Uplink: Hack Your Heart Out (The Legal Way)

Uplink, released in 2001, was a cult hit computer game that put you in the shoes of a “Hollywood hacker” — think WarGames or Swordfish. The entire game plays out in a computer console, with the storyline communicated via in-game emails and the atmosphere enhanced by tense music and simple bleeps signifying how close you are to being caught.

This month, Uplink has been re-released for Android tablets as a fairly straight port (other than ditching a mouse and keyboard for touchscreen controls). How does it stand up today?

Uplink is currently on offer as part of the third Humble Android Bundle!

I have a long history with Uplink; it’s hard for me to separate the game from the nostalgia. Let me give you some context before I get into reviewing the game itself…


Life of Gaming, Sometimes

As I’ve gotten older, my taste in games has changed drastically. When I was a little one, Super Mario Brothers, with its simple hop-and-squash approach and linear maps, kept me quite satisfied. I would spend hours in front of the old CRT television, pounding away on a few red buttons and arrows, and submerge myself in the glitz and glamor of early gaming. Then I got older.

Old school gaming violence in Doom

After my voice deepened and hair began sprouting on my face, I wanted something flashier. I wanted a game with violence, noise, and in some cases, gore. Along came games such as Doom and Duke Nukem. I remember playing Resident Evil from behind my couch as terror wove itself throughout. By the time I reached high school, I was enjoying more complex games like Metal Gear Solid. It was well developed, beautiful, and played like a movie. My taste was evolving.

Later in my youth, I only played a handful of games between band practices and my part time job at the movie theater. Those games were typically whatever flavor my friends were enjoying. We played some online strategy games like Starcraft and Command & Conquer. Rarely did I play any single player types anymore. I had become more of a social gamer and was bored of limited stories and shoot-’em-up action games. In all honesty, I spent more time on computers doing useful things. I built and ran a server and had picked up writing. There was only a limited amount of time in the day to play around with old friends.


Uplink: An Intro to Hacking

Enter Uplink. I had been working on setting up email on my Red Hat Linux server and had become bored while I was downloading software. I took to the web to pass the time. If you can remember when Yahoo was cool, then you’ll appreciate my using it for a search. I typed in “best games on linux” or something to that effect. This, of course, brought me to a number of blogs of Linux’s most dedicated users. After all, if you’re so diehard about Linux that you use it for gaming, you might as well have a pet penguin.

Searching Yahoo Style, 2001

After browsing through a few forums, I saw the name “Uplink” repeated continually as the game of choice for many of the Linux elite. The strategy of it seemed simple enough: hack, don’t get caught, make money. The screenshots revealed a relatively simple looking UI with a predominantly black and blue interface. There weren’t many bells and whistles. It all seemed pretty straightforward. You want to play hacker for a little while? This was an easy way to do it.

I dove in. I played for several days and enjoyed the game. However, like all things in the life of a teenager, I threw it to the side after a few weeks and never looked back. That is until several years later.

For a long time after school, I never touched video games. I had an old clunker of a computer, an archaic phone, and didn’t even consider buying a console since my last purchase of the original Playstation. I was too busy chasing women and hanging out at pubs with colleagues and friends. Never being at home, I didn’t miss the occasional vegging in front of a good game. Those things changed when I left my job at the worst time possible, the beginning of the economic crisis.

Looking for steady work for nearly a year, I found myself with lots of hours to fill. Rather than going mad over job listing after job listing, I decided to revisit some dusty CD’s from the old days. I quickly beat the retired favorites and I found myself on Valve’s Steam network. It was there that I rediscovered Uplink.


Uplink has a wonderfully simple interface.

That time, in my world of endless free time and unemployment, I came to love this game. I’m not sure if it was my struggling financial situation that made me truly appreciate making thousands of dollars as a would-be hacker or if I am just a fiend for economy-based games in my adult age. Either way, I played for weeks and weeks, taking any contract available. I took on big corporations, ruined the lives of fellow hackers, covered my tracks with proxies and log deleters, and made a name for myself as the world’s foremost expert in blackhat hacking.

Lo and behold, I finally got a job. My free time once again disappeared and with money to buy beer, I found home a rare sight. I picked up my social life much like I left off, saying inappropriate things to cute girls at bars and getting some laughs with my friends. Uplink, like every other game, went away and I resolved to having a good time in the real world.

Good times evolved just like my tastes in other things. Ultimately, I found myself in love with a beautiful girl and those nights out having rum and coke turned to nights in with a glass of wine. Just like most men, I got caught in the net of a woman’s influence and she wrangled me in. No longer would she allow me to act foolish in public (most of the time). And it was good for me. I picked up some hobbies like writing, reading, building things… and surprise — video games sneaked back into the mix.


Uplink (The Review)

When I saw that an Android version of Uplink was featured in the latest Humble Bundle, I knew I had to buy it.

From the start, Uplink is true to form.

Firing up Uplink on my tablet, with its ominous and authentic looking login screen, brought back an enormous nostalgia of a game I had been playing for a decade. The music, dark interface, and gameplay manifested memories of the blue shag carpet of my family’s office, smells of cigarettes burning, and the taste of cheap beers that left rings on my desk so many years ago.

An Old Game on New Technology

I installed it first on my Nexus 7. I’ll admit, I struggled with the interface a little bit on the 7-inch screen. As the game was designed for larger computer monitors, it didn’t fully translate well onto a small slate. Maybe I’m just getting older, but the text seemed tiny and it was difficult to pinpoint and press certain elements. I found myself cursing quietly when I couldn’t move the Monitor Bypass in place and I’d get caught in the middle of hacking a bank server.

With a bit of practice, I almost got used to the poor screen size translation. I progressed through the game rather quickly but it still seemed new after having abandoned it for years. Then I noticed some problems with the Android port. I was getting force closes. A lot. At first, I thought my thumb had drifted and hit the “home” key on my Nexus 7. Later I determined this wasn’t the case. The game would crash randomly and knock me back to the app dock. Frustrating, but I refused to let it sour my love of the game.

Unfortunately, it got much worse. After having spent several hours playing, and progressing to the point where I wasn’t doing petty jobs deleting data from pharmaceutical servers (yes, you will do this quite a bit at first), the screen flashed black. Then it slowly faded in a message. It informed me that I had an unauthorized account and could no longer play. What!? I backed out to the home screen and every time I logged in with that account, it displayed the same message. I cleared the cache, rebooted the tablet, everything, still the same message.

After a few minutes searching, it appeared others had the same problem. I got in touch with the developers and they told me it was some legacy code left over from the original version that triggered the message. They made an update available later that evening and I installed it. Unfortunately, that character I had been using was still locked out. It was hours of work lost. But I counted my losses and picked it back up again, from the beginning.


The Gameplay Still Stands Up

Outside of those festering bugs starting out, it was just as I remembered the game and I quickly became addicted. You take the place of an Uplink Agent making a living as a freelance computer hacker. You crack into classified servers, steal data, sabotage, manipulate government records, and you even have your peers arrested for crimes they didn’t commit.

Alter government databases if you so desire.

You will spend a lot of time covering your tracks, using your earnings for computer upgrades, and being paranoid. This game is about “high tech computer crime and industrial espionage on the future internet” – although, since the original game is set in 2010, the term “future internet” is a little inaccurate.

Despite the early hiccups, I’d highly recommend this game. I haven’t ran into any more bugs since then, and I hope I don’t. I still had to mark the review down to 7 out of 10. One point docked for the force closes, one for the piracy notice that torched a lot of work, and one more for the smaller tablet screen size issues. I hope to revisit this in a few more days of playing the game and find that maybe they’ve corrected the issues. I am fortunate to have an ASUS Transformer available with a bigger screen, which should help tremendously.

If you’re an old time gamer like me, a hacker wannabe, or just enjoy a deep plot and story driven gameplay, this is a win for you.