Review by SSpectre

Reviewed: 10/30/12 | Updated: 10/03/13

Bold, neurotic, and addictive, Hotline Miami is an action gamer's fantasy and nightmare - simultaneously.

Hotline Miami

The Good:
+ Brutal, rewarding combat and scoring system
+ Dark narrative riddled with subtext
+ Overpowering atmosphere amplified by a memorable soundtrack
+ Unlockable content that’s actually worth unlocking

The Bad:
- AI and controls are frustratingly inconsistent
- Difficulty often jumps from “challenging” to “unfair”

We need an award for “Game with the highest number of applicable adjectives”, solely so that Hotline Miami can receive it. The game is exhilarating, nauseating, aggravating, disturbing, vibrant, tense, kinetic, and most surprising of all, intelligent. It’s an excessively violent top-down action game where your most powerful weapons are heavy doors and a selection of power-granting animal masks. It’s also full of 80’s nostalgia, and fueled by a mesmerizing soundtrack and one of the most confusing, self-aware stories in gaming.

But really, that description is far too literal. A better way of putting it is that Hotline Miami is like a drug. And not in the usual, “Oh man, this game’s so weird, it must have been made on drugs” way (although let’s not kid ourselves here – the developers were high as the ****ing Burj Khalifa when they made this thing). No, I mean it feels like a playable narcotic: it’s full of bright colours, giddy highs, maddening lows, constant disorientation...and the distinct possibility of addiction.

“Get more points” is usually a pretty lazy replay incentive, but thanks to a complex scoring system that emphasizes speed, variety, and planning, Hotline Miami uses it to great effect. The game has found a wonderful sweet spot between careful level design that encourages practicing and memorizing, and pseudorandom elements that ensure you don’t get bored doing so. It also helps that high scores unlock both new weapons and new masks, which grant demonstrable effects like making thrown objects lethal or highlighting hidden items.

And let’s be honest: knocking a guy to the ground by slamming a door open, then lunging forward and smacking his partner with a baseball bat before he knows what’s happening never gets old. Neither does using up a clip of ammo and then just desperately throwing your whole assault rifle at an approaching guard’s face. There’s not whole lot of variety – the main differences between weapons are finishing animations and range, and there’s only a handful of enemy types – but what’s there will keep you playing long after the game’s short, not-quite-five-hour campaign ends.

Said campaign joins the likes of Kite, Sucker Punch, and recent gaming eyebrow-raiser Spec Ops: The Line in the collection of works that attempt a commentary on a kind of entertainment media (in this case, ultraviolent action games), by basically just being an example of that media, and then turning around and saying, “Look how ****ed up you are for liking this.”

In this case, though, it’s all buried under a layer of ambiguous dialogue, hallucination sequences (arguably), and a complicated relationship with the concept of linearity. Three people with animal heads force an unnamed hitman to remember the events of the last few months while asking questions like “Do you like hurting other people?” – and that’s just the first thirty seconds.

It’s not quite the sharply relevant slap in the face that Spec Ops: The Line was, but it’s worth noting that on more than one occasion I killed a character on instinct, and then realized I may not have had to. The game intentionally desensitizes its audience, and then subtly asks why they commit violence so casually. It’s the kind of thing the term “mind-blowing” was invented for.

Of course, for this to be truly effective, you have to enjoy the violence in the first place, and Hotline Miami takes a handful of missteps that make that more difficult than it needs to be. Keyword: difficult. The scoring system is tough but fair, and respawns are instantaneous, but when it comes to simple survival, Hotline Miami is not your friend. Boss fights are a frustrating game of guessing the arbitrary deviation from the normal combat system that will allow you to win, and some levels are just cruelly-designed, dropping you in a coverless corridor surrounded by armed guards.

Speaking of armed guards, the game’s AI is incomprehensible. Things like line of sight, reaction delay and self-preservation don’t exist in the world of Hotline Miami, so gun-wielders will pick you off with robotic accuracy and efficiency, while melee fighters will recklessly charge straight towards the maniac who just slaughtered their colleagues with a power drill. Enemies also ignore the presence of mutilated corpses, but I don’t mind this quirk so much, since a) it adds to the ever-present air of sociopathy, and b) the enemies don’t need another excuse to be alerted to your presence.

Control problems pop up too, though they’re more odd than bad. Door physics are kind of wobbly, and neither you nor your enemies seem to be able to hit each other if you’re standing in the same place. Melee attacks also have a narrow hit window that requires aiming just as much as firearms, which feels unintuitive at first, but improves after an hour or so. In fact, as a deterrent to just mowing down enemies recklessly, it’s pretty smart design. Otherwise, the controls work perfectly fine; movement is quick and responsive, hit detection is pretty accurate, and connected attacks have a satisfying weight to them.

I once mentioned that “style over substance” is a poor criticism, because in a good game, style is used to amplify even minimal substance, and Hotline Miami is a textbook example of that. Yeah, vertically bisecting an enemy’s skull with an inexplicable katana, or scalding off their face with boiling water is fun (don’t judge me), but they would be nothing without the gyrating soundtrack. Or the way the deliberately ugly 8-bit graphics pulse and wobble as you move and fight. Or the way each mission begins by receiving phone messages with increasingly eccentric and unsubtle euphemisms for “go here and kill somebody”.

Hotline Miami is an angry, exhausting game. It feels like it should come with a “contents under pressure” warning label. If it was boiled down to just its base gameplay I’d still tentatively recommend it, since it would still be a fast, inventive, but unpolished action game. But the added layers provided by its nebulous plot, defiantly offensive presentation, and overall personality make it a game that demands to be paid attention to, regardless of its faults.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Hotline Miami (US, 10/23/12)

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