Hacking! Modern society is endlessly fascinated by the practice of subverting computer and network systems for the purpose of capturing data. In the era of Tor browsers and the hushed whispers surrounding the Deep Web, computer hacking has become a mainstream hobby. For those of us who dream of the uber haxxor lifestyle but don’t want to necessarily go to prison, video games have stepped up to let people enjoy their techno-power fantasy. Hacking in video games isn’t particularly new, but video games entirely dedicated to hacking are. Games like Uplink and Hacknet put the player in front of a simulated computer screen with an arsenal of simulated hacking tools designed to get them inside various digital fortresses. (Reviewer’s note: go play Hacknet - it’s awesome).
Darknet isn’t just the name for Tor browsers and the like anymore - it’s the newest hacker video game that uses the PlayStation VR to create the feeling of being immersed in an online network. It’s probably the closest thing we’ll have to a real life Ghost in the Shell type situation. Darknet is a puzzle game that doesn’t quite offer the same depth as other video games about computer hacking, though it’s most certainly fun.
In Darknet, you play as an anonymous computer user trying to achieve financial success by attacking various computer networks. Divided into numerous non-connected levels of varying difficulty, you hop into networks with the goal of taking down the system’s Root node. Standing in the way of that goal are a series of computer nodes, many of which provide secure network tunnels to other nodes and the Root itself, giving it added layers of security. The goal in any given level is to break down the Root’s security by attacking neighboring computer nodes. This is done by going inside these nodes and using viruses to strategically target security zones. Presented as a hexagonal grid system, you’ll tag security points with viruses in order to spread the infection towards the core.
It’s a task that sounds easy enough and for a large part of the early levels, it is. Where things get interesting is when the virus spreads across the grid and triggers another security zone. This activates the node’s anti-virus program and starts attacking the infection. It's pretty easy to simply overwhelm the system before the anti-virus can engulf the infection. But later nodes, especially those armed with shielding and firewalls, increase the number of security points on the grid. This is when the in-game store comes into play. Successfully capturing a node yields a cash reward, used to purchase additional virus programs. At the start of a level, it’s common to have enough money to buy two virus charges. When you’re ready to take on the Root core, you’ll likely end up with six or seven charges, which makes even the most challenging networks easy enough to overwhelm.
Viruses are not the only tool in your hacker repertoire. Additional software programs like Hydras, Exploits, and Worms can make even the most stubborn computer networks fall under your influence. My favorite asset is the Hydra. When used on a captured node, it will attack all other nodes connected to it via network tunnels. If the nodes don’t have shields or firewalls, they’ll automatically be captured. This is a particularly efficient tool because it decreases the time spent trying to build up cash by capturing smaller, less important systems. And as most stages are timed, any advantage is worth seeking out. Exploits are handy tools for disabling a node’s firewalls one at a time. These are more like efficiency tools, as they allow you to cut down the time spent trying to lessen the security of major nodes, including the Root as well as those protected by ICE programs. Finally, Worms are a unique beast in their own way. They can be used on uncaptured nodes and ignore certain security parameters, making them a little easier to take down. Once the Root has been breached, the level ends and the player is sent back to a hub world where they can read through emails that give the world a little flavor, purchase upgrades, and choose their next mission.
Darknet is a really fun puzzle game that can easily hook you. There’s a great sense of progression with difficulty. Before long, I catch myself saying “just one more stage” long into the night. Later levels require chess-like thinking by planning moves ahead of time. It’s easy enough to a restart a node’s puzzle, making failure less painful and demoralizing. I enjoyed the process of trial and error here. It gave me the chance to poke at different security nodes to see how they’d respond until I figured out the best course of action. The best thing about the design of the puzzles is that there doesn’t seem to be any one perfect solution. I was able to beat some puzzles by brute forcing them or finding ways to outwit the anti-virus simply by beating it in a race against time. There’s no one right answer that allows you to attack the problem at any angle.
The only bad thing I can say about Darknet is that I think the VR component is largely unnecessary. I wish there was a non-VR mode for the game if only to give more people a chance to experience this cool puzzle game. There really isn’t anything here that wouldn’t work without VR, and the experience isn’t particularly spectacular. The camera certainly wouldn’t be an issue without VR, since you have to use the controller to switch views anyway. A small PlayStation controller hovers in space that moves when you do, but it’s nothing more than a gimmick whose impressiveness wanes almost immediately.
Pointless VR aside, Darknet offers great fun. It isn’t as in-depth as other games in the hacking genre, but the puzzle nature of infecting computer grids doesn’t get old, especially when the challenges ramp up. Those who are looking to find more ways to indulge in the hacker fantasy will enjoy the experience of living in the computer world like TRON. On the other hand, if you want a game that really adds a thrill to the experience of simulated computer malfeasance, I would strongly recommend checking out Hacknet as quickly as you can.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.