Review: Uplink for iPad12 Jun 2012 0
There is a single point of failure where the immersion of almost every game breaks down: the interface, which holds a crucial position that a game's fiction must attempt to outflank. Tropes like iron sights in shooters and minimized GUIs have gone a long way towards making games less obviously ludic, but it's ultimately that's a controller or a mouse in your hands, not a Heckler & Koch or a Scottish claymore.
Uplink takes a different approach to immersion. Instead of trying to lighten the load on your suspension of disbelief, Uplink minimizes the distance your suspension needs to carry it. The implement you wield in the world of Uplink is the very keypad underneath your fingers. The player isn't a role you put on like a Halloween costume - it's you, or maybe your hacker alter ego.
When you enter the world of the game, you do so by enlisting with the eponymous Uplink Corporation, a organization that provides services to a loose network of freelance hackers. This enrollment happens the first time you launch the app - everything from the main menu onward is in-universe, even the tutorial. As an Uplink agent, you have access to a job board of hacking bounties and Uplink's company store, from which you buy the software tools you need to crack security systems and hardware upgrades for your rig.
The genius of Uplink is that the you have learned all of the principles that govern the game's world in the first ten minutes of play. Everything in the world plays by the rules that you've been taught, which adds to the feeling of inhabiting a real space. Hacking follows certain rules and patterns, once you've learned them (and acquired the right software) you can hack anything. The first few available missions are relatively simple: a company wants you to access a rival's mainframe and delete a particular file, or a businessman needs you to hack an academic database and grant him a diploma he didn't earn. But after that, the world is your oyster. Want to hack a bank account and siphon money out of it? Go right ahead, if you've got the chops. But if you get sloppy - failing to cover your tracks or attempting a high-security system without the right tools - the police will come knocking and Uplink Corp will disavow you.
The hacking in Uplink is highly stylized Hollywood hacking - what technical complexity there is is thematic bunting. You are cracking security systems in the same way that you're bringing the house down at the Budokan when you play Rock Band. Realistic? No. But it's verisimilitudinous and easy to believe. Walter Mitty would have loved Uplink.
Uplink's immersion is so complete that you can play it anywhere - it is absolutely perfect for the iPad. When you're playing Battlefield 3 and your girlfriend walks between you and the telly, you're reminded that you're playing a game. When you're playing Uplink and you have to run into the kitchen to turn the steaks over, you're just a hacker with a culinary bent.
There is a plot in Uplink, told entirely through in-game emails and message board posts - no jarring cutscenes or fades to black. The story goes on with or without you, and the level to which you engage with it is down to you entirely. If you're enjoying the life of a mercenary hacker, Uplink just points you to the storyline's trailhead but doesn't force you down the path. You can go on taking hacking assignments and climbing to the top of Uplink Corporation's rankings indefinitely.
Games need not necessarily strive for immersion to compel - cf. Angry Birds. But of games that attempt escapism by conjuring a world for you to inhabit, there is no better, deeper experience than Uplink. It might be more than a decade old now, having been originally released for PC in 2001, but its minimalist aesthetic (which takes cues from Tron and Wargames) is as striking as it was at release - lovelier, even, if you have a 3rd-gen iPad with which to appreciate the crispness of the game's text.
Uplink is a true classic that every gamer should try. If you have an Apple wireless keyboard and a stand for your iPad, I recommend their use with Uplink wholeheartedly, along with a Macallan 12-year and a comfortable seat. You might be hacking for a while.
5 out of 5
iPad only, Uplink, $4.99 US, £2.99 UK