tirsdag den 11. april 2017

Hackers Home Reloaded (Exit, Berlin)

Hacking, online blackmailing and cyber espionage have become a part of international politics across the globe. Private citizens get their identities stolen, bank accounts get wiped, and websites are potential hacker victims. But if you thought “Hackers Home Reloaded” would take on these thriller-like aspects, you have to think twice. Sadly, this escape room focuses on little more than the mundane aspects of hacking and cyber crimes.

The title itself — “Hackers Home Reloaded” — is something of a misnomer, since there is only one hacker and there isn’t any real home. Still, on the other hand, the set up of the game is actually alright: It’s as interesting as it is relevant to modern society: German hacker meister, Peter Wallner, has escaped from his apartment in Berlin without a trace. And he is planning to release a computer virus to put the entire society – maybe even the whole wide world – into a state of lockdown. In other words: He must be stopped, the virus must be stopped, before it’s too late.  

So, this is where you enter the story: Apparently you are some sort of special agent / computer expert on the right side of the law. And you have to rummage through the hacker’s room and find out where he has set up his giant computer in order to release the virus. Furthermore, you also have to shut down the computer, as well, and stop the virus. In other words: It should be pretty straightforward to conjure up some thriller-like hacker puzzles. But, alas, this is where “Hackers Home Reloaded” falls short.

Set decoration: 3,3 points
Thinking of a hacker’s home or even a hacker’s room, you would maybe expect some sort of homeliness. Like a bed, or 80s film posters on the wall, or a cabinet with computer games, or other boxes of electronic equipment. Since the great hacker genius, Peter Wallner, has only just narrowly escaped the authorities, you might even expect cans of energy drinks and pizza leftovers on a table. At least just something to establish that this room is in fact a person’s home.

However, “Hackers Home Reloaded” offers you nothing like that: Instead you start in a sparingly decorated, industrial office of some kind. There’s a desk with an ordinary computer screen on top. There’s a huge, flat TV screen on the wall full of insignificantly coloured dots. And then there’s a huge wooden wardrobe placed along the wall — there are also four really old-fashioned CRT monitors. All of it simply feels misplaced in this hi-tech story.

Still, on the other hand, once you move further into the story and stand face to face with the mega computer towards the end, the decorations do become better and more in tune with the storyline. Overall, however, the whole set does feel quite meagre and lacking in detail. There ought to be many more knick-knacks to bring about an atmosphere: The sense of dryness is all around in this concrete basement room. And just to prove the point, the lights are deliberately dimmed, so the sparse decorations don’t get too obvious — but instead of creating atmosphere, the sparing lights just create frustration, because it’s so difficult to see anything properly.

Furthermore, there is no background noise or music to set the mood in here either. But that’s not to say that the room is completely silent — that might have created a really disturbing claustrophobic feeling. No, you can actually hear other sounds from the other escape rooms located nearby in the same building. And it goes without saying that these sounds just take you right out of the hacking experience, and destroy any kind of immersion in the game. 

Puzzles: 3,5 points
Several of the puzzles in “Hackers Home Reloaded” are also somewhat problematic. Overall you could say that there is a lack of proper flow in the game. The puzzles are rarely integrated in the set design or the overall hacking idea, but seem to be applied randomly to the room afterwards. For instance, the huge TV screen with all the coloured dots is only there for you to decipher a code — no hacker in the world would decorate his wall with such a silly and annoying screen. And the same goes for many other puzzles — they are as odd as they are difficult to solve. Why would a 20th century hacker have a freemason code decipher in his drawer? And why would he construct such an elaborate colour machine controlled with analogue levers? It’s all too incongruous, it just doesn’t add up.

The lack of flow is also felt when you constantly get stuck in the puzzles, because you need to solve each of them one at a time in a particular sequence. Where other escape rooms are more open for improvisation, this room forces you to think exactly like the game designers. Of course, there’s room for collaboration among the team players, but you cannot work on separate puzzles at the same time. Too many puzzles demand that you solve them bend over a table trying to figure out the logic behind a row of numbers, letters or other signs. And since a lot of the puzzles are just non-integrated gimmicks, it’s hard to see the logic. If they do anything, they make you notice all the flaws and make the total experience less immersive.

A couple of the puzzles belong in the physical category, and involve you crawling around and exploring a hidden cabinet of sorts and deciphering codes in a more inventive manner. If only “Hackers Home Reloaded” had had more puzzles like that, it might have been more playful and fun.

Game master: 2,5 points
“Hackers Home Reloaded” is designed by Exit Berlin, and they are quite fluent in English, which is always a good thing for foreigners visiting the capital of Germany. The introduction to the game itself was split in two: First, the general rules of live escape games were explained on a TV screen, pre-recorded to be used and reused over and over, again and again. It’s standardized, and it’s OK, but it’s certainly not personal when you are just two players.

Then, we were shown into the “Hackers Home Reloaded” room itself where we were told the backstory of Peter Wallner. Inside the room — not outside — which just destroyed the atmosphere of the room even more. It simply undermined our suspension of disbelief, because a lot of the key items were pointed out to us, and the rules were repeated once again: “You can touch this, but not that.” “Be careful about this, not that.” Etc. In other words: “Hackers Home Reloaded” was made to feel like a “game” from the get go – not an immersive world.

More frustrating still were the hints we were served along the way. There were many of them, but that was not a problem as such. Most of the hints were downright phrased as direct solutions to the puzzles we were dealing with. “Do this and that.” “The first letter in the code is such and such.” “Check object X properly.” This made the hints feel too much like a helping hand than was really necessary, and it actually destroyed any sense accomplishment or feeling of success on our part. Sometimes the hints were even served while we were close to solving the puzzles ourselves, making our own effort feel quite obsolete! This just goes to show how important the game master’s role is: It’s all about making the players feel that they participate in the playing experience. On the contrary, here, we were reduced to mere pawns in the game, only doing what we were told through the game master’s so-called “hints”.

Conclusion: 3,1 points
Overall, “Hackers Home Reloaded” is not a good game. The background story, the set up is nice as it is, but the lacklustre and uninspired set decorations undermined our immersion in the game world. And to top it off, the puzzles made the whole experience out-and-out frustrating.

Room: Hackers Home Reloaded
Company: Exit Berlin
Address: Klosterstrasse 62, 10179 Berlin
Language available: German and English
Game time: 66 minutes
Price: 59 euros for 2 players

This review:
Game date: 16 February 2017
Number of players: 2
Hints: Oooh thousands!!!
We didn’t survive, 66 minutes played

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