Hacknet Review

Played on Windows
Also available for macOs and Linux

Hacking games are weird. There are games with hacking as an ability such as Deus Ex or Watch Dogs but that’s not what I’m talking about. Those game have a “hacking mechanic” which at best is a mini-game and at worst is a button press. There are also games where the focus is on “hacking” systems and while it’s almost never realistic it usually can take steps in that direction and still be fun. Hacknet is one of those games, and it is an excellent example of why I enjoy those games.

So there are two sets of games I play. Normal games, stuff like Far Cry, Destiny, Bayonetta that average gamers can enjoy the same as me. Then there are the special games. I call them “programmer games” And they’re not all the same, they don’t have the same style of gameplay but most are made for the analytical mind of a programmer. Programmer games to me are games like Factorio, and pretty much every Zachtronics game (Which I will start reviewing soon, I promise, Zach your day will come!). And Uplink. Yes, Uplink is certainly there.

Uplink might be the first game I ever played where I felt a bond with the developer. I didn’t just like Uplink. I loved every minute of it. I was a novice with computers (and in some ways maybe I still am) but Uplink gave me the feeling that I was hacking into computers, and racing to beat a trace to avoid detection. Uplink was a blast. It was a great game. Hell in the back of my mind whenever I’m running a route trace (tracert) or pinging a server, I still imagine the map of the world and believe it’s following a single line on it.

I’m not the only person who liked Uplink. I can say that with absolute certainty because Hacknet clearly was developed to be similar to Uplink. Now two people can come up with the same idea, but Hacknet came out a decade after Uplink and even has a mission about someone copying “Introversion’s” game idea in Hacknet. Introversion is the name of the company that made Uplink.

It’s so real it feels like I’m playing the clone right now.

Because of that, I’m sure the question comes up if this is a clone. While I have a very long version of why it doesn’t matter, the question would carry more weight if Hacknet didn’t differentiate itself from Uplink, or if Uplink was still developed. Introversion has gone on to make other amazing games, including the current “Prison Architect”. While Uplink is a clear inspiration, it’s also just the starting point, and Hacknet ran with it in so many directions that I’m impressed.

But there is one thought that Hacknet didn’t improve on Uplink. Uplink has a rather solid story, and it’s exciting from the first moment to the end of the game. I remember playing it a number of times, and the story drove me on to finish it in more than one way.

Hacknet, on the other hand, has a weaker story. Most of the story is done through missions and while there are some choices the player can make, or choose between a number of groups, there’s not really a reason or a purpose for it.

The real story of Hacknet only appears at the end and it only becomes a major event for a number of missions in a row, but it’s never has a strong pull to finish it, instead you just want to keep completing missions and because of that the story pulls you along. I feel like a lot of the story comes out of nowhere.

That’s not to say there are no interesting stories in Hacknet, but they’re more about the current mission you are on or just side stories that develop the world. It’s a shame because it’s one of the big flaws in the game in my opinion. The game feels like it tries to be open to the player making choices so it’s free-form but then backloads all the major story events to the end. I’d have loved to see the major story develop into emergency situations you deal with throughout the game and you could get the feeling you are competing against something even if you weren’t.

There is a very involved hack into “Neopals”

The bigger problem to me though is the story doesn’t tend to listen to the rules it has set up for its universe. You start the game and eventually join a hacking group. The first group are “White Hats” which means constructive hacking. They don’t exactly follow those rules, but while they can be destructive, they have a moral code that’s critical for them. It’s a good mantra to follow, and I like the idea of it.

The problem is the game never follows it up. In fact, a few missions are hollow when you realize there’s no positives or negatives for how you do jobs. The group might claim they’re “White Hats” and they told me to only delete what was necessary on one assignment. I trashed the computer and destroyed everything I could. The group never brought up my destructive nature. In fact, from that point onward, I found I could go against almost all the rules that the story developed for me.

For instance, Hacknet stresses deleting logs are important, and this was critical in Uplink. If you left logs in Uplink, people would be able to backtrace you even after you disconnected. However, in Hacknet there are two problems. First disconnecting from a server leaves a final log entry that’s deadly. In real life, you could wipe the log, have a program delete them after a timed execution or crash a server to avoid writing a disconnect if it matters. But none of these are required because of the second issue. Leaving the logs alone makes no difference. It’s a story element that doesn’t actually have gameplay attached to it.

I want to say both of these are acceptable and they are, but in fact, they annoy me a lot. The logs were a core system in Uplink and while the new game doesn’t have to be exactly like Uplink, Hacknet talks about deleting logs as critical. If they make it a major part of the story, they should require it since they said it was important.

So this has started to evolve into a discussion on the gameplay, and the gameplay is either the best part or the worst part of Hacknet. It will pretty much come down to the question of if the player can use a terminal effectively.

If you take a random server in Hacknet, you’ll usually be presented with a login prompt and the ability to “probe the network”. Almost always you will have to probe the network, from there the game will tell you what type of security measures the servers have. It might be a proxy server that you have to overload with other servers or a Firewall that means there’s an analysis program you have to run and figure out a passcode by reading off the letters that remain after analysis. You’ll almost always have to open ports on the system so you can crack the password, and you open ports by running exploits. Almost all of this is only done through the console. You can probe with the mouse, but the exploits require running the programs manually and giving them the ports.

This is a early server. A proxy, but four ports and only one needs to be open.

The thing is, this is rather fun to me. I love the hacking aspects, and eventually when there’s a time limit it gets even better, trying to get everything done against a ticking clock because you have to run all the exploits, overload the proxy, figure out the firewall, and then do whatever you intended on the computer before it locks you out again.

The downside is the trace is always the same length of time. In Uplink there’s an idea of proxies which worked, as you could build a longer trace time but here, you just directly attack the computer and either have enough time, disconnect before you’re finished or run out of time.

The big thing though is most of this game is played in that console. You run commands, delete files, and can even ignore the GUI for the most part and just hack using just the console. In fact, you even have the ability to remove the GUI from the game. The only issue I have with it is that there are a few functions of the game that includes accepting jobs that require the GUI. It’s a shame because I like the idea of never using a GUI for the game for the “Elite player”. Even better it could give you more memory to use, or give the player more power that they might require.

Actually, as I write this, earlier in the day at work, I was working on a problem with a guy on one of our Linux servers we have that we had SSHed into. He had done some work and we noticed a bug I was familiar with, so we swapped chairs and I dropped in. I was in a Ruby console and had figured out a bug, then I exited the console, and had to look through the directory structure, find the file, and edit a single line it. As I was doing it, I thought “wow Hacknet does get a lot right.” The manipulation of the file system is actually rather well done.

So why if I enjoy it so much why isn’t this a perfect game for everyone? Well, the problem is some people really prefer GUIs. If you have never opened a command prompt under windows, or you get nervous with Linux systems, Hacknet might be interesting for you, but it also might scare you. There’s nothing you can really do wrong in it, and it’s a lot of fun as you play it, but you will be typing commands into a command prompt to play the game. If this doesn’t appeal to you, you probably can skip this game.

Now one thing that Hacknet does that I’m not a fan of but I can understand is there’s really no loss. You can get caught and when it happens it’s really bad. However, if the save system never leaves you in peril, and unless you save yourself, you can always come back to your file and win, so there’s nothing that bad here.

On the other side, that lack of peril can be good. I didn’t really feel that challenged except for a couple of servers and just remembering commands at the right time. I never had to use outside knowledge in the game which is good, and there’s no money so you can’t run out of it. But at the same time, it’s like an easier version of Uplink, and I really would have liked a harder difficulty in some way.

However, there is an interesting game that I never beat called Hacker Evolution and in it, you’re supposed to play the game and try to earn money and use that money to get different features. It’s a wicked hard game, and it’s almost like a puzzle because it requires multiple playthroughs just to beat the first stage, and even then, you can win without enough money to beat the second stage.

The thing is having to decide between the Hacker Evolution and Hacknet. I like Hacknet far more even if it is too easy because a hard hacking game can be very frustrating, whereas Hacknet gets the player into a rhythm where they feel like they’re able to take down systems, at least ones in the game. Though this feeling is created because of a small problem.

Every system in Hacknet is similar. There’s really only about 6 different locked ports in the game, and while each has their own program, and there are a few tricks dealing with memory, there’s not a lot of challenge since the systems are so similar. You run a program to open the FTP, then deal with the SSH, and so on. It becomes too routine, and that’s a shame because I really like the hacking, there’s just not enough diversity here to make each system unique enough.

So you run those programs off your local hard drive, and hard drive memory in the game is not limited like it was in Uplink, so by the end of the game my memory was junked, because it had too much stuff in it, but it never mattered because everything was sorted, however having limited hard drive memory and making decisions about what to keep or what programs to bring would be interesting. It could have upped the difficulty.

However, there is limited memory to run programs and this is very effective because you have to choose which programs to run and in which order. It makes you have to do memory management and even kill programs that you might need later. So at least there’s a challenge there, but it could be enhanced, especially if there’s ever a sequel.

There are also a lot of small issues I have with the game. The first one is that the map of the networks are a mess, even with the network map organizer I got from the DLC, it’s still a mess near the end of the game.

The network map(bottom right) gets very messy very fast.

Editing files can suck. I really like the idea of hacking files, but there’s no VIM, emacs, or even the ability to manually pipe text into a file, instead the game expects you to call “replace” which works if you don’t delete too much but I wouldn’t have minded a manual edit of files at some point. A real editor would take years of someone’s life to get right especially if it got complex. So I understand why one wasn’t provided, but at the same time, it’s a shame, because it would allow the game to have more complex editing functionality.

There also a specific bad quality of life situation. You have to connect to a machine to read your emails, and you can’t connect to two machines at once, which means if you can’t remember or don’t know what you’re missing, you might have to reconnect (and sometimes rehack) a server because you forgot something simple.

There are two different programs to compromise SQL, but there’s no reason for both of them. If you had limited memory on your HD and one was smaller, this would make sense, but there’s no memory size difference and the speed seems about equal, just two different names.

One thing did bother me quite a bit, a lot of commands actually run after disconnection, which is great when deleting a big directory, but you can trick the game by running something, disconnecting, and logging on a second time and getting a head start while compromising a system.

Inside the game, there are also a lot of pointless files. Almost all of these come from Bash.org, and I remember when I first found Bash.org and laughed, but the problem is that’s all these logs are from there, and they’re the top logs, so they’re jokes people probably have heard before. I wish there was some more solid writing because when the author wrote his own logs and discussions they were fascinating rather than silly jokes. Bash is funny, but it seems like it was almost a crutch for the author, because he did write compelling commentary when he was forced to.

So clearly I have a lot of minor complaints, but the important thing is they’re all minor. Nothing I’ve said really made me want to stop. I just rolled my eyes and worked around it, or just shook my head and kept playing.

Then there’s also a DLC called Labyrinth, that’s actually quite interesting. It can be approached at almost any time, however, it also takes you out of the main game and places you in the DLC story.

The DLC wipes everything from the main game as it starts its own story. And honestly, the DLC does have a better story. It’s shorter, but there are also interesting characters and they are better developed.

At the same time, the DLC gets into a weird space. When you enter the DLC story you retain anything on your computer you had in the main story. The same is true, at the end of the DLC you return to the main story with everything including all the Network locations. The problem is the DLC has a few items that would make you extremely powerful in the main game (including a piece that can stop a trace). The same is true in the main game (though the main game’s version is a bit weaker you still earn it and it can trivialize the DLC). There are specific pieces of software the DLC gives the player and that could mean they could be delivered earlier than in the main story.

The fact the DLC can be played at any time is really issue, and it’s not a horrible issue, but it is a problem It could have been its own mode. However, if I am making a recommendation to the player I would say to play the DLC at the end of the game. Even with the good features in it, it can unbalance the main story game (though you’ll have to complete harder challenges in the DLC), and it generates a lot of stuff that clogs up the main game.

I do recommend the DLC if you like the game because the DLC has a few better twists, the better story I mentioned, and while it’s a bit pricey, the experience is excellent. Labyrinth is what I wish the entire HackNet game should be. A solid story and characters developed and delivered properly.

Ultimately I have to remember that there’s a space in my heart for Uplink. I admit I haven’t played it in a long time and maybe it hasn’t held up that well, especially considering I played it in college before I really understood computers. But when I think about the amazing games that stuck with me Uplink is there. However, there was never a sequel and never a game that really captured the same pseudo-hacking feel.

At least there wasn’t until Hacknet came along. Hacknet doesn’t replace Uplink and it isn’t better (though I am looking through nostalgia glasses at Uplink). But it is a good second game like Uplink, and honestly, the hacking genre doesn’t have many really solid games. I might be the target audience for Hacknet seeing as I’m in the “people who like Uplink” demographic but at the same time Hacknet did everything to make me enjoy the experience, and while it’s a touch shallow to me, I believe that’s because of the ways I’ve changed as a programmer, more than the game itself.


Final Thoughts: Hacknet presents a version of hacking that is a bit Hollywoodized. It’s also fabulously entertaining and exciting. It reminds me of Uplink in all the right ways and as such deserves your attention.

Stat: 9.1 hours including DLC time. 9/11 achievements

I bought this game in the Humble Down Under Bundle, specifically buying the bundle for this game.

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