Hack your way through dozens of computers in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
PC Release: October 1, 2001
By Ian Coppock
Oooooh boy has it been a rough few weeks. Things really took a turn after Mafia II, didn’t they? No Man’s Sky soared through the air like a pile of burning dung (and turned any PC that tried to run the game into one, too). Then, there was Watch Dogs, a perfectly average, perfectly mediocre open-world “thriller” that ran about as well as a comatose hippopotamus. And finally, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a game that could’ve been stellar if not for its high load of bugs and underwhelming narrative. Folks, when these weeks happen, it’s usually a safe bet to step back into a time before day-one bugs, a time when video games were actually optimized for the PC. A time when video games had a bit more heart to them. A time such as the release of Uplink.
Uplink is a cyberpunk hacking game set in 2001’s rendition of 2010. There is nothing better than 90’s and 2000’s renditions of the 2010’s. Apparently, mankind perfected hover cars and robots six years ago, who knew? Anyway, Uplink is a puzzle game at heart, seeking to emulate some of Hollywood’s biggest cyberthrillers. Just pulling the game up will immediately remind most players of the films Swordfish and WarGames. It has that cool neon tinge to it, and of course, a map of the entire world in the background.
In Uplink, the player character is a newly minted hacker who signs on with the fictitious Uplink Corporation, a secret company dedicated to hacking everything under the sun. As a hacker, players can take on assignments from shadowy clients to hack everything from bank accounts to college transcripts. There’s no job that the Uplink Corporation won’t take. As long as the money’s coming in, they don’t care.
Right off the bat, the idea of a corporation made up of hackers seems quite antithetical to the modern concept of hacking. Anyone who’s paid attention to the various hacker collectives that have sprung up in recent years will know that, at least usually, hackers hate corporations. Sure, “Corporation” could be an ironic misnomer for the cabal of hackers players will work for in Uplink, but if so, the joke is taken quite far. The player will quickly get inundated with company policies, formal training, and invitations to the company picnic on Saturday. To be fair, though, this isn’t a group of “hacktivists” out for social justice or to expose corruption. The player, and all the other hackers, are there to perpetuate corruption.
Anyway, after going through basic training on how to hack computers and servers, the player will start getting assignments via email. These jobs start out pretty routine; hack into someone’s server, steal money, and get out before anyone notices. Successfully completed jobs will result in lots of money, but botching a hack can result in all sorts of consequences, from losing money to even having to end their career with Uplink and go into hiding (read: the save game is deleted). Uplink doesn’t shy away from giving out some serious consequences on its puzzles. It can be harsh, but it’s also a good incentive to become a decent hacker. It’s probably still kinder than what happens to compromised hackers in real life.
The central theme in Uplink‘s gameplay is its adoration of Hollywood thrillers. Though it may seem otherwise from these screenshots, the game plays it pretty loose when it comes to actual hacking. Uplink doesn’t seek to bury its players in the finer points of code, as Quadrilateral Cowboy did, but instead wants to present players with the thrill of the heist. That same high-octane sense of satisfaction endemic to Payday 2 is present here as well. It’s glorious.
In addition to emulating the look and feel of these films, Uplink is loaded with movie references that any thriller fan will spot. The developers seem to have special places in their hearts for Sneakers, the 1992 caper comedy starring Dan Aykroyd. There’s also a nuclear launch interface that was basically copy/pasted from WarGames. Some of these references run the risk of making Uplink a little too derivative, but this is staved off by its gameplay.
The gameplay in Uplink depends on which target is up for hacking, but all hacks follow a similar procedure. First, the player needs to bounce their signal through as many worldwide servers as possible. This makes it a lot harder for the target to trace the player; getting traced back through a single-shot upload in Chicago is one thing, but if the player bounces their signal through Australia, China, Brazil and Britain, it’ll take much, much longer for the target to get a fix on the hacker’s position.
Although the targets in Uplink vary, the gameplay can accurately be summarized as “use hacking tool X to get through hacking obstacle Y”. Players start out with a basic rig that they can quickly overclock with all kinds of gadgets, including a reader to warn of any trace attempts from the target, and a password cracker that can decrypt passwords by guessing dozens of letters in mere seconds. Players can activate all of these tools from a handy dandy menu situated under the main screen, and type on-screen commands as necessary. Being a fast typist helps, and so does buying a series of upgrades procedurally made available at the in-game store. Keeping equipment competitive with the latest anti-hacking technologies is a must in Uplink.
Once the target server has been hacked, it’s time to get cracking on the client’s job request. Whether it’s hacking a bank for cash or hacking a university to change grades, every client has something that they need changed about their rival. A lot of these commands have to be input manually, especially the ones changing people’s grades from a row of F’s to a row of A’s. Robbing a bank is usually a simple matter of changing the typed out balance on the display, an endeavor for which being quick with math is also helpful. These tasks increase in difficulty as the game goes on, and usually add more steps to the hacking process as well.
The nice thing about Uplink is that it’s a simple game. Players can log on and complete a sequence of hacking jobs with little worry. The menus are surprisingly intuitive for a game that came out 15 years ago, dividing the game between messages, internal services, the store, and other utilities useful for hacking. The game’s background music largely comprises 90’s techno, not unlike the pulsing beats and softer rhythms found in 1998’s Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit. Anyone remember that sick Snorkling Cactus Weasels track? No? Okay. Just ponder that ridiculous song name then.
Uplink‘s focuses on a steady, endless stream of hacking puzzles, but the issue with these puzzles is that the more that are completed, the more repetitive they become. Some of these puzzles are repeated with hilarious effect; occasionally, players may be hired to change someone’s grades, only to be hired the very next day to change that student’s grades back. The same can be said for taking and returning money from banks. The developer should’ve put a few more parameters into the random scenario generator that went into the hacking puzzles, because only a few can really be done once before showing up again. The difficulty and order of hacking sub-tasks changes, but the actual premise remains the same.
Uplink does have a small narrative for gamers who are interested in story, but it’s not something to write home about. Basically, the hacker can choose to take part in a story line concerning the Andromeda Corporation, a fictional conglomerate that wants to, hilariously, destroy the Internet. With a premise as overblown as any of the best B-rate cop and caper films, players can be guaranteed a series of mopey, over-dramatic missions to stop a scheme that makes literally no sense. Players can also choose to ignore the story line entirely to focus on hacking, and the narrative will proceed without them.
Uplink is not a thriller narrative. Its premise makes little to no sense, and the repetition of the actual puzzle premises is laughable. Its options menu is pretty okay, but trying to go for a higher resolution on a game this old will usually cause the display to become smaller, with a huge black border surrounding the actual gameplay. Going for a mid-size resolution seems to fix this problem alright, but going for the 1920×1080 resolution can cause some problems.
Still, the game runs well and is intuitively designed, especially for being 15 years old. Its puzzles are an absolute thrill ride that grant the same satisfaction as having pulled off a bank robbery. It delves into a bit of the meat of computer programming without overwhelming players with dry code. Its story is nothing special, but its fast-paced gameplay and cyberpunk atmosphere make it a lot of fun. This classic gem is ten bucks on Steam; aspiring hackers and troublemakers will want to check it out.
Only problem is… there’s no way to transfer stolen funds into a real-world bank account.
You can buy Uplink here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.