Sunday, 30 June 2013

Game 32: Neuromancer - A Harsh Lesson in Hacking

Tricky Journal Entry 13: "Man, I am seriously rusty at ICE breaking! Its been so long since I've been in a position to do it, but I feel like I'm having to learn how to do it all over again! At least I have an Ono-Sendai deck, which should at least allow me to make a few mistakes without suffering too greatly. There are also some great new breakers out there that weren't around when I first started hacking, so I plan to check them all out and see what works and what doesn't. Once I'm fully kitted out, I'll be in bases before the ICE even knows I'm there!"

What amazing secrets will be hidden within this base?!

I’m keen to get to the cyberspace bit, so will cut to the chase here. Wouldn’t you love to gain access to top secret NASA files! That’s what I was hoping for when I successfully gained access to the NASA base with my Comlink 6.0 software in Neuromancer. The welcome screen was promising too, with the lengthy title of “NASA Mission Planning System – Ames Research Centre – Space Sciences Division – DECNET Node Mars”. My Scout 1.0 software informed me that there were two access levels to the base, and my Sequencer 1.0 software told me the first level password was APOLLO. Once inside I had four options, being 1. Asteroid Mission Summary, 2. Lunar Factory Summary, 3. Mars Colony Summary and 4. Terraforming Study. I’ll say straight up that none of them appeared to have any relevance in the game. The Asteroid Mission Summary is a study of the launch energy required to reach the asteroid Eros, the Self-Replicating Lunar Factory section discusses a factory designed to replicate matter on the surface of a planetary body such as the moon, and the final two sections simply had “File Under Modification” written in them. I had to assume that if there was a purpose to the NASA base, it would only show itself with second level access.

Apparently only the boring, overly technical variety!

Right, now I’d now checked out every base I was aware of and done everything I could think of with the cash available to me. It was time to start again and make sure I did only the bare essentials, purchasing only the chips, warez and deck that I absolutely needed. Basically this involved doing whatever it took to get Comlink 6.0 installed on my deck (2.0 from Crazy Edo, 3.0 from Panther Moderns board, 4.0 from SEA base, 5.0 from ESFA base, and 6.0 from Tozoku base) and everything that I knew would increase my cash total (getting the $10K from Armitage to start the game, winning two chess tournaments with Battlechess 2.0, uploading Comlink 6.0 to Hosaka base, and picking up my pay from the Hosaka office while impersonating an employee). I literally achieved all of this in about fifteen minutes, and found myself with a total of $29633!!!! That was well and truly enough cash to buy a cyberspace compatible deck, but the question was which one. I made my way to Asano Computing and looked through the models available, referencing the Consumer Review guide so I knew which decks could access cyberspace. I figured I would have to keep a fair amount of cash spare, as I still needed to get some more chips and possibly the security pass of Lupus.

I'm rich!!!!

I figured out that the cheapest cyberspace-compatible decks were the Ono-Sendai Cyberspace II ($18000 with 11 RAM), the Cyberspace III ($22000 with 15 RAM), the Moriyama Tofu ($23100 with 20 RAM) and the Ninja 4000 ($23300 with 20 RAM). Since I really didn’t know how much cash I was going to need, nor how many programs I was going to require being installed simultaneously, I decided on the Cyberspace II. It would at least get me into cyberspace, and I could always restore and get a different one if it didn’t work out. With my new deck, I headed back to Cheap Hotel and prepared to go online! When I operated my Cyberspace II, I now had the option to “Enter cyberspace” as well as the standard “Enter link code” option. I chose to enter cyberspace and shortly afterwards found myself looking at an orange diamond on a grid with a spirally green background. I really didn’t have any idea what I was looking at, but noticed my cash level was dropping at one credit per second, the way it has been while exploring bases. The interface looked completely different, yet I quickly realised that four of the six main icons still remained (the PAX and Talk icons were gone). The Date, Time and Constitution levels were also gone (I could still see my cash balance).

How do I start the tutorial? The game has a tutorial...right?!

I opened up the manual to try to figure out what all the other sections on the screen were all about. “The bottom right corner of the screen contains your EEG monitor, which gives you a visual representation of your brain wave activity. To the left of the EEG there is a gauge of your cyberdeck’s shielding which measures (bottom to top) the damage to your deck’s shield before it begins affecting your constitution level and warez. Just above the EEG is a horizontal gauge of ICE shielding that measures (left to right) the damage you inflict on the ICE or AI during combat.” OK, so if the vertical bar reaches the top before the horizontal bar reaches the right, I’m in trouble! What about the left section? “The left side of the cyberdeck panel is where information will appear when needed. At the bottom centre of the cyberdeck panel, there are four numbers: from left to right, these are the cyberspace zone number you’re in, your X and Y co-ordinates in cyberspace, and the amount of money in your credit chip.” So the Cheap Hotel jack had taken me to cyberspace zone number “0”, and my starting coordinates were 112, 96? I still had questions, such as “what is the orange diamond?”, but decided the rest would probably become clear with a little bit of experimentation. I moved forward to the diamond, and was given the option to “Enter Database” at 112, 112. I accepted!

Um...yeah...sure, why not!

I was now looking at the same orange diamond, yet it had a blue ring around it that I assumed was “ICE”. The manual had the following to say on the topic: “Bases are protected by ICE - Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics - which acts as an independent, semi-intelligent barrier, keeping cowboys like you from getting inside the base. However, cowboys do manage to break in with their specialized icebreaking softwarez. The trick is finding the appropriate versions and types of softwarez to break through the ICE before it can adapt its defences to the attack. There are subtle, slow-acting viruses that sneak up on an ICE layer and destroy it gradually, as well as brute force icebreakers that can crush an ICE layer all at once. There are many different kinds of icebreaking programs – some good and some bad. You’ll also notice that icebreakers vary in their effectiveness, but you’ll have to experiment on your own to learn more about each one.” Cool, so all I had to do was use my ICE Breaking skill and my various ICE Breaker warez to get into whatever this base was! Only problem was that I didn’t have any of these on me, since I’d spent the bare minimum cash necessary to get into cyberspace and hadn’t been able to download anything much with my UBX RAM limitations. I pressed the Exit button back into the real world and went shopping!

It's actually a pretty cool idea, just not one you'd expect to find in an adventure game

I knew there were a few free bits of software that I could add to my deck if I could be bothered going through all my screenshots looking at the various software libraries I’d accessed throughout the game, but I was impatient! I did recall that the Gentleman Loser base had quite a few nice warez to download, so I hopped in and grabbed Hammer 1.0, BlowTorch 1.0 and Probe 3.0.  The first two were ICE breakers and the last one would be useful in figuring out what base I was trying to hack into. I then made my way to Finn’s store and purchased the Drill 1.0 software for $1500, since I’d heard that was a particularly good ICE breaker. I then purchased the ICE Breaking skill chip for $1000 and the Holy Joystick for $20. With all that done, I accessed the Chiba Tactical Police base to enter Larry Moe’s details on the warrant page before entering the Panther Moderns base to purchase the Evasion skill chip from Lupus. I gave the joystick to Nolan at the House of Pong and received the Zen and Sophistry skill chips in return. Finally, I went to the Matrix Restaurant and upgraded my Evasion and Zen chips to version 2. I still had nearly $7000, but I figured I probably had enough skills and warez to learn the ropes in cyberspace, so jacked back in.

Now I have the skills to take this thing down!

This time when I was faced with the ICE protected base, I immediately launched my Probe 3.0 software. A pink electricity-like bolt shot out from the bottom of the screen and made its way slowly towards the ICE. When it made contact, it simply rebounded and made its way back. On reaching me, a message popped up: “DB name: Cheap Hotel, level: 0”. It didn’t surprise me that the closest base to my current location was the Cheap Hotel, since that’s where I was jacked into. So far so good, although pink bolts had started emanating from the ICE as soon as mine had made contact. On hitting me, the vertical bar started filling up. In a panic, I launched Drill 1.0, which once again launched a pink bolt that, when it made contact, quite significantly affected the ICE’s “life”. I remembered from one of the messages I’d read on a board that repeatedly using the same software against ICE has decreasing effectiveness, so I launched Hammer 1.0 and then BlowTorch 1.0. The ICE’s defence was nearly destroyed, but my vertical bar had gone into the red! Not only that, I’d started to notice that some of my software (Comlink 6.0 and Scout 1.0) were now showing minus signs next to them, which couldn’t be good. I assumed that my constitution was way down (the little worm-looking thing on the EEG monitor had gone from green to yellow), and that my deck was copping a beating!

I'm just figuring out what the base is and it's already attacking me!

Eventually the ICE dissipated, and I gained access to the Cheap Hotel base. It was only then that I realised what I’d really been attempting to do, which was gain access to a base that I’d already fully explored. The Cheap Hotel base only has two access levels, and I’d already been there and done that, meaning this whole ICE breaking exercise was really a waste of time, money, constitution, and possibly software. I also realised that in my panic I hadn’t even used my ICE Breaking skill, so likely suffered far more damage than I should have. I exited cyberspace and indeed found that my Comlink 6.0 and Scout 1.0 warez were completely unusable. This meant that I couldn’t get into a base to download another Comlink version, and while I figured the Debug skill would probably assist in bringing my warez back to life, I hadn't purchased it. Rather than run off to Finn's to buy Debug, I decided to restore my game to just prior to entering cyberspace. On re-entering, I decided to see just how big cyberspace zone 0 actually was. Each “step” moved me 16 on either the x or y axes, and the zone went from 16, 16 to 240, 112. That meant it was basically a 15 x 7 grid, but of course there wasn’t a base found at every junction. I explored and found that there were seven bases in the zone, so I set out to use my Probe 3.0 software to find out what they all were (exiting the database as soon as Probe had done its job) before deciding which ones were worth hacking into.

Not the Comlink software! Do you know how long it took me to get that!?

I discovered that the seven bases were Asano Computing (16, 112), Cheap Hotel (112, 112), Panther Moderns (224, 112), World Chess Confederation (160, 80), Consumer Review (32, 64), Psychologist (96, 32) and Regular Fellows (208, 32). I was able to get all this infor without suffering any damage, although my cash depleted significantly in the process. Now that I knew which bases were in the zone, I looked at my spreadsheet to see which ones had access levels that I hadn’t uncovered passwords for. As mentioned previously, I’d already seen everything there was to see at Cheap Hotel, but there was at least one extra level of access that I could gain on all of the other six bases! I once again restored my game (to recover the funds I’d wasted while exploring the zone), and set out to see what I could uncover in each of them. Many readers have suggested that the game goes downhill from here on in, and that cyberspace is fairly repetitive, but I'm feeling pretty excited at having the opportunity to see all there is to see in each of these bases, and to finally be able to utilise all the skills and warez that I’ve been coming across throughout the game. Join me in a day or two to see whether this enthusiasm still remains!

I defeated my first ICE, but my only reward was damaged warez and decreased constitution

Session Time: 0 hours 30 minutes
Total Time: 9 hours 00 minutes

Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: I've written a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no points will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. Please...try not to spoil any part of the game for me...unless I really obviously need the help...or I specifically request assistance. In this instance, I've not made any requests for assistance. Thanks!


  1. Well, at least the screenshots are more interesting to look at!

    The hilarious thing is, most people in this world spend their time accessing the net via text, while hackers do it via GUI, when in reality it is the opposite.

    1. hah, I dug up this old article on hacking in Cyberpunk:

    2. That was oddly on-topic and perfectly relatable, even though it's an article from 14 years ago.

      Oh, and the screenshots are more interesting to look at because you're seeing them for the first time. Just wait... :p

    3. Mean Streets: Flying cars, but we'll still be using faxes for communication.
      Neuromancer: Computer technology integrated to your brain (skill chips) and cheap space travel, but no low-cost Internet with GUI for general public.

      It's tough to predict future.

    4. That is a very fitting article Canageek. I tried to rate it at the end and got a 404 page though. It would be nice to see a more realistic view of cyberspace.

    5. Lars-Erik: That might have to do with the fact it is heavily based on Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020, both of which are based heavily on Neromancer.

      Zenic: Yeah, there hasn't been a new issue of the fanzine since I found the site in high school, and the website is starting to break down.

      Ilmari: Amen.

    6. I'm actually a touch worried that this is more accurate. At least, I could see ISPs as trying to claim that their interwebs were getting too expensive and that that could only afford to sell on a pay per minute basis... I reckon more than the fair share of those used to outrageous mobile Internet fees would have to attest, no?

    7. I think there's absolutely no way back to pay per minute in this new, always connected world we live in. Pay per gigabyte though is something else, and something that'll probably be used on different connections for some time to come.

      Thankfully that's usually combined with a "free" starter pack, where you have a few gigs included and have to pay per gig only above that. But pay per minute? I can never see it happening again.

    8. Well, given we're talking a dystopian society filled with Irish cops, body part trafficking and microchips being flooded into brains.. yeah, okay, we can probably consider this a little unworth worrying about. But I can still see people getting conned into all sorts of things.

    9. Back to the article: Although it's pretty good, I'd think shady clients in cyberpunk might prefer dodgy bar instead of "private, encrypted virtual room", just because in a dystopian setting all data transmissions can be surveilled and all encryptions can be broken.

    10. Ilmari: You forget that most cities now have ever present camera surveillance, meaning it would be damn easy for them to track you into said bar.

    11. Canageek: Sure, RL meetings do have their risks, but I’d still say they are still greater in virtual meetings. Think about it from the perspective of the spy:
      1) The RL meeting: Assume you have access to all surveillance cameras in the area (pretty difficult feat, but could be possible, if you work for the Big Brother) and you see the person you are spying going into a bar. So what? You haven’t seen who he meets and you cannot even be sure if he has met anyone at this particular place. Even if there’s a camera in the bar, you still cannot hear what he speaks with his contact. And even if the camera has a microphone, their voices might be buried in loud music and general murmur.
      2) If they meet in a virtual chat, you’ll just have to infect either computer with efficient malware (and if you work for Big Brother or evil corporation, chances are they are bugged by default). Every keypress, vibration of microphone, video footage recorded and sent to you with minimal fuss.

      And considering same thing from the perspective of a client, if you want to hire PI Tex Murphy, you cannot be sure that his computer doesn't have any malware spying your conversation: who knows, perhaps Mr. Murphy frequents some suspicious cyberspace sites, like the Den of Martian Ultra Vixens, or he might be easily fooled by e-mail attachments with funny animations of Michael J. Fox.

    12. I think anyone who hires Tex Murphy is getting what they deserve, though. :)

    13. Hey now, Tex has saved the world more times than most of us, his methods seem to work somehow. ;)

      Anyway, considering the world as it is now, both virtual and physical meetings have pretty much equal amount of risk. With physical meetings you have physical surveillance, bugs, phone taps and the risk of being seen. Online you have crackable algorithms, man-in-the-middle attacks, wire taps, malware and traceable breadcrumbs.

      Of course, physical meetings have the added advantage of being able to bring (armed) backup. Which can amount for something if worse comes to worst.

    14. 1) The RL meeting: Assume you have access to all surveillance cameras in the area (pretty difficult feat, but could be possible, if you work for the Big Brother)

      They did it in Toronto in 2010, during the G8 protests. They tracked people all over the city until they took their masks off. Oddly they couldn't figure out which officers were caught on film beating protesters using the same method (George Nobody for example, when he took the city to court)

      And even if the camera has a microphone, their voices might be buried in loud music and general murmur.

      Ah, but such things can often be uncovered if you have enough computing power and time.

      2) If they meet in a virtual chat, you’ll just have to infect either computer with efficient malware (and if you work for Big Brother or evil corporation, chances are they are bugged by default). Every keypress, vibration of microphone, video footage recorded and sent to you with minimal fuss.

      Oh, that is easy to bypass: Use a bootCD such as a Linux LiveCD from a known good source. For those really crazy, compile it yourself or use a really obscure linux distro (or something like OpenBSD). Then you've got a known clean state each time. Second encode your data amongst something that doesn't look like a communication medium; say, a collection of baby pictures, where the timestamps encode information. Very inefficient, but hard to notice. Or just use a very high level encryption algorithm that would take a very long time to crack; my understanding is that there are several known, just most people don't bother with them.

  2. Another GOG sale.

    This time Wadjet Eye games.

    I'm personally a fan of the Blackwell games.

    1. Can everyone please continually remind me not to overspend on GOG until sales arrive. I own all of the games in the big sales today, yet bought them at much higher prices.

      It's worth noting that those prices were still ridiculously low, but still...

    2. I hear ya. I bought a game at the beginning of the month and it goes on sale for 66% off three weeks later.

      Note to self: Don't buy games until the sale... there will always be a sale.

    3. To be fair, Deimar warned us all about this exact thing on the Loaded Bases post...never buy games on sale until the last day in case bundles are offered during the sale. :p

    4. Yep, I was bitten big time last time they had a sale. Think I bought about 20 games and then they all went into bundles.

  3. I liked the blackwell games too. The premise is a little bad-tv, but the games are fun and the characters have some depth. Wadjet Eye is good people.

  4. I¨'m curious now that it's out on GoG. How many of you have bought or kickstarted the LSL remake?

    For some reason I still haven't gotten around to it myself.

    1. I KS'ed it. Well, that one and almost every other adventure from old Sierra. Have to get time to play it though...

  5. And more GOG adventure games...

    For some reason while I haven't been reading many of the Neuromancer posts, I've popped in to mention a lot more sales than I usually would. Strange.

  6. Only 17 days to go, can we reach our first two-month game with Neuromancer?