The original Hacker was a below-average maze game that I blasted for being incorrectly marketed as having something to do with WarGames-esque computer chicanery. Activision may have realized they bandied the term "hacker" about a little too brazenly, and have come up with a brilliantly creative idea for a hacking-based sequel. Hacker 2, quite to my surprise I must admit, absolutely finds the right track and charges bravely down it.
The game retains the alternate reality style from the first, again suggesting that you're remotely controlling events occurring elsewhere in the world in real-time. In this particular case, the game begins as you prepare to navigate an old-style BBS for "Actisource" when the CIA overrides your computer. In a hazy reference to the original, you are acknowledged as the world's foremost hacker and the only one who can help the government recover the "Doomsday Papers" - a Russian counter-intelligence plot so brilliant, vile, and unthinkable that your face will melt if you read it, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style.
At least that's my explanation for why you're controlling the same robot drones from the first game. Most likely it's just a way to continue the thread of pulling off espionage from behind a computer. This time, instead of traveling around the world offering to trade international spies your Greg Maddux for their Ken Griffey, you actually have a interesting mission and a fascinating, original way of executing it.
The CIA has inserted three drones into the secure complex housing the Papers. You are asked to guide them around to various offices and piece together the combination to the vault, head into the vault for the documents, and burn out of the complex with the goods. The hacking comes from how you've allegedly tapped into the building's surveillance system, and must both use it to follow your drone, and to monitor the security cycles to make sure you don't get caught. If you can ignore the slight hokeyness of the Johnny-Five looking robots, you've got a neat game up there with a good episode of Mission: Impossible.
The game is played entirely from behind a multiscreen control panel meant to resemble a security station. You have four video screens to work with, and can assign each screen, independent of the others, at will. You can set each monitor to a live feed of the complex and cycle through 36 cameras covering the hallways, corners, and offices. You can view video tape of each camera's view and shuttle back and forward through time, exactly like a VCR, to find patterns in the security. You can set a monitor to watch the current security feed (which automatically cycles through the cameras) to see exactly what the guards are seeing at that moment. Finally, you can monitor your current spy robot from an overhead blueprint view, while also seeing the position of security guards - whose patrols will help you figure out which camera looks upon which hallway.
It's important to clarify that you can set any of the four monitors to any of the video feeds at any time. First, it's extremely helpful to set up your station unhindered and have the information you need available at the touch of a button. Second, it's fairly damn cool to have this going simultaneously on a 1986 computer. The graphics aren't realistic by any stretch, but having the game track "real-time," looping security cameras, marching guards, player movement, and shuttling back in time on the tapes, all at the same time, still seems like a lot to keep track of. And that it all works so well, and stays in real-time sync, is even more of a surprise. You even have realistic little touches like a vertical hold you have to adjust on each monitor to keep the picture from scrolling, and an in-character manual written like an operations guide for the security system.
It's a moderately short game, since, without giving much away, you'll have a second mission but you'll never leave this complex. However, pulling your goals off successfully will take a bit of planning and preparation. You only control one drone at a time, so each drone acts as a "life." If the drone is caught by a guard, or spotted on the security feed, it will be destroyed. It will almost certainly take you one life just to get a working idea of the layout of the complex and a map of the camera coverage. Since you never have a complete in-game map of the facility (it's always centered on the drone), you'll have to move the little guy around to see the place in its entirety.
Next, you'll have to figure out the guard and camera patterns before you can exploit them. This is made easy by running timecode at the bottom of each camera feed. You'll be able to see on the tapes that a guard passes camera 23 at 1:05, and see that replicated in "real-life" on the live camera. Thorough this, you can establish the holes your drone can slip through.
The final, possibly most clever, feature is the "bypass." You can cue up a tape, hit the bypass switch, and insert that video over the live security feed. Time it right, and the "guards" will see an empty hallway while your little drone putters past the camera. However, you have to mind the timecode and ensure it matches up with the live feed, otherwise the guards will know something is up.
The only possible downside is that you control the game entirely through a hand pointer pressing various buttons on the main control board. It's a system that screams for a mouse, but you won't have the luxury. The cursor does snap to the next button with each press of the arrow key, making it a little less cumbersome, but not as fast and accurate as some kind of theoretical hand-held clicky unit could have made it. Oh well, spy technology wasn't that advanced yet.
It really is a genius idea, and an example of one-man game design as it used to be. Games didn't need to be more than a single concept, or a single scenario, as long as it did it well. Hacker 2 certainly does. Every aspect you can think of regarding this sort of operation has been covered, and the game never leaves you wishing you had [some feature], or lamenting that it would be easier in real life because they forgot [other feature]. Most definitely not a game for everyone, but a unique one that's at least worth a try.
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