I burst through the main door of the subway station and send a smoking Mafioso sprawling. I beat his head in with his own baseball bat until I can see his brains on the floor. I swiftly move on to the restroom and catch a urinating thug off guard. *Thwack*. He goes down with one savage swing. I run upstairs, where I confront another enemy wielding a golf club. I mistime my attack and this time it’s my grey matter smeared all over the carpet. I hit ‘R’ and try again. One thing is clear from the first level: Hotline Miami is a brilliant and brutal game.
Hotline Miami is a stealthy top-down shooter in which you play a masked man who kills gangsters in a variety of grisly ways including (but not limited to) throat slashing, eye gouging and neck breaking. That description makes it sound like a retro version of the Manhunt games, but that wouldn’t be doing it the justice it deserves.
The 2D pixelated art style is simple enough, but the level of detail in the character faces you see during dialogue is astonishing. The guy who serves you at the convenience store looks like the happy-go-lucky hippy he is and the hobo in the tutorial is suitably grotesque in portrayal. It also manages to capture each death in a wonderfully horrific manner. Some enemies have their guts spill out, others kick their limbs feebly as they bleed out on the floor.
The variation is part of what makes the game so compelling. That and the ability to string combos together for more points. This would get tiresome, if variety wasn’t provided by the extra weapons and masks that you unlock as you play the game. Each mask does something different, though some are just strictly better versions of earlier masks. There are 25 in all and you are unlikely to get them all on your first play through.
In Hotline Miami you feel very fragile. The weapons all feel and sound satisfyingly powerful and it only takes one hit to kill you. This is where the stealth comes in. You are encouraged to sneak up on your enemies and use melee weapons for silent kills, as gunfire attracts attention, which is likely to get you killed. Death itself is all part of the game. You aren’t really punished for dying beyond being sent back to the start of the floor you were on, losing minimal progress. The AI is pretty dense (mobsters stepping over the corpses of their friends like nothing is wrong) but that’s the point; it makes the turnaround quick and the gratification near instant.
The story line is cryptic to say the least. The main protagonist is unnamed and as the story progresses he descends deeper into madness, visiting three personas wearing masks like his and seeing the maimed corpses of the people he has killed as he walks around town. Early in the game we are asked by one of the mask wearers: “Do you like hurting people?” This gave me pause for thought; what makes a psychopath? Is my character a bad person even though he kills bad people? Are the people he kills actually bad? There are little things too. The character’s apartment tells a story of its own as the game progresses by way of changing furniture layout and readable newspaper clippings, which provide context to violence.
The highest point of the game is the soundtrack. Given that the 2D graphics are so endearing and the game play is so entertaining, this is high praise indeed. The missions are driven by energetic, sometimes euphoric tracks. The boss battles are infused with foreboding danger. The protagonist’s narcotic-fueled delusions are framed by sludgy, stoner beats. The 9 artists on the soundtrack have produced some truly enjoyable material.
All this isn’t to say that Hotline Miami is a perfect game. At its core, the game play is very simple and the lack of punishment for death removes any tension that might otherwise have been welcome. The AI is also a bit too stupid sometimes. It’s like each enemy is in a vacuum where only you and they exist; baddies are only alerted by your gunfire and don’t seem to notice the blood-soaked corpses of their comrades as they patrol around. However, everything comes together so well and in such a satisfying way that those faults hardly matter. It’s a great way to kill some time if you want a quick burst of action and it doesn’t get boring quickly if you are in for the long haul. Hotline Miami offers instant fun with an indie charm, in a neat package that puts a lot of recent triple A titles to shame.
Hotline Miami is age rated 18+ and is available on Playstation 3, Playstation Vita, Microsoft Windows, OS X and Linux.