Jun 29, 2011

Retro Review: Uplink

This review is written for Uplink running on a mid-line Windows 7 laptop.

I didn’t really “get” the internet until the early 2000s. Sure, I had my good old Compuserve dialup around ’95, but even after the upgrade to DSL it took me a good couple of years to truly understand what the internet was and how it worked. Because of this, I seem to have missed what sounds like one of the coolest parts of computing. Things like manually dialing in phone numbers to play Doom online or running programs in a command prompt off of a foot wide floppy seem so foreign, but still  movies like Wargames make me wish that I had been born just a few years earlier to mess around with all this retarded technology that used to be so commonplace. It is because of this that I was so drawn to Uplink: Hacker Elite, a game that, very deliberately aims to capture this moment in time of the early internet, despite being released in 2001.

Sometimes you hack to help others
Describing the structure of Uplink is next to impossible, because on paper it simultaneously sounds so complex and monotonous that it should be hard to classify it a “game” at all. At the base level, you’re a hacker that joins Uplink, a semi-shady organization that is effectively the hub of hacker activity in this fictionalized version of the internet. You start the game with a basic Gateway given to you by Uplink. The Gateway is basically a hacker’s PC, and it runs an Uplink OS specifically designed for its task. This is where the logic already starts to get wonky, seeing as how you’re running a game on your Windows PC that is emulating a fictional desktop running on an imaginary PC, but just hang with me for a bit. It is from an Uplink server that you can purchase software such as password crackers or trace detectors that are essential to surviving the Wild West that is the internet as well as hardware upgrades that can increase your processing speed or memory capacity (which is measured in Gigaquads, the best named unit of measurement of all time). These in turn are needed to complete missions that are posted on a virtual bounty board, where you can determine the risks and negotiate pay before accepting. These missions grant you money used to upgrade your gear and advance your rank, which in turn allow you to accept more complex and better paying missions. 

I subscribe to the "Always Be Bouncing" philosophy
Which leaves me to try and explain what the gameplay of Uplink is. As a hacker, your first priority is to keep your identity and location hidden. You achieve this by bouncing your connection to any given server through a few (or a few dozen) other servers, in order to keep your IP hidden. However, the government and corporations can still run a trace, which is displayed to varying specificity based on what version of trace tracker you have. Even if you manage to complete your objective and get out of a server before being traced, it’s still important to locate one or more of the servers you bounced through, hack into it, and delete all logs of your activity in order to not leave a direct path from the target system all the way back to your Gateway. Once security is tight enough, you get to focus on the actual hacking-for-profit of the game, the act of which makes you feel like an e-badass. One of the early mission types requires you to steal a data file from of opposing computer system. This requires you to bounce your signal into the target system, run a password cracker on it to log in as an administrator, navigate into the file directory, run a copying program to put the designated file into your Gateway’s memory, then back out, delete all logs of your presence and email the file to the mission provider. That’s the simplest mission type. Later in the game you’ll hack into the Global Criminal Database, bypassing proxies and firewalls and deciphering the passkey just to get in, then searching the database for a specific individual, planting a fake crime on his record and authorizing his arrest. Or you might sneak your way into a corporation’s central data store, open up a fully functional in-game command prompt, and delete the entire “user” and “system” directories in order to destroy both the data on the server as well as the server itself. Or maybe you’ll hit a bank, cracking a rich individual’s account number and transferring funds to your account, then hacking into the banks central server (using a voice sample taken from the administrator’s home phone) to delete the records of the transfer from the target’s end, then quickly deleting those same records from your bank’s end before they trace it back and freeze your account. Keep in mind that, depending on the number of bounces you performed, you may have sixty seconds or less to complete an entire hack and get out before getting your home door kicked in (unless you have a security system in place in which case you can self-destruct your Gateway, costing time and money but keeping you away from the all too common Game Over screen). On top of that, there are considerations like processing priority for programs, literally navigating your way through nodes in local networks, functioning IRC channels, manually looking up found IPs to trace other hackers, your reputation that affects who will do business with you and a dozen other factors you need to take into consideration to play Uplink successfully. If this sounds completely over whelming, it is, but the game has a short tutorial that takes your through an extremely basic hack just to show you how the interface works and the core tenets of the gameplay. Apart from that, it’s largely trial and error, and while you’ll probably be busted a few times before you start to be really successful, the early game goes really quick once you’ve done it a few times. If you made it through this wall of text, just hang on; we’re in the home stretch.

When in doubt, delete system32
I feel obliged to mention the story, even though it’s a completely minor part of the game. Taking place in the far-flung future of 2010, you start as just a lowly hacker getting his bearing in Uplink. After a month or two of game time you receive an automated email from a fellow (now-dead) hacker that includes a scant few details about what he was researching when he was killed. From there, you can independently track down the conflict between two rival companies and are given the option of who you side with. The cool thing about the story is that it’s completely optional; if you want you can simply delete the initial email and forget it ever happened. Word to the wise, though: the events of the story occur whether you become involved in them or not, so if you’d prefer that the entire internet was not destroyed down the road, it may be worthwhile to do some investigating once you get your sea-legs.

I realize that the insane contents of this review are probably a turnoff to a large majority of game players, but if the concept of hacking even remotely interests you, it’s worth checking out. The simple fact is that you really need to play it to “get” why it’s fun at all, because words just make it sound more like work than play. However, there’s an unexpected rush that comes once you successfully transfer a half a million dollars into your account after hours of preparation and manage to get off completely scot-free. The nice thing about Uplink is that, despite being an older game, it runs totally fine on modern systems. There’s some resolution weirdness and some issues with alt-tabbing, but apart from that it works great. It’s $10 on Steam or $15 directly from the Introversion website, which puts it marginally above the price that most of these old games go for today, but if you get into it you’ll have no trouble getting your money’s worth. Uplink is completely unlike anything else that has even been conceived by other developers, and I can’t recommend it enough.  

Images captured by author


  1. i didn't have net until '02 :PPPP good read.

  2. very fckin interresting, took a while to read it. but got it in the end.
    really thanks!

  3. it does sound pretty cool but not really my kind of game

  4. it sounds very interesting but i dont have that much time

  5. Nice post, I like your blog!

  6. Sounds cool, will give it a try.

  7. The subject of hacking has always been my interest and that's why I'll check this out. Thanks for the review.

  8. I played the demo, LOVED it. Good review.

  9. wow that was actually veryy interesting to read..i love stuff like this

  10. I remember hearing about this

  11. I thought 'delete system 32' about halfway through reading, then laughed when I read your caption. I'd definitely give a demo of Uplink a try.