This is really everything I wanted from an indie hacking game. It is a vast and glorious sandbox brimming with opportunity. To tell its tale, let me start the story about twenty-five years ago, with a little gem from Interplay called "Neuromancer."
Neuromancer was an amazing piece of work, for its time. A point and click adventure game, yes, but with a vast collection of BBS-like "sites" in "cyberspace," which could be accessed and navigated spatially, a sea of semitransparent polygons on a sprawling grid. They called the book "prophetic" in its vision of what a global computer network might be like, but the game was similarly visionary, in that it offered a classic milestone-and-unlocked-door-driven main story, but with a vast and layered world of enriching side stories and tiny details easily overlooked, that add depth and character to the world in which your character lives. This was a level of detail and nuance and supporting gameworld-enrichment that Bioware would go on to become famous for, in its epic D&D games of the Nineties, and in its later adventure games, but in the Eighties, on computers that were much more limited in resources, this was a bigger feat, and a bigger surprise to the player. You could just play Neuromancer to win it, or you could play it to learn about it, follow the exchanges on the PAX and on private sites, the private message exchanges between AIs. You could learn so much more that way, if you were clever and patient enough to retain it, to piece it together, and to make sense of it all.
It had its limitations, though. For all that supplemental-story richness, hacking was extremely primitive and frankly, rather RPG-combat-like. There wasn't much finesse to it, and though there was some pressure to stay alert and focused, it lacked the sweaty-fingers-and-hurry-hurry-hurry aspect we associate with computer crime.
Now here's where Uplink steps onto the scene.
Uplink isn't a classic RPG -- whether or not it's an RPG at all is a very good question, and I'm not sure how to address the question without spoilers. The game starts very simply; you're a hacker with a server in a colocation facility, and through it, you can access the internet. Your employer offers you access to a database of open hacking jobs commensurate to your demonstrated ability and toolkit, and you can carry them out for money. For many people, this is the entire game of Uplink -- choosing jobs, carrying them out, getting paid. It's fun stuff! The clock is always ticking. Traces are run to try to find you. You've got that sweaty palms, twitchy-taut-nerves, GO GO GO GO GO adrenaline headspace, typing and tapping and trying frantically to get the job done and wipe logs before you're traced and busted.
But why stop there? What I feel I can safely say without spoilers is that the game is very much a sandbox, and as your means grow, you find yourself able to make decisions about the nature and purpose of your work. Who you work for, why you work, what work you do and don't do, and what you're after will determine what the game looks like, to you.
A rich and detailed world sprawls before you, full of interesting things to learn, do and find. Curiosity is rewarded. Tinkering is rewarded. Ingenuity is especially rewarded. There is a "master story," but whether or not you ever even encounter it -- well, that's up to you.
The game uses a very retro interface style; it reminded me of the turn-of-the-millennium retrofuture aesthetic, and made me nostalgic for the days of multiple Unix flavors on huge proprietary hardware. Be sure to be very, very glib with your mouse skills; fast accurate clicking is a must. A touchscreen system with a keyboard would probably be ideal, but rest assured, this Uplinker runs just fine on his non-touchscreen laptop. Speed is critical, a cool head and the ability to systemically run through a list of easy but specific tasks with a ticking timer is also critical. If you don't like to be under pressure, Uplink isn't for you.
If you're looking for great visual beauty and visual exploration as found in, say, point-and-click adventure games, look elsewhere. You'll spend all your time in Uplink staring at a virtual desktop environment. Some people will find that thrilling -- I'm one of 'em! -- and some will surely be put off by it. Uplink also enforces consequences beautifully; really bad decisions will even wipe your savegame, be warned. (Can you back it up sneakily and restore it? Yes, yes you can, you...cheating hacker, you.) But most of all, if you're looking for a game that makes it easy to understand what you're supposed to do, this is utterly not the game for you. Uplink's as silent and as uncommunicative as a bash prompt, and that's why it's perfectly suited to the right kind of oldschool-hackerly mind.
You've probably formed a strong opinion of Uplink already, just from what I've said. Good. If you're the sort who loves this sort of thing, Uplink is the game you've been waiting for, and there's nothing quite like it. This is what Neuromancer wanted to be like, I think...and might have been, but for that its dreams of electric sheep were limited in resolution and framerate by its era.