You’d never know by the name, but PWN mances the neuro

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Developer 82 Inc pegged it when they named their last game New World Colony. That game plays pretty much as you’d expect, what with the hexes and lumber and villages and victory points. But then they name their next game PWN, which doesn’t do much to put me in mind of cyberspace and hacking. Fortunately, it’s got the subtitle “combat hacking” so that you know this isn’t about 13-year-olds showing each other up through stunning feats of juvenilia.

Combat Hacking — I’m just going to pretend it’s not called PWN — is a nifty exercise in fingerwork and brain power. It looks like a puzzle game, but it’s not. It’s actually a head-to-head real time strategy game focusing on territory control, maneuvering, and the careful application of special powers, all lovingly cyberpunk themed. It’s too fast to be simply brainy, and way too brainy to be simply an action game. The matches are short and eventually decisive, but they allow for plenty of dramatic give and take, and there’s even a campaign mode to unlock characters with special abilities, dopey names, and individual leaderboards.

It’s a good enough game that it could have supported some sort of narrative beyond “and now Cipher fights Prime on the Megacube map”. As someone who’s been steeped in Fantasy Flight’s excellent Netrunner card game, I really dig how Combat Hacking hits that cyberpunk sweet spot where gameplay and theme overlap. If it had just gone a tad further and given the action some sort of strategic context, I’d be in cyberpunk nerdvana. It turns out this is what I wanted from the hacking interface is the last Deus Ex.

The 3D maps are an unfortunate bit of busy work that lend plenty of cyberspace theming — cyberspace is totally 3D, duh — but they don’t lend themselves well to the touchpad controls. I meant to de-virus my nodes, but I accidentally spun the matrix around so now I can’t see what’s going where. The action is too fast for accidental map twirling. And although you can play multiplayer, you can only do it with people in the same room. But until a new Neuromancer game comes along, this will do just fine.

3 stars