Imagine you’re in an incredibly low budget ’80s movie.
Scratch that. Imagine you’re in any ’80s movie. Now imagine that you’re a hacker, and it gets to that intense scene where you’ve got to hack the entirety of the USSR or something equally absurd, but nobody on the production team really understands what hacking is. Networm puts you in the role of that hacker, the kind of hacker with a name like Mantis, or Cyber Steve.
Networm is a simple game, but it really nails what it is trying to do. The basic premise is that you control a little marker that flies down a tube, or “port”, and your job is to dodge the barriers, or “ICE”, by moving your little marker round the edges of the tube with the arrow keys. Sounds laughably easy right? Well try speeding the whole thing up to levels even The Flash would have trouble comprehending, then throw in some curveballs like invisible barriers, a trace that’s constantly threatening to overtake you and end your run, and the ability to tailor your rig for maximum speed.
Theoretically, if you were on crack you could probably complete this game without any need to delve into the fairly expansive rig customisation options. However, as we are all, on the whole, not on crack, you will be pleased to know that you can upgrade your rig to help you out on runs. Every time you complete a level you receive credits and credibility (yes, this was sometimes a tad confusing), which can be used to purchase upgrades. These upgrades can either be things that you install onto your rig, such as guns to clear barriers, or viruses to slow down a trace, or upgrades that improve your rig as a whole. The catch is that your rig, as well as having certain traits such as movement speed, boost speed, and CPU (CPU cycles are used when guns or abilities are activated), also has limited Memory, meaning that you have to carefully pick and choose what you install to make sure you have enough leftover Memory to pick up loot at the end of the level. New rigs can be bought that have more Memory or a faster move speed, for example, to suit your particular play style. Although most players will probably find that they won’t have to delve too far into the customisation options as the game is quite short, the fact that these options are available and fairly varied is still appreciated.
The aesthetic of Networm is the epitome of cyber punk. Whilst graphically simple, the theme is fun and consistent, from the green on black text, to the CRT screen emulation and the TRON-like grid lines. For a game that is a pastiche of how the 80’s layman understood hacking in Hollywood, Networm does an excellent job of creating a convincing parody. Despite this, the creator of Networm clearly has a good understanding of “hacking”, as even an ape like myself can see that most of the terms used in the game relate to real world computer mechanics (although don’t ask me just how accurate he is). The music continues this aesthetic, although as anyone will know the synthy cyber punk style can get annoying if played for any length past the time it takes for “Cyber Steve” to get “into the system”, and with only a small selection of songs it really gets on your nerves after you’ve been trying to crack that one level for the past hour.
That brings me to the difficulty of the game. The curve is odd to say the least, as different groups of levels, or “servers”, can be played in practically any order. Whilst the initial level of a server will be mind-numbingly easy, the final level will be far past a challenge, after which you will go back to the easy levels as you enter another server. I am not ashamed to say that a couple of levels took me over an hour to get through, although I must say that time flies by with this game, which is surely a compliment. Networm is certainly quite addictive, mostly because you get to a point where either you “will finally beat this level I swear to God” or you end up punching through your screen. When you finally get through the last few excruciating levels, the end game consists of an “Endless Mode”. Although at first Networm appeared to have a worryingly small number of levels, the difficulty level of some and the Endless Mode somewhat make up for shortfall. The majority of this game’s longevity will lie in the Endless Mode, although I suspect that a fair amount of people will simply be satisfied with the many hours they took cracking those nightmare levels and probably leave the game be after that.
As to be expected with this sort of game, the story elements are very restricted. However, the developer has done well with what they had and has created an intriguing, if slightly derivative, story told through the discovery of files hidden away on servers that you’ve cracked. It’s a novel way to make the game just that bit more comprehensive and really bring together that 80’s cyber punk aesthetic.
Networm is an intense game that will be wrongfully passed off by many for appearing too basic to warrant a purchase. In reality it is well thought out in both theme and execution, and will provide more than its fair share of play time, especially if you’re into high scores (or masochism) with the Endless Mode.