Hacknet – Review
As the boot sequence ran for the first time, I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. I actually checked my computer at the time to make sure it hadn’t reset itself. No. It was fine, and this was all meant to be happening. The boot sequence finishes, and I was met with a screen that is broken up in to four distinct parts. This is the HacknetOS, the very core of Hacknet (the game, not the OS… Come on it’s not THAT confusing). It is also how I stumbled across the story of Bit, another l33t-haxx0r who’s gotten himself into a bit of strife and gone missing. I was tasked with figuring out what happened to Bit whilst also attempting to make a name for myself in the greater hacking community.
Generally, ‘hacking’ in video games means little more than hitting ‘x’ to initiate some sort of hands-off animation sequence, or at best, a simple puzzle or mini game. Not in Hacknet. In it’s simplest guise, gameplay comes in the form of investigation and puzzle solving. There is a quick tutorial that gives you a run down of the basics before letting you loose on other peoples business. It takes a little effort to wrap your head around, but it’s relatively simple enough that the learning curve isn’t as steep as it initially seems.
Hacking terminals is a bit of an art form in itself. To gain access to a system, I needed to open up enough access ports for the PortHack program (the first of many programs I was introduced too) to work its magic and make myself the systems administrator. This is only possible by running other specific programs that target specific ports, and allowing each one the time needed to unlock it. All I had to do is remember the name of each program, which program is needed to target which port, type the program name then the port number into the terminal and voilà. I was in.
As I ran various programs and tools, they opened in the OS memory window and would eat up a portion of the systems allotted 761mb of RAM. That’s right, Hacknet has memory management, and it becomes a huge portion of the game in latter contracts. The amount of memory that each program uses is different, as is the length of time it takes for each program to run and finish what it’s doing. Figuring out how to manage this is essential, especially later in the game when it’s common to have a trace closing in on your position fast. Programs aren’t all that eats up memory, either. Shells – smaller programs used to setup traps that can protect from aggressive hackers, or to overload a systems proxy – and in game notes are also stored here. This made managing what I could remember in my own head versus ymy need for on-screen references something to also weigh up before launching any kind of attack.
It’s ok if you’re confused; Hacknet can seem like a lot to take in initially. Trust me, though, when I say it makes a lot more sense when you actually have to put everything in to practice, and it all works. Although the basic process for breaking into a computer never really changes, it also never gets boring. The game is paced as such that each time I broke into a new system, it felt like I was simply refining the hacking process, becoming more proficient with each attempt before adding a new element to the mix. It got far more complex as I progressed and always ended up feeling exciting and intense. My only gripe in this regard is that the number for each port never changes between systems, which might have added a bit more of a random element to each hack attempt. To it’s credit though, Hacknet seems to work pretty hard to ground itself in reality, which makes this a non-issue.
The hacking part is only half of it. There are plenty of other things to discover while snooping around other peoples precious data. Random IRC chat logs can be found and perused; some humorous, others more lowbrow, as you’d expect from the Internet’s darkest depths. There is even a full clicker game that I ashamedly lost a good 20 minutes too. I could also do stupid things like opening and closing the CD tray of the terminal I was connected to or changing the text on the front of a website. Maybe I was playing around on a data security service’s web page, and maybe I changed all instances of the word ‘data’ to ‘poop’. This doesn’t have any effect on the game on how the game plays out, but the changes were there to see, right up on this big company’s home page. It was hilarious. If I was feeling particularly fiendish, I could even delete the system’s x-server file, which disables all the windows in the HacknetOS except for the terminal. Not a simple thing to deal with if it happens , but totally recoverable with patiences and the ability to figure out then follow the correct steps to fix things.
The contracts that I could pick up in Hacknet’s story all feel varied enough to never get tiresome, at least not through out the entirety of my 13 hour play through. All the company names and IP’s are procedurally generated, so no one play through will appear exactly the same on the surface. It wasn’t without it’s faults though. There are a number of really simple spelling errors throughout, which whilst only a niggling problem, broke the immersion for me on a number of occasions; ‘Insufficient Privaleges’ is a phrase that stands out in my mind. There is also a larger problem with a small number of missions being impossible to complete unless I had found a particular program that may not have been available as yet. In these instances it’s possible to cancel the contract, but it’s then lost for good. It doesn’t halt progress entirely, but it did put a damper on things.
That aside, Hacknet is an excellent game on all accounts. In terms of immersion by design, it’s absolute genius. What other game creates that feeling of being the ‘character’ you’re playing by merely sitting down at your computer and putting your hands on the keyboard? It feels like you ARE a hacker. It feels like you ARE breaking into systems and playing with things that people don’t want you to play with. It feels great, has a pretty solid story to keep things chugging along, and has one of the coolest end game sequences I’ve played in a very long time. Some clues in the game also hint that multiplayer may be in the pipeline, and who knows what madness that could hold. Hacknet is here, and it’s very deserving of your time and money.
James Swinbanks is a Games Critic currently writing for GameSpot, although you’ll still occasionally see him popping up on Player 2, because frankly, he loves the smell of the place.