With Donald Trump and Brexit dominating the news of late, you’d be forgiven for missing the passing of the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act. Allowing mass surveillance on a, rather terrifying, scale – the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ was passed without so much as a whimper from the general public.
So, what better way to experience this dreaded bill if not through our favourite form of escapism – video games. Mainlining places you in the chair of a newly-recruited member of MI7 soon after the passing of the ‘Blu Pill Act’ – it doesn’t take a secret service agent to figure out what that means. However, as opposed to other recent games focused on the dangers of surveillance (such as last year’s Orwell), Mainlining takes a more laid-back and humorous approach.
Booting up your Windows XP computer – oh sorry, Rainbows XP – you’re greeted with a parody of damn near everything. Early cases will see you visiting illegal P2P websites such as Freedomwire and Grand Trunk. You’ll soon switch to the PeyoteX OS and Firebird web browser – an obvious upgrade over the old Internet Discoverer. It’s both nostalgic and suitably entertaining, although, like parts of the narrative, doesn’t always make sense. This is apparently a world where freely hackable cars are a common sight, yet the most powerful security agency in the country are still on dial-up.
Your tale sees you hot on the trail of a vigilante hacker group causing trouble for MI7 – with each case tasking you with taking down an individual member. The meat of the game comes in the form of collecting information and piecing together various clues. In the end, the thematic backdrop of the game mostly serves as an excuse as to why you have access to the amount of material you do.
To make a successful arrest you need evidence of a crime comitted, their real name and current location. To get all of the information together, you’ll be trawling through webpages, documents and logging in to other PCs. It’s a lot of reading, and some critical thinking and ability to connect the dots is required, but generally, most cases follow a fairly linear route. You’ll often find yourself taking notes – each PC has an in-game Notepad – of nearly everything: names, both real and online, IP addresses, locations, even the name of somebody’s dog. Remember answering a “name of first pet” security question?
For all its linearity, Mainlining does a fantastic job of making you feel like a detective. It’s as much a puzzle game as it is a point-and-click, and the continous light-hearted humour keeps the experience from feeling too drab. Unfortunately, its linearity can still leads to some annoyances. Like a Telltale game will often succeed in giving the illusion of choice, Mainlining gives the illusion of being much more open than it is.
Attempt to return to previous websites or areas, for instance, and you’ll find they aren’t available. Early on you’ll be contacted by a journalist who wants information on the Blu Pill Act and she’ll continue to ask case after case until the game finally allows you – even if you wanted to help immediately. Any notes taken are erased after each mission, which is something of an annoyance when attempting to piece together the overarching plot later on.
Technical problems are abound too. There’s no manual saving, and I faced a problem where nothing would seem to autosave when I first played. This forced me to replay the first two hours of the game… twice. Opening multiple files can often cause them to become glitched and flash incessantly. Sometimes after-mission reports don’t format correctly; going off-screen and becoming unreadable. Oh, and I should warn you, if you find yourself typing in a code which you think includes a 1 – try a lower-case L. The game’s font choice means both appear the same.
Mainlining attempts to stray away from any particularly harsh commentary, rather focusing on being a unique and fun point-and-click. Unlike other titles in the same vein, you won’t find yourself being convinced one way or the other on any real-world issues. Instead, it tries to convince you that this, slightly absurd, bunch of characters are real. Your overly flirtatious workmate, a drug dealer who changed his name to ‘Bud Blaze’, and his father, a lawyer who writes My Little Pony fan-fiction in his spare-time, all are given enough detail and small traits to come off as actual people.
On the whole, Mainlining succeeds at being a genuinely compelling and interesting detective game that its many small irritations don’t ruin the experience too much. You may find yourself wrongly accusing someone because the game wanted a very particular piece of evidence, but its entertaining nature means you don’t much care. Just wait a week or two until the bugs and glitches are sorted out. But hey, it is a realistic experience of Windows XP, after all.