QCF: Hotline Miami

Today I snuck up on an unsuspecting goon, knocked him over with a door, got onto the floor and smashed his head in against the bright neon walls. Afterwards I picked up the nearest shotgun, emptied it onto a floor of ignorant baddies and knocked over the last guy by throwing my heavy weapon while his back was turned. And then his friend who I had forgot about came up behind my back and smashed my brain all over the floor with a baseball bat. After a couple more tries I succeed in killing every last scumbag and made my way to the next gripping and intense floor of mayhem. I do this not only because this just so happens to be some of the most well designed and fun combat I’ve played recently, but also because the telephone told me to.

This is Hotline Miami and I hope you’ve left your morals at the door.

Hotline Miami is a brutal and fast game. While the top-down combat and dual walking/shooting controls may remind you of Smash TV at first you’ll soon begin to realize that this is much faster and 100x more engaging. A lot of this comes from the fact that your character is weak. You die in essentially one hit, and you'll be doing it frequently. This adds to the tension of the levels and can make the atmosphere very dramatic in parts. What helps these easy deaths is the lack of frustration, which is avoided by the game's quick restarts that put you at the beginning of a floor almost instantaneously. The controls are - for the most part - spot on and I really enjoyed the mouse/keyboard combo; a proven system for these types of top down melee based games and it doesn't let you down here. Hotline Miami is hard but the controls make sure that it's your bad planning that got you killed, not the execution.

What also helps is that the game is simply a joy to play in terms of combat. There are a lot of unlockable melee weapons that you can use to your advantage, but obviously these won't do much against an AK-47. This is why the game gives you a variety of ways to take out opponents without stepping in front of their itchy trigger fingers. You can throw your heavy weapons to great effect or even slice them up with a knife if you're quick enough. There's a ton of ways to dispatch enemies, which is perhaps Hotline Miami's biggest achievement. There was rarely a time when I walked onto a floor without a bunch of options on how I could approach the room on various different levels. The stages themselves are also well made; giving you interesting diversions and paths to explore and murder on. In other words the combat is frenetic and fun, and the stages are perfectly laid out for the violent gameplay.

Hotline Miami's interesting mask mechanic also adds more verity to the game with its own unique perk system. Depending on which disguise you wear you could be granted the ability to take a hit, walk faster, or even turn out the lights. There's a ton of masks that change each option you have in the level and add an insane amount of replay value. While I would have liked the main game to be longer, I still can't wait to dive back into it for a stealthier or even brasher play through. It's just that addictive.

Eagle-eyed indie game fans might have noticed that Hotline Miami is the first commercial venture for Jonatan Söderström (AKA 'cactus'). Along with Dennis Wedin, Dennaton Games have managed to come up with a weird title that's one part Drive, two parts David Lynch, a hint of Kick-Ass and three parts 'what the fuck is seriously going on here?' The story takes place in 1980s Miami. You are a man with no name or memory who sees disturbing visions of three figures in animal masks. Soon your answering machine asks you to don a mask and you're off on an adventure that spans the underground drug scene to the limits of your own sanity. Suffice it to say the plot itself is very distinct and abstract. It would be very easy then for the game to come off as incomprehensible but because of the genuinely interesting mystery and challenging themes it does nothing but entice you to keep playing for the next story section or unexpected twist.

This story element is perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Hotline Miami as many gamers may not expect a retro throwback such as this to be as exciting or as gripping as it gets toward the end. Usually these story aspects never outstay their welcome, but unfortunately included in the campaign is a small stealth section bought forward by a specific plot point that I could have done without. This was a disappointing section made worse because I was just inching to get back to the actual levels. While I appreciate the idea of mixing things up, this section was just not fun or engaging. However it was fortunately brief and easily forgotten leaving the rest of the gameplay and story in top-notch quality.

What can't be forgotten, however, are the game's few technical bugs. I'm sad to say that at one point it completely crashed for what seemed to be no reason. And it didn't save my progress since my last mission so I was forced to repeat nearly the whole chapter. The game also has some unexpected slowdown, which really gets in the way of its brutal and fast paced nature. However, few though these bugs may have been they can really ruin things when they’re at their best. Although the upside to this is that the bugs are indeed very few and most of my playtime was spent seemingly bug free. For those moments I completely forgot about the game's technical faults but they do happen and they are distracting, dragging the rest of the game down by a considerable amount.

The game's biggest letdowns, however, are the anticlimactic boss encounters. As you progress through the story you'll come across a few characters which act as short intermissions to the main gameplay and shift things to a more puzzle-based combat system for a while. By this I mean that there's only one specific way that the game lets you kill this bad guy. This is a disappointment because the game had made such a big deal about giving you freedom that when it wants you to do something specific it feels more like unfair design then your skill at play. In this sense the bosses are by far the most disappointing parts of the game. 

However, when I look back on Hotline Miami these points seem kind of moot. I've had such a fun time absorbing the game's core combat and atmosphere that these irritating aspects are easily overlooked. In many ways this is due to the success of its presentation. The fantastic music drags you into this dark world and the morally ambiguous overtones definitely give you some provocative food for thought. Am I enjoying violence too much? This game thinks so and it wonders why.

From the outside Hotline Miami could look like just another retro indie throwback but you'd be greatly mistaken. Along with the drug hazed lens the game uses to view the world, Hotline Miami manages to set itself apart from other titles with its own unique plot and addictive combat. If you get the call, answer it. It's a wild, violent, and deeply discomforting ride.

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