Mainlining, currently in development by Rebelephant and published by Merge, is a game about hacking. However, unlike Introversion’s Uplink, which put you in the role of a hacker operating on the other side of the law, Mainlining makes you a member of a cybercrime investigation unit. Your remit is simple, investigate network-based crimes, unmask the culprits and bring them to justice. The game is currently being funded by a Kickstarter – due to finish in a few days – and there is a demo available to download and try.
Well, I downloaded and installed the demo, launched the game, watched the opening credits – I’m sure I’ve come across the name Jared Emerson-Johnson before – and nearly had a heart attack as a blue screen of death appeared. You see, Mainlining takes place in a desktop operating system, modelled after a certain widespread OS from the last decade, and the first thing that happens is a system crash. All is not lost though as, after the initial shock has passed, the OS reboots and gives you a very familiar welcome screen.
Everything in Mainlining – the colour scheme, the icons on the screen, even the recycle bin and the command prompt – is made up to look like Windows XP (there! I said it!). Although here the OS is called Rainbow. A live chat between the characters of the game runs down the left of the screen, giving you a run down of the story as it happens and directing you as to what to do next. Your first task is to open your email and view the current case notes.
The first case to investigate – and indeed the demo’s only case – involves the hacking of your department’s network. The case notes direct you to an underground website specialising in illegal downloads, black market purchases and – surprise surprise – an online drug store run by the suspect. The only information you have about this person is his online username. Your job is to find out his real name and match it to evidence of criminal activity.
Soon, your main tools of the trade are made available. There’s a look-up database allowing you to access all known information on a person – not much use when we only have a user name – and a command prompt. This is where the real meat of the demo is. The command prompt gives you access to networking tools and allows you to determine IP addresses from websites using the ping command – something I’m sure we’ve all done at least once – and also allows you to hack into the site and access its files.
I won’t spoil what happens next but the case ends with the suspect arrested and sentenced to prison. Then the demo ends. It lasted all of about five minutes – much less when I played it through the second time for screenshots. I was a bit surprised as I had been expecting maybe one or two more cases showing other features that will be in the full game. For example, the trailer shows images from a map application which I imagine will let you hunt down suspects.
In terms of how it plays there isn’t really a lot to go on. It feels like a Windows environment, right down to the game menu options inside the Start button equivalent. You can move windows around to arrange them more conveniently. There’s even a Notepad application which is analogous to what to me is the best Windows feature of all – Notepad. Seriously. It’s a no-frills, basic text editor, perfect for jotting down random thoughts, and best of all, it doesn’t try to help you or format your text. The command line interface is also familiar to those who regularly use such things. So, all in all, aside from the retro-style graphics, it’s a fairly accurate simulator, if a bit simplistic in places.
Would I buy the full game? Yes, I think I would. Even though the demo is way too short in my opinion it has enough of a taste of what’s to come to keep me interested. There is a hint of puzzle solving and investigation without too much hand holding which makes me hopeful that the full game will be well worth playing. There are a lot of places a story set in this kind of game can go and I would be very interested in seeing where the developers take it. Even though it nearly scared me to death at the start.
By the way, I just looked it up. Jared Emerson-Johnson composed a lot of Telltale Games soundtracks, so it looks like the music to this game is in good hands.