illicit computer activities to complete them. Whether you are simply destroying data, changing someone's social security record, or cracking a bank to move some funds into your account, you'll have to break a few laws to do so. The adrenaline comes with the often-intense time pressure, as you watch whatever system you're trying to alter trace your connection. Even after you're finished, if you fail to properly clean up your tracks in time, you still risk getting caught.
And getting caught can carry a big penalty. If you're identified compromising low-security systems, you'll likely get off with a stern warning or a small fine. But as you progress through the more difficult missions, apprehension can result in a real, honest-to-god game over. There's no option to load an old save -- you will have to start over from the beginning. Attempting to play your old character will yield nothing more than a splash screen with statistics about you before you got nabbed. Although this aspect can be highly frustrating at first, this element of permanence actually lends your activities the sense of danger they need to make this simulation complete.
The stiff penalty also means you'd better figure out how to do what you're doing ahead of time. This is another area where Uplink really excels in establishing the atmosphere -- you have to figure out most of how to play on your own. While a quick tutorial and an in-game help system will familiarize you with some of the basics, the developers really leave you on your own for later missions. Sometimes the assignments are vague enough to leave you wondering just what to do, such as "Destroy John Smith's life". Is getting him arrested enough? What about changing his college grades or his social security number? Even when they're very explicit -- "Destroy the computer system at this IP address." -- if you don't have a decent amount of knowledge about real computers, you can be left in the dark about how to complete them.
Unfortunately, the gameplay can get extremely repetitive after a while. There's a very brief storyline to keep you occupied, and the randomly generated missions don't offer a lot of variety. While it's exciting to figure out what to do and how to do it at first, there's just not that much to actually do in the game. At a certain point you reach a kind of critical mass, where the hardware and software you've attained in the game, combined with the knowledge you've gained from earlier missions, means that there's virtually no risks left for you.
Perhaps in an attempt to counter this, Introversion has built in a fair amount of extras for the player who's willing to go looking for them. Though no assigned mission will really point you to them and some of the clues are esoteric at best, there's a plethora of Easter Eggs hidden in and out of the game. Since figuring out what these are is as much of a challenge as figuring out how to see them, I won't ruin it for you. Suffice it to say, they've turned the game, the disc it comes on, and even its packaging into a virtual homage to pretty much every movie, game, or famous real-life event about hacking. Finding some of these extras can be downright near impossible, but it's all part of the atmosphere.