You've spent years building up your skills. You've cut your teeth on company firewalls, local municipal security systems, and university databases. You read lines of code the way an English major reads "See Spot Run,"—that is to say, very easily. You're the best hacker out there, and yet you waste your skills hacking facebook accounts and emo blogs.
That is, until your friend sk3tch emails you with a hacking proposition that's just too good to pass up. The island nation of Locha doesn't enjoy the freedoms we enjoy here in the good ol' U.S. of A., and her trodden-upon citizens don't have an internet so much as a couple of highly monitored forums surrounded by firewalls. No citizenry can truly be free when the gatekeepers of knowledge keep information under lock, key, and surveillance that involves high-powered weaponry.
The goal is simple: hack away at Locha's servers and give the citizens of this tiny country the freedom of information that all people deserve.
Exploit is the latest game by Gregory Weir, creator of The Majesty of Colors and Bars of Black and White, but it is quite different from those two titles. The hacking takes the form of a tile-based puzzle game, where you must shoot packets into a grid from orange ports on the perimeter, and ultimately get one of those packets to reach the green Root Node. If that sounds simple, it's only because I haven't mentioned all of the other kinds of nodes that get in the way, redirect your shots, or reveal ports you didn't even know were there.
Plot out your moves carefully and pay special attention to incoming emails, and not only will you help the oppressed people of Locha, but you might, just might, prevent a terrorist attack here on our own soil.
Good luck, hacker, you're going to need it!
Analysis: Hacking has become a mainstream vehicle to blend various gameplay mechanics into a storyline. Look at the Sly Cooper games or the now defunct ARG Jamie Kane. But while in many games the hacking portal to alternative gameplay is merely a part of the whole, in Exploit it is the primary focus.
Weir delivers the story brilliantly, without overdoing it with any cutscenes or voice acting. The plot advances entirely via emails and news articles that pop up in your inbox between each hacking mission. What really sells it is the care with which these interludes are written. Sk3tch's correspondence is suitably juvenile for a hacker's best friend, while news clippings are so similar to reality, they will make news junkies like myself feel right at home. You'll even happen upon a couple of phishing scams.
The minimalist approach not only makes the story feel more real (in a way it's almost ARG-like itself), but it also draws the focus onto the puzzling aspect of the game quite well. Now, I know nothing about hacking—and I'm pretty sure that real hacking is completely different from what is offered in Exploit—but I do know puzzles, and this system is brilliantly constructed. Because most of your actions are time limited, you really have to plot your course in advance, putting the focus on thinking your way through the puzzles, as opposed to leaning on hit-and-miss tactics. The puzzles in the story mode aren't too taxing, but if they don't provide enough of an obstacle for you, there's a challenge mode available with 16 extra puzzles, and a level editor where you and your friends can try to stump or outhack each other.
Aesthetically, I want to say I'm getting tired of the dark background and brightly colored geometric shapes that are becoming a casual gaming staple, but it really works here, especially if you were a fan of the old 80s movie Wargames. It, like the email-driven story, adds an appropriate old-school hacker feel. As for the music, it's not much to write home about, but does a nice job of adding tension.
Gregory Weir has challenged himself to release a game per month for this entire year (Bars of Black and White was the first), and if his offerings continue to be as intriguing and varied as the first two, I think this is going to be a good year for both Weir and all of us who enjoy great games.