The idea of a hacking MMO is incredibly appealling, as while there are a large amount of hacking games in the genre, with my favourite being Uplink, they often devolve to a power play, with upgrades and security measures preventing any real risk while you break into bank accounts and loot billions of in-game credits. It might take a while to get there, and your game can be cut brutally short, particularly in uplink, when you make mistakes early on. There’s no real end-game, and that is where the MMO aspect really kicks in, because MMOs are inherently all about the end-game and the interactions between players, just take a look at EVE Online, where all the major fun comes from drama, politics and the interactions between players, not the game mechanics itself.
There’s something really exciting about a game that doesn’t care how evil or good you want to be, giving you the tools and letting you figure out how you want to use them, and Hackmud takes a page from EVE Online’s book here, where it’s completely fine to steal from and scam other users, using social engineering instead of just the game mechanics. The game style is really something to behold, it’s good looking, has an amazing soundtrack and for the most part the community is pretty neat when they’re not trying to scam you out of all your credits. The terminal interface, while completely alien to anyone who isn’t either a programmer or a power user, has subtleties that really make it a joy to use, and that’s a really important thing when you want players to feel like they’re commanding some sort of complicated, powerful machine.
Specifically, the keypress sounds, highlighting, the faint glow on the text and CRT lining to bring you back to the 80s feel of glowing CRT monitors and Command Line Interfaces, which I link examples to because we are living in an age where future readers of this blog will grow up never been without an LCD panel. You do get the genuine feel from WarGames, dialing into your target to explore abandoned and corrupted systems, in the hopes of pulling home some cash from long lost accounts. There’s some amount of puzzling, which mostly consists of solving ‘lock’ puzzles that require you to type in the correct answer to a series of logic puzzles or guessing games, these can also be automated by writing your own scripts.
Where the gameplay quickly falls flat however, is that there is no variation upon tasks, it is ultimately a fact of exploring abandoned servers to retrieve the client locations, the game’s substitute for IP addresses, and then guess through the locks, getting a deposit to your in-game bank account when you succeed. This is fun for the first few times, and you are accompanied by the ‘kernel.hardline’ screen whenever you want to break into something new, which puts a timer on your connection to a client, plays an animation that you have to enter numbers for before connecting, and plays some more intense music. Unfortunately, this becomes a major pain in the ass after you realise that the timer is for nothing, the client doesn’t reset when you disconnect, and you are stuck waiting to connect again and make more guesses. The typing numbers on the screen minigame is similarly tedious after the first hundred times, and there’s not much that you can do to avoid it, other than cheat and get AutoHotkey to press every number on the keyboard 9 times in half a second.
There’s problems with scripts as well, such as the fact that they are limited by character count, making every programming exercise a session of code golf, which is cool sometimes, but makes script writing take forever in a video game where not much real action happens. Additionally, scripts can only run for 5 seconds, they can’t take live input and running them with new input is just tedious, typing out all the parameters in JSON. Yes, that’s right, running every script in the game is achieved by writing JSON, even when trying to send messages to chat channels. It’s infuriating and the in-game macros don’t want to take parameters to let you simply type for example “/say Hey guys”, it has become so much of an issue that nobody uses the in-game chat feature at all, which is a mind-bogglingly bad thing for an MMO game. Nobody wants to break immersion by having to tab over to Discord whenever they want to talk to players.
There’s a lot of potential that Hackmud had, particularly with the scripts feature, where I envisioned you could do something like ncurses and take live input until the user exits the application, allowing people to make actual games, BBS software, and other things to go on this simulated net, but there just isn’t the potential to do any of that. I honestly can’t understand what people with so many hours in this game do, as it wants to be EVE Online, but provides none of the sandbox tools that EVE does, to make it work out.
PvP in the game is also tragic. The locations or ‘locs’ of the players are randomly leaked by NPCs from time to time, and once they are leaked the only thing a player has in the way are acquired locks, of which any respectable player already knows how to bypass and has scripts for. In essence, PvP consists of a random chance for someone to get your location and then take all your money, there is no real skill or challenge involved and the player has no way of defending themselves. This means that the PvP aspect of the game may as well not exist at all for all the enjoyment that it brings.
The last problems are that the game is plagued with glitches, particularly in the UI, where simply looking up lists of places that have lists of NPC scripts can make it impossible to see any new commands until you clear the screen, losing your entire command history, or the fact that the pointer for the scratch space isn’t on the right line, making it confusing to get it in the right place. It’s these little things that heavily detract from the gameplay experience, which is inevitable when the development of the game is being done by a single person.
It’s a real shame, but Hackmud just isn’t the hacking MMO we were waiting for.
A commenter has pointed out that macros can take arguments (I do believe that in the past, or at least when I picked up the game this wasn’t possible), which makes the chat system a lot easier and more viable.
I think macros could be expanded just a little further, perhaps if it was possible to import or export all current macros if that’s not already a feature. This would make it easy for people to share setups for new users, although I must admit it sounds immersion breaking.