Thursday, October 28, 2010

De-ta De-ta Tsu-ki-ga

About a month ago, I bought Hacker Evolution and Hacker Evolution: Untold on Steam (because they were on sale, natch). In the last month, I've gotten through three levels of the first game, mostly because I've not had the time to play it more. Similarly, I've been wanting to write about for all of the last month, but I've not had the time to, though my thoughts have been accumulating since then. (And some of them spilled out in a Skype conversation with a friend which I wish I had recorded, because it would've made writing this so much easier. Dang it.)

If I'm remembering all of the details properly, Brian Spencer's (sorry, I'm really not familiar with the name) Hacker Evolution is set in the year 2025. With technology controlling so many aspects of our lives, it would only be a matter of time before the technology went sentient and needed hacking into in order to stop it. (On a sidenote, I kinda hate how I tend to overgeneralize plot synopses for the games I review and make them sound unnecessarily snarky. I really do pay attention to them, but my memory really is that terrible that details evade me quickly.)

The game is played by hacking computers to acquire information and complete tasks. This is done by manually typing out commands in a MS-DOSsy interface, such as "connect" or "download filename.exe". As you decrypt servers, crack their passwords, and transfer money (the process is done automatically, sadly), your actions are slowly traced, but you can "bounce" your actions through other servers that you've unlocked to slow down the trace time. So in a nutshell, the optimal strategy is to try to unlock servers and use them strategically to minimize the damage you do to yourself later. There are other observation-esque puzzles along the way, but they haven't really stood out as incredibly difficult (or not yet at least).

At the risk of sounding like a Valve fanboy and pointing to the same game in two consecutive reviews, I want to mention something about Portal. When you play through Portal, you're learning the different mechanics of how to play the game while the game is still going on. If you don't believe me, play through the game again with the developer commentary on. They're very specific about how they want to introduce new concepts (how a portal works, how to manipulate storage cubes and other objects, how to fire one portal, how to fire both portals, etc.), and reinforce concepts before moving on to new concepts. I'm sorta surprised to say that knowing the way that Valve sets up their games has actually helped get through other games, like navigating Left 4 Dead 2 maps on my own.

That said, I think that teaching the player how the game works is something Hacker Evolution does wrongly. Rather than progressively introducing new concepts over multiple levels, HE throws a ton of information into the first level for you to absorb. Mind you, it's clearly a tutorial level, and it takes you through everything step by step, but it's all done very quickly, and chances of retention are slim.

Or at least, slim for an incredibly thick person like me. I played through the first level with general ease, trying to soak in all of the details. By the time I started level two, everything I learned in level one was gone. I restarted the game with another account, taking notes on a notepad with all of the commands. Or so I thought, because there was one command I wrote down but couldn't remember how to use, so I ended up playing the first level a third time before I could finish the second level. The third level ramped up the difficulty rather significantly, and it took about five attempts to beat. (By the way, my average for solving a level so far is about 15-20 minutes, so each successive try is somewhat aggravating.)

In addition to this, there's one other hitch that isn't clearly explained upfront in the game that would have been greatly appreciated. As I played through each level, I always assumed that each level, though connected by one plotline, were independent of each other. As it turns out, your progress (including your funds, your computer upgrades, and your trace rate) is completely carried over from level to level, meaning that at the start of the fourth level, I'm already in a pretty bad state from where I left level three, and there's no way to go back and redo levels. This newfound dilemma concerns me because at the beginning of level four, you're confronted with a side mission (not required to complete the level) where someone offers you a ton of cash if you hack something for them. I definitely need the money at this point, but I can't help but be paranoid that whether or not I take this mission will effect how the rest of the game plays out. In fact, it's all enough to make me want to restart the entire game again just so I could be in a better position by this point in the game.

One final gripe, I swear, I came into this game expecting a nice mental challenge. I'm somewhat of a cryptography buff, and I like the challenge of solving a nice, juicy code. The Steam page for both of the games state that (my emphasis added) "The concept behind Hacker Evolution is to create a game that challenges the gamer's intelligence, attention and focus, creating a captivating mind game. Solve puzzles, examine code and bits of information, to help you achieve your objectives." Sadly, so far the game has mostly been a test of focus, as each level is a mental endurance test. I hope the puzzles pick up to a greater depth later on, but all in all, I'm disappointed I'm not manually cracking any codes yet.

(*sigh) Crap, that was way longer than I had intended... Despite everything I've complained about above, Hacker Evolution is a good game. It's a challenge, and it's a bit aggravating to get started, but if you can stick it out, beating each level is an amazing thrill. It's visually unimpressive and the puzzles are a bit lackluster to start out (although it looks like they add some new elements in the sequel, which I'm trying not to touch until I beat the first game), but that's really not important for a game of this nature. What's really important is that for twenty minutes at a time, I felt like I was trying to tackle some huge international crisis using only my wits and a crappy computer, which, rather disappointingly, is not that distant of a memory for me. Hacker Evolution is immersive fun, the biggest hurdle is just getting into it.

Steam Link