Mercifully, the hacking minigame is identical in all sites, aside from a few cosmetic changes to the game’s playfield and sound effects. The object of the hacking minigame is to find and disable the container’s System Core. You do this by maneuvering a virus through the board of “nodes” that represent the container’s electronics.
Moving around the board is easy enough. Unexplored nodes in the system are marked as green. Clicking on an unexplored node will reveal its contents: if the node is empty, it will turn orange and allow you to further explore nodes adjacent to it. Sometimes, however, a node will contain an obstacle or other item of interest.
Additionally, as you click on each node, if it is unoccupied (or after you clear the item from the node), it will briefly display a "minesweeper" number, from 1 to 5, which indicates the distance from the nearest non-empy node (5 means "5 or more".). This shows distance from any undiscovered Utility Subsystem, System Core, or Data Cache. The numbers can be used to guide the direction that you should move around the grid.
Among the various things a node may contain are...
These are represented by large circles with an icon inside, and they will be the bane of your hacking existence. Defensive Subsystems prevent you from exploring adjacent nodes until they are disabled. Each Defensive Subsystem has two ratings: Coherence represented by an asterisk atop the Subsystem, which is the equivalent of its health/HP, and Strength represented by a “wifi/signal” icon listed at the bottom of the Subsystem, which is equivalent to its “attack power.”
Your virus has a Coherence and Strength, too, which you can use to disable the system’s defenses! Your virus’s Coherence and Strength are listed in the bottom left of the hacking window. You can attack a Defensive Subsystem by clicking it after it has been explored. Attacking a Subsystem is turn-based: your virus will attack the Subsystem lowering the subsystem's Coherence by your Virus Strength, and then, if the Subsystem is still active, it will attack your virus back. If you reduce the subsystem's Coherence to 0, it is disabled and removed from the board.
If your Virus Coherence reaches 0, you fail the hack and the window is closed. Failing a hack once does not matter for regular Data/Relic sites, but failing a second hack will destroy that container. (Note that for some special kinds of containers/sites, such as Ghost Sites, Sleeper Caches, etc., failing the first hack might cause an explosion, or have other negative effects.). Interrupting a hack counts as a failure, and that includes moving too far away from the can (out of range of your analyzer) while the hacking window is open. This is sometimes a problem for frigates with a MicroWarpDrive active, where you can overshoot the can when Approaching it too fast - so be careful.
Data Caches act a bit like a “treasure chest.” They can contain either a “treasure” (a useful Utility Subsystem), or a “trap” (a particularly nasty Defensive Subsystem). Data Caches have to be manually opened after being exposed (single-click them), so you can safely leave the decision as to whether or not to chance their activation until later on in your hacking attempt.
Utility Subsystems are helpful, consumable “files” that have been left inside the system. You can click one once it has been exposed to add it to a utility slot at the bottom middle of your hacking window. They can then be used by clicking the appropriate utility slot. You can only store three Utility Subsystems at a time, so plan ahead!
Utility Subsystems are extremely useful and come in a few different types.
Thankfully, exploring until you find the System Core and then annihilating it isn’t too difficult in the vast majority of sites you will find in high-sec. With a little practice, you’ll be hacking with the best of them!
- Archaeology (3x, 100k ISK): Required skill for the use of Relic Analyzer modules. Gives +10 Virus Coherence per level.
- Relic Analyzers require Archaeology, and are a fairly cheap mid-slot module used to interact with structures found inside exploration-located Relic Sites. A good amount of your income as an explorer will come from accessing these structures, so note this skill's importance!
- Higher skill levels make the minigame associated with opening Relic Site structures easier, with Archaeology V allowing you to use the significantly-more-powerful Relic Analyzer II module. Any serious explorer should plan to eventually max this skill out, especially if you intend to do Relic sites in Nullsec or Wormholes.
- Hacking (3x, 100k ISK): Required skill for the use of Data Analyzer modules. Gives +10 Virus Coherence per level.
- A la Archaeology, Data Analyzers require Hacking, and open structures found in Data Sites. Hacking I has slightly higher requirements than Archaeology I, but make sure you get both skills, so that you can hack any sites you find.
- Also like Archaeology, higher skill levels make the Hacking minigame easier, and Hacking V will give you access to the Data Analyzer II module, which gives better bonuses, and is especially needed for Data sites in Nullsec or Wormholes.
Ships and equipment
Hacking is usually done in hacking bonused frigates:
- T1 exploration frigates
- T2 Covert Ops frigates
- Faction frigate
These ships gain very helpful bonus to hacking module virus strength, the additional probe strength bonus helps with scanning. Nothing prevents you from doing hacking in other ships but unbonused hull places more weight on skills and knowledge.
To initiate hacking minigame you need to activate right kind of analyzer. For relic sites you need a relic analyzer while data and chemical lab sites require data analyzer. In addition to data and relic analyzers there are also "ligature" and "zeugma" integrated analyzers corresponding to T1 and T2 respectively. These integrated analyzers combine relic and data analyzer into one module that works in all sites. They have identical virus strength to normal analyzers but lower base virus coherence and only one utility subsystem slot. But the integrated analyzers gain bonus coherence from both Archaeology and Hacking resulting in higher coherence than normal analyzers.
The coherence of your virus can be increased with rigs too. "Emission Scope Sharpener" increases data analyzer virus coherence and "memetic Algorithm Bank" increases relic analyzer virus coherence. They both also work on integrated analyzers.
Tips and Tricks
- As a general rule, you’ll want to explore as many nodes as you can before attacking any static Defensive Subsystems. In general, it’s better to explore the entire board before engaging with any subsystems: you may just stumble onto the System Core early! Restoration Nodes and Virus Suppressors are the exception to this though, as they should be removed from the board as soon as possible.
- Always pick up Utility Subsystems as soon as they are exposed. If you keep exploring without snagging these, a Defensive Subsystem might pop up and cut off your access to them!
- Always use a Self Repair as soon as you find it. It simply increases your Coherence, so there is no gain in waiting.
- Don’t open Data Caches until you’ve fully explored all their adjacent nodes. You don’t want your exploration to be cut off by an unexpected Defensive Subsystem!
- Additionally, more difficult hacks contain Data Caches that might expose particularly nasty Defensive Subsystems (Restoration Nodes), so sometimes, you may just want to leave opening Data Caches as a last resort.
- Because exposed Defensive Subsystems cut off access to adjacent nodes, you may want to explore nodes along the edges first before exploring inward. This is because if you happen to expose a Firewall or Anti-Virus along a “wall,” you will be a bit less likely to cut off all of your movement options in that direction.
- Use the 1-5 "minesweeper" numbers to guide your movement around the grid. For example, if you're approaching an edge or corner of the grid, and the number is a 5, then trying to explore anything towards that corner/edge is not useful, because you know that there cannot be anything good within 5 nodes. In general, you want to click in directions that make the numbers smaller. Because the numbers disappear as you move along, you need to remember where there were 5's, so you know which areas not to bother going back to later.
- Use the Rule of Six. This rule is slightly complicated, but can make your life when hacking much easier. The rule is that if you have a node that has six edges leading away from it ( a "complete" node with no missing nodes in the hexagon around it), then that node is guaranteed to 1) Have no Defensive Subsystems in it OR 2) be adjacent to the System Core. What that means in practice is that you can use these squares to move safely through the board, and any Defensive Subsystems you find tell you where the System Core is. It is usually worthwhile to try to reach and use areas of the map with many of these "complete" nodes when hacking.