Review: Cyber Hacker21 Aug 2015 0
Despite the over-the-top name, Cyber Hacker is not a punky, pulpy tale of megacorps v. deckers (à la Shadowrun or Netrunner). Instead, what we have is a down-to-earth freeform puzzle game informed by real, contemporary, illegal hacking. Now, not being a blackhat myself [that's what a real hacker would say --ed.] you should throw some chunky doubt-quotes around that "real" back there, though even if Cyber Hacker isn't a functional primer on clandestine hacking (and it may well be), the game's still a strangely mundane take on the exotic world cybercrime.
Nix the Matrix logic and augmented reality overlays--Cyber Hacker is a game about identifying SSH vulnerabilities, working for cold hard bitcoins, copying earnings reports, dodging Interpol, orchestrating DDoS attacks (assuming you have a large enough botnet), keeping international date formats straight in your head, and always, always making sure to delete the system logs from /sys/logs and the trash bin before logging out.
Cyber Hacker sits somewhat comfortably between sim and puzzle, then. When you first boot up the game's fictional, Unix-like Green Marble OS (green text on a black terminal, natch, because most noob hackers probably think they're Cypher) all you have to go on is a threatening email from the Interpol agent assigned to your case and a goal to make X bitcoins with your not-so-L33T skillz. This BTC value changes with difficulty—playing under normal, I was meant to squeeze 550 BTC out of the Dark Web, doing mercenary work raiding corporate servers and covertly wiping the drives of French film studios.
As a neophyte just starting out, you're only given access to level 1 jobs, which will net you between 5 to 10 BTC per hack. That's 2,360 USD at the time of writing—a mere pittance! As you're tip-tapping away at your command-line terminal, in-game time is flying, and Interpol—as represented by the Interpol threat tracker in the “Stats” app—are getting closer to locking down your location. Of course, for a hefty chunk of your savings (around 30 BTC, for the first move at least), you can always move to another country to dodge the police for a while longer. (“'Tank, I need an exit—from my life!' Heh, hah, whoo... I am beginning to suspect this is not a healthy career.”)
After running through Cyber Hacker's helpful (read: essentially mandatory) interactive tutorial, it quickly becomes clear that the trick of the thing is, chiefly, keeping track of the steps necessary for different types of attacks. Say a corp espionage job wants you to get a project file from a pharmaceutical company working on an experimental anti-cancer drug. You run the pre-compiled “port scanner” tool on the target system (codename: Nomad). Then you run the “system information” tool to check in on their torrent and mail servers, all of which may have documented vulnerabilities depending on the version.
If port 22 is open you launch a brute force password attack, find the file, copy it, delete the day's system log, delete the log permanently from the trash, logout, upload the file to the buyer (assuming it's not encrypted) and bing bang boom you just free marketed the hell out of a life-saving treatment. If 22's not open you might try using one of those aforementioned vulnerabilities by checking the “knowledge base” on your system, or you might dig up some dirt on a Nomad employee—specifically, enough to guess their user name and supply correct answers (government ID number, spouse's name, place of birth) to the remote operating system's password reset.
Exploiting a weak employee is the cleverest caper on offer in Cyber Hacker, as it invariably involves telephoning the stooge and impersonating, oh... a bank employee, one who needs to confirm some account information for the bank's records. This is assuming your initial workup on a mark (it happens automatically if you give the research order, no minigame involved) includes information on their preferred bank. Ignore the details in a report (and you did copy it to the Green Marble OS notepad, right?) and all you'll end up doing is weirding out an Italian textiles manufacturer with an unsolicited call about his nonexistent Peacock of the Month Club membership.
You're not a programmer in Cyber Hacker, but a perfect example of the “script kiddie” pejorative: a hacker playing around with the more or less automatic tools other, more talented security experts wrote. While a basic knowledge of computer networks might help one to understand why step XYZ works in this situation and protocol EFG does in another, Cyber Hacker is really about parsing information and taking copious notes.
Information that you're expected to remember gets as specific as how an OS organizes its system from the root directory on up (“Shit shit shit, is Orange OS /var/sys/logs or /system/var/logs?”). The game's notepad is key here, as oftentimes it contains information you didn't know you needed until you remotely accessed a system. Date of birth is a common security question for password resets, but so is government ID. Did you ask for both when you were chatting it up with that biopharm factotum who digs graffiti and lounge-era Tom Waits?
Here's why Cyber Hacker is a brave game: It never once tries to make hacking seem cool. Just the opposite—the click-clack “this is a Unix system, I know this” moments in Cyber Hacker, while nicely presented, are functionally cutscenes which eat up time (both in-game and IRL) whenever you write a trojan virus or try to increase the size of you botnet for DDoS attacks. The sweat-palm moments when you're in, dude, and the clock is ticking? Those moments tend to hinge on the smallest details. Is the reference ID for the file you're stealing ZX0 or ZXO? How quickly can you navigate and visually search this particularly disorganized employee's home directory? Does Germany use DD.MM.YYYY or YYYY/MM/DD?
As a narrative stance, Cyber Hacker's mundanity is refreshing—engaging, even. Mechanically, though, it doesn't hold up well when you're cycling through the same core sets of jobs. The first time you con a mark over the phone or knock out a corporate server for a week, you'll feel like the cleverest e-grifter there is. The next time though—in the same playthrough or another—it loses some of the charm, and a bit more the next.
The problem is that Cyber Hacker can't up the stakes faster than it will take most competent players to get its puzzles. There's a low knowledge-ceiling here, and when you're done learning the patterns for this brand of attack and have already memorized the system configuration for Phantom OS, all that's left is a lot of waiting around for viruses to infect targets and botnets to grow, followed by tedious sniffing about for visually identical files with nonsensical names. (None of which is to say the game's easy, just that it misses when it comes to treating jobs as puzzles, and not just a series of browser window time trials.)
Cyber Hacker is definitely worth a try if you're into (fake) cyber security or lite-sim games, or if you just want the barista at your local coffee joint to think you're toppling “the corps” on your tablet over a nice espresso. However, there are other titles which straddle the line between tedium and challenge better (Papers, Please), and other games which go the pedagogical route while offering more for the player to puzzle out (Hadean Lands).
Cyber Hacker was rezzed on a 3rd generation iPad for this review.