Uplink (PC)

I’ve churned out a retro-review for Ace Gamez, an online-only mag, which just does straight-up solid reviews. Seeing as I’ve loved Uplink for years, I figured it was probably the best excuse I’d get to fritter away a few days on it.

Originally posted on AceGamez.co.uk

Full Text Below the Cut:

Uplink

Introversion Software

It’s a bizarre irony that despite the current prevalence of computer crime and technological warfare taking place in this modern age, such subjects very rarely find their way into the world of video gaming. Barely a handful of games have ever been devoted to this most inauspicious of criminal pastimes; most likely due to the complex and largely dull nature of computer crime – yet with movies like Swordfish, Hackers and Sneakers floating around, a new update was due. So it was with no small measure of both cynicism and glee that I met with Introversion’s offering to the parched genre – Uplink.

Bringing the concept of bedroom hacking into the mainstream gaming market has been no small feat. Transforming the dull and arduous nature of system breaking and IP-monitoring from pages of dry programming code and into a slick and simplistic GUI, the game manages to sidestep the complexities of the work and give the player a neat and tidy little interface to work with. It’s subtle enough to be friendly to even the most technophobic gamer, but still looks and feels like it could be real. Without any pretence of excess polish – no cut scenes or cack-handed characterisations thrown in to complicate matters – what Uplink gives you is a slick and well-executed interface with a story and hugely addictive challenges for anyone who has the skill and the patience to play through it.

The game is basic in terms of visuals basic and, as the packaging almost gleefully states, it takes up less hard drive space than many flash games and can run under Windows 95. That’s no bad thing either, as Uplink may look spartan in design, but almost every part of it is functional and well thought out. There are simple, intuitive icons for connecting to the different systems and a handy world map where you can bounce your IP off a few hundred other servers and watch as the calls are traced back across the world to an ever-quickening series of frenzied beeps. A series of menus no more complex than your average website lead round the various systems and at its most convoluted asks the player to cope with nothing more complex than a massively dumbed-down version of MS-DOS.

The main concept is pretty straightforward; you’re a fledgling programmer doing some covert hacking work for a shady organization called Uplink. You log in, pick missions off a roster and then go to town. Uplink’s brilliance comes from the simplicity of its design and the excellence of its execution. Using a collection of programs and your own ingenuity, you hack into simple systems to steal the odd file or two, then work your way up to collapsing mainframes, robbing banks digitally and sending innocents to jail on the whim of your paymasters. Yet, like the best games, it is far more difficult than it appears at first glance, largely because – unlike most games – Uplink does that rarest of things; it makes you ‘think’. Beyond the first few simple tutorials and help files, the onus is on you to figure out how to complete the missions and get around the problems presented. However, this is sadly where the game hits its most apparent failure.

Don’t get me wrong – Uplink is brilliant fun – but it’s hard. Very hard. What first strikes you is the almost unfairness at how easily and quickly the game can punish you; without any warning it’s a one-hit death and a game over. Even worse, if you get caught, it’s right back to the start. Uplink suffers no fool gladly and, most frustratingly, there isn’t a save game option; get careless or stupid and days’ worth of work can be lost. In practice this means that getting through the harder missions can prove maddening, as the solutions as well as the objectives are often vague, with no explanation of how to complete them. Sadly this means that less patient players will become soon bored and embittered, leaving them to give up early into the game.

This is probably the biggest tragedy of the release, as Uplink leaves so much scope for enjoyment in its later missions. Having spent some hours of play carrying out the dirty, dull jobs such as deleting a random file from a mainframe or changing a personnel file to record a dead man as alive, the game suddenly takes a twist and throws in a highly unexpected plot into the mix. Suddenly the otherwise little used news channel and email systems began to make sense. As the larger plot slowly unfolds, new mission types appear and within a scant few minutes the enjoyment factor shoots through the roof. There’s little more amusing than the realisation that I could alter my records, leave false trails and have others sent to jail for my digital crimes. Or the moment of perverse humour that led me to having the CEO of a major bank arrested for murder, arson, bestiality and jaywalking. However, the fun never did allow me to let go of the sad realisation that, given a wider scope and more depth, Uplink could have been so much more.

Perhaps a sequel is too much to ask for from a company who hail themselves proudly as the last of the bedroom programmers, but were the ingenuity and brilliance of Uplink to be given a chance with a more gentle learning curve, rather than one which resembles a roller-coaster, and a more open-ended game design, then it could rightfully take its place in the homes of any self respecting PC gamer. As it stands now, it’s stuck as a misunderstood and sadly unappreciated diamond in the rough.

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