There are only a handful of games that comprise the entire genre of “Hacker Simulation,” and ExoSyphen Studio’s Hacker Evolution series is one of the most well-known. Following in the footsteps of its spiritual predecessor, Introversion’s Uplink, the series puts you in the shoes of a somewhat gray-hat hacker, a corporate employee with almost supernatural hacking prowess, who is up against malevolent servers bent on world domination. Your weapons are a console with basic Linux commands, and the ability to crack any password and network encryption given enough time and resources. The key to not getting caught was to hack servers quick enough not to be traced by said servers. Going about this required careful planning, resource management, some file analysis, and some other very Hollywood-esque hacker techniques a la Swordfish and Hackers.
For a game whose target audience is obviously the computer-saavy, making it unrealistic enough to be fun while still creating a compelling “hacking” atmosphere is a pretty daunting task. Hacker Evolution, and its sequel, Hacker Evolution Untold, did this through a sleek UI and a strong use of console command line operation of game elements. It hid clues inside log files and garbled text files, and generally tried not to patronize the gamers that generally knew what they were talking about.
Hacker Evolution Duality is the third major release in the series, and takes a decidedly different approach to the concept of the Hacker Sim. Once again, you are in the role of a eminently awesome hacker whose enemy is now a malignant AI that is taking over servers and trying to control the world. Your job is to regain control of said servers. You are still hacking servers through bounced links and password cracking, upgrading your hardware as you go, taking money from banks as you come across them, and generally doing the typical Hacker Sim drill. The game has some very solid production value, building on the sleek theme and electronic music of its predecessors. The UI is responsive and user-friendly, and we only came across a few nagging interface bugs that will hopefully be addressed in an update.
After playing through the tutorial, we quickly realized that this game is an attempt to get away from the command line obscurity and jargon of the previous titles. The goal here was to be able to provide a gaming experience that anyone could enjoy, and not just people who know what a command line is. The game’s mechanics have been drastically simplified into a time based decision mechanic that lets you do two basic actions. A foreign server has two basic attributes: Firewall and Integrity. You can whittle down the Firewall to gain access to whatever treasures the server holds (money and/or files), or you can whittle down at its integrity, which can destroy the server when it reaches zero. If a firewall is low enough, you can hack it with your CPU without using any “weapons” (in the form of DOS attack and EMP attack), or you can use weapons – which recharge over time – to attack both the Firewall and Integrity at the same time. Also, if a server is an AI controlled server, and it detects hostility, it can fire back. As all of these aspects are time based activities (time to fire a weapon, time to hack a firewall, time to get traced, time to recharge your weapons), time is your ultimate enemy. There are time limits on missions, and this only increases the sense of tension that pervades the game. If it sounds like I’m describing a real-time strategy game, you must be listening. That’s basically what this game is, and we’re not so sure if that’s a good thing.
The same time that defines the game’s core mechanic is also its weakest element. Hacker Evolution Duality forces you to make split second decisions without time to think about what you’re doing. It doesn’t give you a puzzler of a log file to mine for server addresses, and it really doesn’t give you time to enjoy the atmosphere that the game is trying to convey. The time mechanic is so pervasive that it doesn’t give you time to learn, either. One mistake will cost you (your server, really) the level, so there’s very little incentive to try to think outside of the box. This creates an almost vertical learning curve, and for a game that is trying to woo casual gamers into the fold, steep learning curves are a cardinal sin. This is even more evident in the new Open World mode that allows for games against AI or other human players. It’s basically a free-for-all hacking deathmatch, where different game modes provide different goals, but every server is an AI server, which means you have to complete your goals before your server is destroyed. You don’t have time to determine how you are supposed to go about achieving these goals, because the attacks come in fast and hard, and thinking won’t do you much good.
Some may say that this kind of difficulty isn’t a bad thing, and we would usually agree. However, this game really shouldn’t be an RTS. If we could pin down the one thing holding this game back from achieving the same effect and gameplay innovation of its predecessors, it's simply that it was turned into a twitch RTS, and a lot of the puzzle solving and cerebral planning have been stripped away, ostensibly allowing access to the casual demographic. Unfortunately, the difficulty and learning curve experienced on the easiest difficulty setting will pretty much banish this game into Hardcore Gamer Land.
Nevertheless, if you are a resident of Hardcore Gamer Land, and you’re up for a fast-paced, difficult RTS that pits your limited resources against rogue AI servers in futuristic environment that features a solid UI and an immersive soundtrack, then this game is for you. It may not be as cerebral as previous iterations, but this new direction may be the jolt that the arguably dying genre needs.
Real hackers don’t use mice. The lack of a useful command line, and ultimately, any cerebral gameplay, is what makes this Hacker Sim stand out amongst its peers. While the production value gets some points for providing an immersive futuristic digital playground, many will be immediately turned off by the new direction the game has taken. On its own, Hacker Evolution is a very difficult and fast-paced RTS with a digital twist, and if that concept makes you tick, it does a very good job of providing that experience.