Monday, July 22, 2013

PWN: Combat Hacking - An iOS review

Sometimes among the sea of mediocrity of the appstore you can find some little jewels that grab you for good. This is the case of PWN: Combat Hacking, a game I got when it was free for a day and I got so engaged by its magnificent simplicity that now I feel bad for not having paid for it.

What is this all about?

PWN: Combat Hacking is a game about… (suspense music) - hackers. In a future world controlled by corporations, these professionals are highly valued both to protect and to do black ops for the benefit of these corporations. Thus, they stage great tournaments to find the most promising ones and offer great contract deals to the winners. Some others though enter the tournament with more shady motives.

There are 8 main protagonists to choose, each one specialist in one of the 8 different abilities of the game. Each one starts with his unique skill and in a Megaman-esque way needs to beat all the other 7 characters to unlock their abilities and finally make it to the tournament finals.

Optik Scanners are the best in the game. Beat her and she might teach you to use them.

The game

Each game of PWN features a network of interconnected nodes. Victory is achieved by either completely suppressing the other hacker´s presence on the network or by controlling a certain number of main computers that may be present in the network.

To do so, all the players have the ability to capture nodes. Simply by taping a node adjacent to a node you own a capture percentage bar will start to load until you take control. Neutral nodes are faster to capture than the opponent´s, and if you have more than 1 node connected you will also gain speed multipliers to any capture. On the other side if you lose the attacking nodes capture will be interrupted.

Having more than a node will double or triple the capture speed bonus. Encrypt that node!!

It is important to note that this capture percentage stays on the node even if you abort capture or are forced out so a later attempt to capture will start from the previous capture percentage.
Additionally, if any of nodes are isolated from your main network, they become vulnerable. So detecting weak points in the anemy network and exploiting them is one of the main strategies of the game.

Adding Spice

With that the game would end up being pretty basic, but then the 8 abilities come into play adding a lot of flavor.

Encrypt: Adds a second capture bar to a node, harder to remove, thus increasing the time needed for capture. It is vital to secure chokepoints, and if applied to a node being captured it restarts the requirements for capture, thus being a good counter to capture. If it gets isolated from the network though, it will be easier to capture.

Overclock: Overclocked nodes increase passively your capture speed and are good at capturing encrypted nodes. The bad thing is they also speed up virus spread on your network and if the enemy captures them they keep the overclocked bonus so it´s good to keep them out of reach.

An overclocked node in the frontline is usually a heavily disputed position.

Spike: Spike targets adjacent nodes and disconnects them from the network for some seconds. It can be used aggressively to split your enemy network in half and attack the isolated nodes or on your own network to prevent capture of critical positions. However spike doesn’t affect Encrypted nodes.  

Virus: Viruses target a set of adjacent nodes and start a simultaneous capture. If any of the nodes falls to the virus It spreads to the adjacent nodes. The virus can be cleansed by touching the infected nodes, but as the capture percentage stays, using scanners to “heal” the nodes is critical or else a second or third virus could cripple half your network. Viruses cannot capture or spread to firewalled nodes.

Backdoor: Backdoors are placed on enemy nodes and by all effects they always count as adjacent to your network so you can start captures or launch attack skills through them. They cannot be placed on Firewalled nodes though, and they can be detected by Scanners.

Firewall: Firewalls block Viruses, Backdoors and Trojans to access adjacent nodes so they are a defensive ability. However if a firewall node is capture it is not destroyed but it changes allegiance so it´s important to place it far from your opponents reach. Also, Spiking the firewall node will leave the adjacent nodes vulnerable again while the firewall is down.

Axiom's mastery of Firewalls proves too much for Phantom´s Backdoors

Trojan: It´s a Trap!! – Set a trojan in a node, and when the enmy captures it…BAM. You keep the node and take with you the attacking nodes and maybe some other adjacent. They are an excellent way to capture overclocked nodes without the hassle of tearing the cryptography and If you manage to do it this way you will keep the encryption for yourself when you capture the node!. Trojans can be detected by a Scanned though and are easily deactivated when the enemy is aware of them.

Scanner: Scanners remove enemy presence from your nearby nodes, effectively “healing” the nodes. They can also detect Trojans and Backdoors so they are a very efficient defensive tool. However, as Firewalls and Overclocked nodes, they change allegiance when captured so you need to keep them away from the front lines.

Thinking out of the node

The game can only be described as frenetic. It´s like having to play rock paper scissors lizard spock with ten hands simultaneously. You have to keep guessing and assessing the situation in real time and thinking of effective ways to counter or lock down your opponent into submission. And even though, just one error can mean defeat, so it´s a very intense game where nothing is decided until the last second.

Even cornered, Paragon still has a chance if he manages to split Cipher´s network in two.
Many times I had victory at my grasp when I detonated a Trojan and lost half my network, leaving the weakest areas exposed. Or a rogue virus broke havoc into my heavily overclocked network. On the other hand I also grasped great victories by crippling a superior enemy with a well placed Spike.

To make things harder, PWN networks are in 3d, and, while most of them can be usually seen completely from a certain angle, giving you access to all the nodes in a glimpse, there are  some exceptions, and maps like Diamond or Axis will test your nerves as you will have to change camera view  by spinning and twisting continuously to grasp everything that is going on in the network a la Minority Report.

Endless Fun

Overall the experience is challenging and fun. The campaigns increase in difficulty and offer an incredible amount of different network patterns with their chokepoints and weaknesses and while some will favor different playstyles, in the long run, only the most aware hacker will be the only successful. The AI is also very good and makes for a great challenge, adapting to your strategies and effectively punishing you for playing recklessly.

The only major problem I saw in the game, after all my playtroughs is that the AI on games where you do not have full map vision is very difficult to beat. It´s a bit frustrating to fight a fast responsive machine opponent when you cannot see the blows coming or can´t clearly discern where the nodes are connected. The most grievous injury is the use of Virus in these maps: you will rotate spin and turn frustratingly to have visual to the nodes that are half hidden while the virus spreads and you can´t just tap them fast enough.

Even though, this ended up feeling like a challenge. You see, every map you beat is unlocked to your collection, so if you want to be able to play on that network later, you need to beat the AI. So in the end it feels like a boss fight with a small reward… and there are achievements too… who wouldn´t like some achievements?
So... many... maps!

Summing up

If you like games that make you think and test your fast reflexes, get PWN. You will not be disappointed. It´s a game with a lot to offer in a very simple presentation and that will keep you grabbed to your ipad for hours to come.

You will like it:

  • If you are into fast strategical thinking.
  • If you always wished hacking was like in Hollywood movies.
  • If you are used to have a cube as a best friend.

You won´t like it:

  • If eye-hand coordination is not your forte.
  • If you get frustrated easily by challenges.
  • If you always thought Encryption was the name of Superman´s dog.


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