Lately I’ve been pecking away at my keyboard in a handful of hacking simulators, from Hack RUN to the Hacker Evolution trilogy. I find it quite easy to say that this game, Hacknet by one-man studio Team Fractal Alligator, is by far my favorite. Despite a few inconsistencies, it feels extremely authentic and is easy to learn, with a few intense moments and very euphoric surprises. What it lacks in variety and organization, it makes up for in authenticity and feel-good moments.
Story and Writing
Hacknet’s story is much more involved and personal than I had expected. While it’s definitely not a tear-jerker, it has enough mystery and emotion to make me care about what I’m doing. It is well-paced and makes progression feel natural. Main story missions are separated by smaller contract missions that give the illusion of time really passing by in between the story segments.
If you poke around enough, you can find some interesting and even memorable files on the hard drives of the game’s selection of terminals. Among the teenage-like sexual humor are a few pieces of text that do what they can to remind you that these are “real” people using the terminals you’re hacking.
The overall writing isn’t perfect. There are clunky sentences and some grammar mistakes, but it doesn’t take away from the experience as you probably won’t care about much of what you read anyway.
Gameplay and Interface
The game clearly borrows from hacker games of the past. The layout has a spot for your console commands, a portion of the screen is devoted to a map of the server nodes and the rest is a GUI, or graphical user interface. For the most part everything works fine. The node map can become very convoluted and the names of the nodes can sometimes be cut off depending on where they are in the window.
What I hated most about the third game in the Hacker Evolution trilogy was that it forced me to use the GUI all the time and became a repetitive click fest. Hacknet allows you to use both the console commands and the GUI, but you can’t complete the game fully using one or the other. It’s a convenience that allows me to feel like a master hacker while I’m typing away, but if I want to click around for a bit I can do that too.
Based on actual UNIX commands, Hacknet boasts an authenticity that feels great when analyzing and solving firewall passwords, changing directories and messing around with files. Even though it feels right, there are a few inconsistencies that most people wouldn’t notice or even care about, but it’s my job to care. In my little game of “Which of These Things Does Not Belong,” and UNIX system research, I noticed the lack of UNIX characters like # and $. And while the game scared me once (pretty bad) with a mock blue screen, this particular crash screen is specific to the Windows OS. Though hardcore computer nuts will have a bigger issue with this, I’m hardly bothered by it. I just felt that it was worth pointing out.
The game does not hold your hand, and you’re practically free to do whatever whenever. I welcomed this because one of the most frustrating things about other hacking games was that I felt like I had to do everything in a very particular order, like a puzzle game. While this freedom is nice, there is a very little sense of urgency. The only times I was forced to be quick was while I was being traced or in one segment where I had to change my effing IP address before my .sys files were destroyed.
Rolling off that note, there are some awesome moments where it may seem like you’re doomed, but I haven’t been completely “killed” or gotten a “game over.” The game mimics an actual computer terminal and requires you to manually fix whatever it is you messed up. Like an idiot, I once deleted all of my .sys files because I thought it would clear up some space. So the next time I booted my in-game computer, I saw nothing but the black and white text of Terminal Mode. I was then forced to figure out how to find more .sys files to replace the ones I deleted and bring everything back to normal.
Other Small Points
Music has always been a hit or miss with these types of games. Luckily, this one gets it right. The tunes feel right and even changes with your situation. Just made a comeback from being shut down by another hacker? The music changes to an up-beat, rock-inspired track to back you up in your euphoric state.
While not a huge problem, I noticed that the game sometimes lagged behind my keystrokes. If I went too fast I would sometimes hit all the keys required for a command without it actually showing up in the terminal. It never jeopardized my game, but it was annoying. There are plenty of commands I’ve never used. There’s one command that opens a target’s CD tray, but I haven’t used it yet besides testing it out on my own time. Awesome fun fact: it actually opened my actual computer’s CD tray. It freaked me out a little.
In the end, Hacknet is the best hacking simulator I’ve played so far and makes me eager to find more like it. While it has a low sense of urgency and there are some graphical issues, its attempt at authenticity and good pacing make it a great experience.
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