Hacking appears, at least by pop culture logic, to be incredibly mysterious, as if a maneuver that can only be performed by the geekiest crew member participating in an elaborate heist, or the largely ignored IT guy faking a hack with his fingers in the back of the office at the police headquarters. More than just a cyberpunk pastime for the hooded tech pro, real-life hacking is probably a lot more measured and typically not as fast-paced as trying to shut down a barrage of huge, red, aggressive-looking takedown notifications in real time. while the pulsing electronic music of The Prodigy blasts in the background.
The more deliberate – if perhaps less glamorous and dramatic – aspect of hacking is what I like about Midnight Protocol, a tech noir game that puts you in the shoes of a hacktivist named Data. The game begins simply enough by logging into your computer and getting to your home screen, where you check your email, surf the intranet, purchase tools, programs, and malware kits from the dark web, and choose from a litany of networks can hack. You then discover a conspiracy involving a rival hacker named Kraken while attempting to make a living as either a black hat (non-ethical) or white hat (ethical) hacker.
However, progressing through this storyline requires quite a bit of hacking. Your old hacking crew will have your back by offering you multiple contacts and jobs that will earn you credits. These jobs usually revolve around breaking into networks, which consist of multiple interconnected nodes that you must hop on to find your way to your destination. Your goals for these hacks will vary – it could be stealing credits from a financial node, grabbing files from a database for a client, or simply breaking into the network to get rid of a specific virus or data – but these essentially work turn based combat.
You have two tries each round to traverse these nodes and find your way to your goal node, but there are a few things to watch out for. Of course, most networks are not freely accessible to hackers, so their security system will try to detect every unauthorized intruder (namely you) on each round and eventually kick them out. One way is to employ some tools to make such detection more difficult, allowing you to stay on the network longer.
At the same time, more secure networks run their own anti-intrusion programs, so a certain strategy is required: would you dedicate yourself to installing tools that can remove these programs? Would you rather run away, explore other options towards your goal, or wait and see? There are many puzzles to solve and strategies to develop, but completing these challenges can feel like an adrenaline rush, especially in your attempts to uncover as many mysteries as possible and as many credits as possible within the short time frame you are usually given possible to consume.
The great thing about these hacking challenges, however, is that they are all performed using your keyboard, which means that you have to physically type in commands to execute them. These commands aren’t particularly hard to remember (and there’s actually a help menu you can access at any time), but what makes these movements so invigorating is they’ll still make you feel like a pop-culture cyberpunk hacker, all by tapping – tap around on your keyboard, run malware and defensive moves. Midnight Protocol’s UI doesn’t look particularly flashy at first glance, and you’re definitely not going to have a cascade of zeros and ones streaming across the screen, but that’s part of the game’s minimalist appeal; You won’t feel like you’re just playing hacks, but that you’re actually capable of doing the deed yourself.
Cyberpunk games are a dime a dozen these days, but there aren’t many titles that exemplify the genre’s core through the singular act of hacking, whether to reinforce the very human concerns of surviving a tech dystopia, or used as a metaphor to highlight the societal transgressions taking place in our real world. In many of these cyberpunk titles, hacking is reduced to a mere mini-game thrown in haphazardly to give these worlds more of a tech-noir slant. But in Midnight Protocol, hacking becomes an active display of subversion, key to emphasizing the atmosphere of moral decay amidst the glimmer of technological advancement. It also makes hacking seem effortlessly cool.
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