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Real-world hacking has long since spawned legions of more glamorous portrayals in videogames. Here are five hacker games that elevate security to thrilling levels.
The pitch: You play as a hacker, enlisted by the shadowy Uplink Corporation in the far-off future of, er, 2010 to hack into rival companies’ accounts as well as numerous other targets.
The hacking: The whole thing: the only dedicated hacker game in the list. Uplink is one of the more realistic hacker games ever made, requiring you to add new hardware and software to your hacking capabilities, including downloading dictionary programs and voice analyzers (all within the game, of course).
The best bit: Levelling up and seeing your reputation as a wanted hacker rise on fictional newsgroup sites, as you equip your server with more self-defense mechanisms and enjoy tense cat-and-mouse missions before your activities can be traced.
The pitch: The year is 2027, and you’re Adam Jensen, a cybernetically-enhanced security manager at a multinational biotech corporation. Embroiled in a terrorist conspiracy, you enter a huge world of stealth, hacking, combat and subterfuge.
The hacking: Technically only a quarter of the character’s skillset, hacking the environment around you is a substantial element to the whole game. Combat and confrontation is discouraged in favour of finding alternative paths, aided by your ability to take over computer systems, represented in-game via progressively harder hacking mini-games.
The best bit: The sheer quantity of side-quests available through choosing to hack your way around the game.
The pitch: You are Aiden Pearce, grey-hat hacker looking for revenge after the accidental death of his niece. The action takes place in an open-world environment based on a futuristic vision of Chicago, Illinois, where everything in the city is connected under one central computer system.
The hacking: Pearce has the ability to hack into practically any device around him – the Internet of Things in game form – including CCTV cameras, smartphones and vehicles. Doing so is integral to the game, but also offers enormous possibilities for discovery.
The best bit: Hacking the security systems of the city to alert you to potential crimes, then deciding how to intervene. Your public reputation as villain or vigilante is at stake.
The pitch: Take control of two of the film series’ minor characters, Niobe or Ghost, in a third-person shooter with predictable amounts of ‘bullet time’ action.
The hacking: The game received mixed reviews, with exception almost universally made for the hacking sections of the game. Players could enter a DOS-type prompt window (in green and black, naturally) from the main menu that allowed limited control over elements of the game itself.
The best bit: Having worked out (painstakingly) how the hacking interface worked, it was possible to unlock a swordfighting training-room routine – and who can say the Matrix wouldn’t have been better with more swords?
The pitch: Top-down action-adventure in the vein of a Legend of Zelda title circa 1994. You play as Alice, exploring dungeons, avoiding obstacles and defeating enemies. But there’s a twist.
The hacking: This is the (really) clever part. Alice is equipped with a ‘USB sword’ that at various points in the game can interact with objects to open up a debugging interface – the very same as used by creators Double Fine to actually make the game. The game is structured so that you actually need to hack into it in this way and alter parameters of the game world to succeed. As you progress through the game, more original code is revealed to you, enabling you to take greater control over the game’s build. This level of access also opens up the risk that you might accidentally corrupt your own savegame, or break the game entirely. But don’t worry, you can restore to save points if that happens. It may not feel so much like a thriller as the others on this list, but playing Hack ‘n Slash actually gives the closest experience to real-life hacking in a game environment.
The best bit: Solving puzzles by reaching under the hood and changing the puzzle itself – making a bridge longer, or a block move slower. It’s like The Matrix with Gameboy graphics.
Have we missed the best hacker games? Let us know in the comments.
Author Karl Thomas, ESET