If he were still allowed to own a computer, Kevin Mitnick would undoubtedly approve of Uplink. Available only by direct order from the UK-based developer, Introversion Software's new strategy game seems to have been made for the infamous super hacker, given that the sole objective of play is to break into as many computer systems as possible. Success is measured in terms of altered, stolen, and destroyed data, and of course in being able to get in and out before tracer software gives your address to those friendly people at the FBI.
Actually, if Uplink had been around a few years ago, perhaps Mitnick wouldn't have gotten that knock on the door. The thrill of poking your nose into places that it doesn't belong is certainly satisfied here, courtesy of an often smart design that turns every hack into a mystery waiting to be solved. However, little is provided aside from the break-and-enter tension involved in cracking codes, as you'll spend all your time cracking systems and then terminating the connection before somebody gets wise to your activities. Repetition and production problems make the game less than it could have been, hampering your enjoyment of what amounts to a series of tough logic puzzles.
Most of these puzzles are provided by the Uplink Corporation, a shadowy organization that hires anonymous remote agents such as yourself to hack into computer systems across the globe in the year 2010. You start as a novice with access to rudimentary gateway hardware and software, plus 3,000 credits that can be used to purchase upgrades. More cash is earned by taking assignments from third-party firms that post their current espionage needs in a mission database at Uplink. As long as you have the experience level (you are ranked with a grade, rating, and an ever-changing title that roughly determines your moral status) to meet some basic requirements, you can accept the obligation. You're given a rate of pay for completing the work, which typically involves connecting to the specified business and stealing or deleting a specific file, falsifying documents, and so on. There is an option of contacting the employer to ask for additional information, or even more money, but you typically just take the job and look over the specifics in an e-mail.
Virtually every assignment begins by setting up an indirect path to the target system by routing your call through a number of other servers on a global map screen. This is necessary to delay tracing efforts long enough for you to complete your work. After establishing this roundabout route, you dial in and then use a password-breaking program to gain access. Once you're inside, you can go through the database, altering, copying, and destroying files at will. This is pretty straightforward at first. You simply go in, complete the task, and get out. There is usually plenty of time to accomplish your goal, particularly if you use plenty of other servers on the map to camouflage your location.
Things get more complex in time. Your status with the company changes depending upon mission success or failure, and your actions will be reflected in a news menu that tracks all the latest headlines in the hacker underworld. As you proceed through the initial levels as an Uplink operative, systems will boost their security and start detecting your presence more rapidly. Some will eventually prove impossible to hack into unless you equip your machine with new hardware and software. Your CPU, modem, memory, and security system can be enhanced to improve your capabilities. You can even rig a self-destruct system into your gateway, preventing police agencies from seizing it and determining your real identity. A dictionary program becomes necessary to get into some computers, while you will also require the services of such arcane items as a proxy bypass, log deleter, decrypter, and even a voice analyzer. Many programs come in different versions that get progressively more powerful. As both software and hardware can be pricey, you'll have to pay your dues with a lot of low-level jobs and be circumspect in your buying. Picking the right time to purchase is key to quickly moving up the ladder.
Of course, it isn't all about technology. As the assignments become more challenging, you'll also need to improve your sleuthing skills. Instead of just deleting a file, you'll have to forge a university degree for a friend by typing in fake credentials, alter someone's social security records, snoop into a bank account balance, look into the activities of a rival, and so on. More complicated jobs require quick thinking in terms of approaching your victim. In one instance, you have to access a target through a trusted outside company with lighter security. In another, you must use a proxy bypass program to alter key information--after you think you've successfully broken into the database. Many of these security systems will push you to the brink of discovery. There's no shortage of tense moments, as you scramble to alter information or delete the log entries covering your system access before your tracer detect program beeps up to 100 percent. The missions also form into a loose plot after you get your feet wet. Later hacks are given added impetus because you're trying to either uncover the intentions of the mysterious Andromeda Research Corporation (ARC) or help the company achieve its insidious objectives, rather than steal anonymous files or play with the personnel records of anonymous people.
Still, too much of Uplink is about just those sorts of routine expeditions. In the beginning, it seems like every new mission involves hacking into the social security computer system to make it seem like people are deceased. Or adding qualifications to someone's academic record. More variety enters the game after a few hours of play, though even then there are a lot of similar assignments. This is probably a limitation of the one-trick game design, as there really isn't anything a hacker can do other than cracking passwords and browsing forbidden data. While the story does provide more motivation, it doesn't hide the fact that you're doing the same thing over and over again. The difference between going after crucial information held by the evil ARC or a generic file at Apollo Networks is negligible when you take nearly the same steps to reach your goal in both instances. As a result, the gameplay can get tired after no more than a dozen hours of play.
More problems are presented by the interface. In an effort to streamline the controls for ease of use, Introversion went too far. Although everything is organized into convenient menu and icon systems, the use of some items isn't fully explained. Software programs, for example, can be activated with the click of a mouse button, but they're sometimes tricky to actually fire up because of the absence of a print manual and spotty in-game help. Figuring out how to use the proxy bypass program was particularly tough, given that it was represented online by a cross with four incomprehensible buttons. The visual and sound design compound the issue. As Uplink intends to mimic the workings of an application program, it looks and sounds like one. This makes playing an unfriendly experience where you move from one text screen to the next, the monotony typically broken only by photographs on a personnel file and a generic techno music soundtrack. Perhaps this makes the game authentic, but it also makes it slightly intimidating to use and dull.
Yet even with these shortcomings, Uplink is frequently enjoyable. When you're sweating out the last seconds, trying to get the job done before your victim completes a trace, the design miscues don't seem to matter. This is a game where you can get lost in the moment very easily.