Following the debut of their paranormal investigation series The Black Watchmen in 2015, Alice & Smith have clearly not been content to rest on their laurels. Their initial success has spurred the creation of a genre-spanning “extended universe” of titles that exist in and flesh out a shared gameworld in which elite clandestine agents face off against the forces of the occult. The latest such entry is NITE Team 4, a hacking simulator that manages to combine realistic cyber-skullduggery with a twisting, turning story set in The Black Watchmen’s universe.
The basic premise is that you are a member of the Black Watchmen’s signals intelligence and cyberwarfare arm, known as NITE (Network Intelligence & Technical Evaluation) Team 4. As such, you support the rest of the agency by providing digital surveillance, network infiltration, and stealing vital information from (or planting viruses on) targets across cyberspace. In short, you’re a hacker, and the game does a fantastic job of making you feel like one, with a huge number of assignments and a surprisingly wide variety of mission types to tackle in the main game alone, with even more optional content available to players who want to dive deeper into this cloak-and-dagger world.
Once you have created a free account and logged in, NITE Team 4 presents a sizeable set of ‘Academy’ missions that get you up to speed on the different tasks, tools, and features used to complete objectives. Each is divided into phases, and you must finish the goals in one phase before moving to the next one, providing a well-organized introduction to what would otherwise be (and sometimes still is) an overwhelming amount of information. You begin with a basic overview of the graphical user interface, known as Stinger OS, and work your way through each tool and technique, culminating in a full-fledged mission in which you must locate a journalist being targeted by a rival group of hackers.
This introductory assignment does a good job of showcasing the diversity of tasks and demonstrating the pacing and flow of gameplay that you can expect to find throughout. It’s clear from the start that, though tech-savvy players will likely find many of the techniques second nature, even those without any programming experience can climb the learning curve required to play. For instance, let’s hypothetically say that your task is to uncover more details about a company where a character you are investigating works. Armed only with the company’s website address, using the ‘DNS & VHost Mapping’ tool you might input the URL (http://www.example.com) into the DOS-style terminal window along with a set of commands to search for subdomains or the exact IP address it can be found at. Like every aspect of the game, this tool runs in what is essentially ‘real time’, so the deeper you instruct it to search, the longer it takes to find information. All of these searches are simulated, even when you instruct them to scour real-world search engines like Google and Bing.
Gathering such information is typically in service of accessing servers, so the next step is usually to seek vulnerabilities that can be exploited for the purposes of bypassing a server’s security protocols. Once this is done, using a tool called Foxacid allows you to attempt to gain entry to the server using the security vulnerabilities as a backdoor. Once inside the network, you then typically must ‘map’ the internal network to find a particular internal server or computer, plant an infected file, or steal data.
Other tasks include using XKEYSCORE to find hidden connections between data you’ve collected, such as an employee who works for two companies at the same time, by dragging and dropping entities into the search tool and running a cross-reference. Cell-phone hacking software and other programs that enable you to perform Man-in-the-Middle eavesdropping, and control drones or access satellite imagery are among the bevy of tools you will learn how to use, along with two other standout functions that deserve their own mention.
It is possible to run password attacks by entering what you know about the target to decrease the time it would otherwise take to brute-force a solution, although the latter is possible if necessary. These attacks are generally useful when a server has no vulnerabilities but you know the email address or other relevant account information and personal details such as friends, acquaintances, and current or former employers, to name just a few. This too runs in real time, displaying an estimated length to completion based on how many password databases are to be searched and how much additional information about the target is entered. The longest search I encountered was an hour, but that is an extreme outlier; most finish in a few minutes at most, and typically within a few seconds. It’s an interesting and admirably realistic part of the experience (enhanced by the inclusion of real-world password databases such as John the Ripper), though no doubt one that requires exercising a fair bit of patience. I found it immersive enough that it didn’t bother me.
The Social Engineering Toolkit is especially clever, and as my favorite tool it didn’t get used enough for my taste. Essentially, it allows you to send mass emails to a corporation in the hopes that someone there will open it and infect their system with a payload that grants you access to the network. This is largely used in situations similar to the password attack tool, when a server has no vulnerabilities. Using knowledge about the company you already possess, you craft an email template with a subject line and attachment type that is most likely to induce someone to open it. For instance, if you are dealing with a company that’s currently hiring, you might tailor the email with a subject line mentioning an application, and an attachment type in the form of an infected Word document. Once the attack is launched, the GUI shows you the progress of the attack and whether it is ultimately successful.
While all of this no doubt sounds complex, and in many ways it is, the game does an excellent job of easing you into the way these features work and detailing what you can do with them, your agency “handlers” providing voice-over guidance along the way. It can take some time to figure out what steps to do before others, or what to do when a particular avenue of inquiry isn’t revealing the information you seek, but the general workflow became second nature to me as I gained familiarity with the tools and missions in the main storyline. Even the text-based nature of most of these tools is easier to manage than you might expect. Anyone who abhors the idea of significant amounts of typing will probably find NITE Team 4 a frustrating experience, but various shortcuts make things easier, such as using the tab key to autocomplete commands and (previously used) URLs, a simple design consideration that surprisingly saves a lot of repetition.
Where many hacking simulators tend to abandon realism for a movie-style experience, NITE Team 4 feels extremely genuine while still retaining a definite “cool factor.” I’m impressed by how well Alice & Smith have been able to combine a realistic hacking experience with flashes of cinematic, even sci-fi, atmosphere. Helping to accomplish this is the choice to base the game’s fictional tools on real-world ones. Foxacid and XKEYSCORE, in particular, are essentially gamified versions of real NSA surveillance and intelligence-gathering tools revealed by the Snowden leaks, although the interface is no doubt improved for a slicker, more immersive look and feel.
Not everything is perfectly executed, but problems are very minor, such as the need to redo a long string of text if you mistype a command. In addition, using XKEYSCORE can devolve into try-everything-on-everything until you discover the hidden connection. It’s a situation that thankfully doesn’t crop up that often, but some clues require such careful scrutiny that it can be easy to miss a helpful bit of information to narrow down the possibilities.
That said, there is such a wide variety of mission types that issues like these feel like nitpicking. Even the repetitive nature of the player’s role – what should be the death-knell for any game, and especially a hacking simulator – never felt like it covered quite the same ground twice, nor did it become boring. This may be partly influenced somewhat by my interest in hacking simulators, but it is notable that other hacking sims typically lose my interest after some time, while NITE Team 4 did not.
Some of the credit for this also goes to the plot that ties the Story Mode together. There are a total of four “Operations” divided into multiple chapters, with multiple objectives or missions within each chapter. While saying very much about the narrative would be spoiling, you begin by investigating who is responsible for an incident in which military-grade malware is stolen from NITE Team 4. While at first it seems like an ordinary case of cyber-espionage, it soon becomes evident that much more is at stake. While it stands on its own for newcomers, the story will likely intrigue The Black Watchmen players especially, with references sprinkled throughout and plot points cleverly tied in to the overall Black Watchmen universe. Tasks include tracking down a target’s vehicle by drone, hacking into various fictional companies and other entities, and even infiltrating a “dark web” organization by posing as a freelance hacker.
While I generally enjoyed how the plot unfolded, there were times I found it hard to follow, perhaps because such a heavy focus on the gameplay meant that the storyline, intentionally or otherwise, took a backseat to solving the objective at hand. It’s not so much that there is a disconnect between the gameplay and the story, but rather that it is all too easy to become focused on completing assignments and lose sight of how everything ties together. Other players may have no trouble keeping track, but I struggled at times to piece together the significance of certain events and plot twists. It all came back together by the end despite these issues, but it is a problem I also noticed during my time with The Black Watchmen, and came to similar conclusions as to the reason for it.
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