Uplink managed to capture Hollywood hacking back in 2006. You would bounce your connection through oh so many links it should have been too slow to be usable in real-time, use password crackers that would brute-force the password through the network, go in, steal things, delete the logs and go away. Hacknet takes that and brings it to the command-line, inching just a little bit closer to give it that authentic feel.
Mechanically, it is rather simple. Systems have defenses that you need to bypass before you can run your magic tool that grants you access to it, which means you need to type the correct words in the command-line and then wait the time it takes them to do their thing. More than actual knowledge, Hacknet is a time management game, or, perhaps more accurately, a timed puzzle solver. The game is at its best when you are trying to nail down the firewall password as everything else runs, and then waiting for the PortHack utility (the magic tool) to finish so you can kill it and run another tool just a few seconds earlier.
Sadly, once you have done it before, there isn’t much to it. There are some investigation contracts (another name for quests) that ask you to dig around computers while trying to find some sort of information or tool, and I wish there were more chances to do so. Instead, most quests boil down to simply downloading a few files, uploading others, or deleting stuff. The main quest, this is, the narrative thread, does bring you into an interest investigative quest requiring you to dig around, making use of the integrated notes, and there are some other, longer contracts that might (I wasn’t particularly interested in them, by the time I was done), but this simply wasn’t the focus of the game, which I find a shame.
If I were to compare it to Uplink, I’d say that it feels like a lesser game. There are no banks to hack so I can become rich. There is no progression beyond obtaining more tools. Hacking the systems gets relatively old in both cases, though the former does have LANs which provide a bit more depth to the game. And in regards to content? Hacknet is short. An afternoon or two worth, at most.
This is not to say that Hacknet is bad. It isn’t – I had fun. It just was too short to feel memorable, in my opinion, and the story could have been something more. There is an expansion/DLC out for it, Labyrinth, which might solve the content issue. However, the base game is pretty much just a fancy pretend-to-be-a-hacker-from-Hollywood game that at is at least aware that Unix is a thing. A short, competent game, but not much else.