I've been playing something of a classic of late. More so than any other game in the past month, the last week or two has been utterly dominated by furiously engaging in duplicitous hacking activities, crippling multinational conglomerates, ruthlessly emptying bank accounts on the other side of the world, and placing the blame for my nefarious activities on the shoulders of my peers and colleagues.
Introversion finally ported Uplink to the iPad, and it's still just as good as it was over a decade ago.
It's a triumph of functional design, you see - a high concept game that has you taking on the mantle of a bedroom hacker, breaking your way into computers systems of one company on the orders of another in return for large sums of cash that can be used to upgrade your own software and hardware, and allow you to take on bigger targets.
Much like rotoscoped films and Jet Li, Uplink doesn't seem to have aged. It is, in fact, a whole paradoxical bundle of timelessness, with its economic interface and constant telephone bleeps a retro throwback to the early days of the internet and dial-up hacking, yet set in a 2010 future that sees 8-core CPUs (pretty realistic) running at 200 GHz (hahahahaha), with quantum units of memory that we can't really fathom yet.
The simple, elegant text-based systems rooted themselves in a seemingly bygone era of game design, making Uplink seem rather more older that it actually was. I remember scoffing at an EB sales assistant's suggestion that the game had actually been released in 2001 when I bought it that year. Not that age amtters to a game like Uplink - its popular re-release on Steam back in 2006 showed that people still wanted it, and the surge in sales on iOS reveal an untempered appetite for a game that sets out its stall early and delivers emphatically.
Uplink made accessible technologies that the majority of folk didn't understand. Suddenly, after the turn of the millennium, the new wave of cyber wish-fulfilment that had been imbued in us by films such as Hackers or Mission: Impossible or The Matrix, not to mention those numerous 80s/90s thrillers that saw a bespectacled man tapping away furiously at a laptop keyboard to "run a trace" or "break a password" or "crack an encryption", was given an outlet. We could be ice-cool technological spectres too: in and out silently, and no-one would even know what had been taken/destroyed/compromised.
Because of course, that's the key to Uplink - something you learn the hard way if you don't bother to engage the tutorial the first time - you need to clear your digital footprints. At it's core, Uplink is a game of cat and mouse, and it's best defined by one piece of software that you're encouraged to invest in right from the start: the Trace Tracker.
It sits innocuously in the bottom corner of your screen once activated and, once your presence has been detected on a system, it begins to beep. The little notes come slowly at first, but then your time begins to run out, the server's security edges closer and closer to discovering your position, and the gap between beeps begins to close. There's once more file to copy, or a batch of logs still to delete, but there's no time. Beepbeepbeepbeep. You hammer "Disconnect" just before the trace catches you, and breathe a long sigh of relief. Upgrades give you a visual countdown timer as well, just to double the tension.
Of course, as you progress through the game, your missions become more dangerous, and the security measures that you encouter provide greater obstacles. You graduate from copying single files or deleting data to shuffling through personal records and fiddling with people's social security accounts. It's not long before you move up again, perhaps now armed with a multi-core gateway and vastly expanded memory and bandwidth, that you're tapping financial records, framing other hackers, and ruining lives. By now you'll have proxy bypassers, decryption software, and vocal capture kits. You might even have rigged up a self-destruct unit to your gateway, just in case your pursuers get too close.
And they will.
Ostensibly a game that's all about the chase, Uplink forces you to cover your tracks well. If you don't, you could find yourself tapping away one fine day when, all of a sudden, your screen goes black. The next thing you know, a message has appeared out of the blue, informing you that your gateway has been seized, that the Uplink Corporation has disavowed any knowledge of you, and that you have been struck off of every record. Your days as a hacker are over.
Then you think back. You wonder where you went wrong. Then you remember the logs - not the ones on the computer from which you stole, but the variuos bounce markers you left strewn across the globe on your way into that particular mainframe. It was a long trail, but it was an unbroken one, and your victims traced it right back to you.
It's the creeping fear that makes Uplink such a successful game, at least at first. The paranoia which forces you to double-check everything - like when you get that horrible feeling that you've left the back door open when you're 50 miles away halfway down the motorway. By then it's too late. The constantly ticking clock when you're on a mission, urging the crackers to work faster, redistributing CPU power to improve performance, one eye always on the Trace Tracker.
There's even a story buried in there, as a recently deceased Uplink agent lifts the lid on production of a massive cyberweapon that could destroy the Internet! But it's purely optional: if you find it intriguing, you can give it a look after you've ranked up a few times and gotten to grips with some of the more complex hacking elements in the game; if you'd rather just do your own thing, that's fine too, although the events of the story do unfold regardless, even if you're directly involved or not.
It's just such a smart game. You can engage in anonymous conversations with prospective clients, asking for advances or even more money overall. It's here that you can try and investigate the target and the motives behind the requested job, as well as finding out what kind of security measures you'll have to deal with once inside. You can steal the links to further company servers, retrieving account details for rich clients, before relieving them of their wealth, tapping their bank administrator's phone for a voice sample, and then using that to crack the bank's mainframe, and rectify the logs.
It's a game that does suffer a little bit at the top level - once you can crack banks, you don't really need to work any more - and it can be repetitive once you've seen all that there is to see. Uplink has found the move into high definition a tricky one too, with its text suffering at higher resolutions, transformed into squint-inducing tininess. But those latter gripes are solved on the iPad, the interface a perfect fit for the touchscreen, and the poking and prodding nature of the platform actually serving to bring the whole experience up to date. Taking down corporations on your tablet is just as cool and thrilling as it was doing it on a clunking PC back in 2001.