PC reviews

‘Hacknet’ Review

Hacknet logo

Platform PC Genre Simulation/ Puzzle

Publisher Surprise Attack Games Developer Team Fractal Alligator

Platform Played PC

In video games, the player usually controls an avatar in a wonderfully envisioned and realised environment. Control methods are usually used to move characters and perform actions. Hacknet bucks the trend completely, using the keyboard and mouse for their intended functions of typing and clicking. The result is a surprisingly immersive and interesting experience unlike anything I’ve played in recent memory.

Hacknet is a hacking simulation game in which players hack into computer systems to complete tasks. Over the six to eight-hour campaign (it could be more depending on how much you explore each computer), some things players will do include discovering secret documents, deleting illegally obtained files and renaming files to honour a death row in-mate who was left off the register.

The main narrative that drives your escapades centres on a hacker with the codename of Bit. Bit contacts you at the start of the game explaining that if you are reading his message, he is dead. It’s an intriguing concept that had me wanting to solve the mystery and find out more. Yet, that story is almost forgotten about in the middle act of the game, only returning in the final act. Instead, the middle act sees the player working their way up through organisations in the hacking underworld. However, it’s still entertaining because of the fun gameplay. I also like that each activity has its own mini back story or justification.

Hacknet’s gameplay is essentially clicking and typing using real UNIX commands – you’ll have to trust me when I say it’s more fun than it sounds. Every mission in Hacknet follows a similar pattern. Each new mission will require breaking into at least one new computer. To do this, the required number of ports must be opened. Ports are opened by running the corresponding executable files (or .exe for short). For example, the port “SSH” can only be cracked by running the program “SSHcrack”. Once the required number of ports are open, the player runs the “porthack” file and, viola, the computer is hacked and the player has access to the files on it which include important progression files such as passwords, and some funny secrets. As you progress, you gain access to more executable programs because later computers can require up to five ports to be open to hack. Some computers also have a firewall and a proxy, the former requiring a password and the latter requiring a shell which is attached to another computer.

Describing it all in a nutshell sounds confusing for the uninitiated, but Hacknet does a great job at introducing the mechanics at a steady rate. The tutorial section introduces the various commands the player will need such as how to delete files, run executables and move between folders. Then, throughout the first third of the game other devices are introduced once the basics are understood. Hacknet gets the balance of hand holding just right; you’re told how to use certain programs like the executables and deleting command, but then you’re left to work out how to put them into practice to complete missions. Furthermore, the gameplay is so satisfying because of the tangible connection between typing and viewing the resulting action take place. The enjoyment boils down to the use of real commands. Hackers are known for their outstanding knowledge of computer systems, and Hacknet made me feel really talented, despite it just coming from understanding the game mechanics as they were meant to be used.

hacknet_screenshot1

The later missions in the game are especially note-worthy. Once you’ve mastered the commands, Hacknet introduces missions which lead you down internet rabbit holes. Hacking into one computer reveals new computer systems, and hacking into one of those may reveal even more systems, or a clue to unlocking a previously unhackable system. These missions were some of the most rewarding experiences I have had in a game.

The gameplay is surrounded by one of the most immersive gaming experiences possible. Hacknet is fits Bolter and Grusin’s theory of immediacy: the visual design of the game makes the viewer forget that they are playing a game. Hacknet is set on one static screen, with the user interface integrated into the game’s design. Three panels make up the interface, a command terminal where commands are typed in and information is displayed as text; in the middle is a visual representation of the text in the command terminal, it is also an area where the mouse can be used to connect to computers and move between folders; the final panel shows your computer’s RAM, with hacking programs all taking up different amounts. As a result, Hacknet remains looking like a computer screen at all times, it works so well. The only thing reminding me that I was playing a game was the constant techno musical score playing in the background, heightening during intense moments. There are also no loading screens and no traditional game over screen (I don’t want to spoil it because it’s cool to experience, but it’s a great reference to a past Windows version).

While it may not have been intentional, Hacknet also deals with the ethics of hacking and the largely anonymous nature of the activity. The activities you perform are, of course, illegal, but most identify themselves as morally right. The biggest example of this is a mission which asks you to euthanize a patient who has been denied the right by his doctors. It’s a bold mission, but it is handled well. As I said earlier, there are no cutscenes, but I was still effected by the conclusion of that mission.

hacknet_screenshot3

Additionally, the player isn’t properly rewarded by completing tasks, other than by a “thankyou” from the client. As a result, hacking is not glorified, rather it is presented as it is, an anonymous person feeling a sense of gratitude knowing they helped make a difference, despite the lack of recognition. This is a game, however, and that lack of satisfaction doesn’t work too well for the final mission. The lead up to the final task is great, but what you eventually have to do comes off as anti-climactic. On the other hand, the final cutscene exists to conclude the game satisfactorily.

Hacknet is not without its issues, mostly design related. While some aspects of the game are randomized, like the IP address of computers and company names, the missions are not. Therefore, the first half of the game is a little too easy a second time around. This can’t really be avoided without destabilising the nice balance that the game has for first time players.

Finally, some computers, particularly the ones later in the game, have to be re-hacked every time you want to access them again. Searching around on different computer systems for that clue you missed becomes time-consuming because of the need to re-hack, with some systems taking towards a minute to break into, just to find out you didn’t miss anything of importance.

the-verdict

Hacknet is a bold title that is much different to most games. However, that doesn’t make it any less fun. Hacknet is a unique and enjoyable title, producing one of the most immersive experiences I have had with any form of media. Using the real UNIX commands to play hacker is fun and leads to a tangible relationship between input and output on the screen. As a puzzle game, Hacknet also features some great multi-layered puzzles. While there is really only one solution to completing tasks, the game disguises that by not holding the player’s hand apart from introducing the game mechanics. Movies and television programs always made it look so cool to be a computer hacker, Hacknet is a wonderful way to live out that reality in a legal manner.

The Good

  • Immersive interface
  • Combination of text-based gameplay and visual feedback provides a new-found level of interaction
  • A nice balance between hand holding and letting the player free.
  • Interesting narrative driving the player’s will to progress

The Bad

  • The final event in the climactic mission feels lacklustre
  • Re-hacking computers can feel like a chore

The Score: 8.3


Nathan Manning is an Xbox Editor for AnalogAddiction who happens to have a PC (Windows of course). You can find him on Twitter (it’s a link, you click it) and AnalogAddiction there as well.

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