Overall Score 76%
Brian Spencer was a former intelligence agent with some amazing skills in computers and security. Now heís a gun for hire, and cracking servers worldwide, and solving mysteries is the name of the game. In Hacker Evolution, the player assumes the role of Spencer in a white knuckled plot involving attacks on the stock market, a central bank and a trans-oceanic fibre optic link. Using powers of deduction, observation and analytical thinking, the player progresses through the levels by hacking and decrypting, obtaining information from downloaded files, using exploits, and generally keeping as low a profile as possible.
Most actions in Hacker Evolution come at a price. This price is reflected in a so called trace level; which increases by a fixed amount whenever a certain action is taken. Hacking servers takes time, and dependant on the level of hardware that you employ, can be accomplished before a full trace is gained. If your trace level reaches 100% then itís game over, and so itís important to decide how much of your precious cash is going to go towards helpful hardware upgrades and how much of it needs to be spent on directly lowering your trace level.
Each level plays out extremely well. The user interface is that of a virtual operating system (as seen from SpencerĎs PC), as well as displaying a window for messages, and a panel containing current information on the player and hardware setup. The game features a heavily keyboard-centric input method, but this is never a chore due to a clever text parser that can anticipate logical responses and auto-complete long lines of text on the run. In fact, using the keyboard actually helps add to the already deep immersion factor; the game does a fantastic job of conveying feelings of excitement and anticipation, possibly similar to what a real life hacker might feel.
There are generally a couple of different ways to clear each level, although only one will be the optimal path through the puzzle, and this does have some severe consequences as I will explain below. The progression through the levels though is extremely linear, and once the player has discovered the optimal path to beat a particular level, there is no challenge in replaying. No random or dynamic elements mean a limited lifespan for the official campaign in Hacker Evolution. The game ships with 9 missions that will probably take up to 45 minutes to an hour or so for each. There is a free expansion pack available to all customers that adds a further 3 missions to the game. Thereís an included mod editor as well, and various user-made mods of varying quality are available from the gameís website.
Now, the biggest gripe that I have with this game (and the only thing holding it back from Bytten Gold Star status is the save-game function which allows only one save from a particular profile at any one time. Money is carried through from level to level, thereís only a finite amount of it in game, and itís vital to your success. On later levels if it becomes apparent that a level is impossible or too difficult to solve because of a lack of funds or a badly placed upgrade - then itís literally game over. The player is forced to start again from the very beginning of the game and is not even spared from having to play through the tedium of the tutorial mission again! There is also no way to save your game during a mission, and so if you have spent 90 minutes on a tricky level and need to exit the game, youíll be back at the start of it next time you play. Because of these (assumedly intended) features, the game flow feels fundamentally broken to me.
The look and feel of Hacker Evolution is very good. The colours are subdued and the interface oozes feelings of subterfuge and mystery. It will make you instinctively reach out for your slice of cold pizza as you contemplate your next hack. The graphics are simple and clean, the fonts are clear and readable and all information that the player needs is readily available.
Thereís a techno soundtrack to accompany your hacking which consists of quite a few different tracks. Not really to my taste, but of reasonably good quality in any case. Sound effects are very limited, but in all honesty not really required. This is one of those games where playing in silence in a dark and cluttered room would actually elevate the role-playing experience. Certainly I have no complaints with the presentation of the game. Quite professional.
Itís a shame that playability of this excellently presented game is marred by some unfathomable design decisions regarding save games and level progression. Why the developers did not allow a save game from the start of each level as the players unlocked the missions is unimaginable to me. Great games offer the player lots of choices as to how they want to enjoy playing. Hacker Evolution offers those choices, but then punishes players who have not made optimal decisions by forcing them to start from scratch after hours and hours of playtime invested. Some players might restart once, but very few (least not myself) will go back to face the tutorial for a third time.
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