How masochistic do you like your games? Are you a Dark Souls person? Super Meat Boy, perhaps? If you answered yes to either question, Hotline Miami really ought to be on your desktop now.
This brilliantly conceived and remarkably simple title is a throwback to an era in gaming which never quite existed back in the 90s. It’s stylised using all kinds of modern filters and effects, yet bares a strong resemblance to old adventure games. Pixel art characters, a top-down perspective and parallax scrolling for cut scenes make you feel right at home if you ever grew up in that golden age, but underneath the hood lies a difficult beast of a game.
I hate to begin by considering the gameplay here a blend of other titles, but a necessary evil for this game.
Hotline Miami is brilliantly executed, sublimely creative and sadistic to the extreme. Not to mention chock full of surprises and bares a superb ability to keep you on your toes.
Think the brutal sadism of Manhunt, the frenetic gameplay of the likes of Super Crate Box or , the punishing difficulty of Dark Souls and a setting which seems like David Lynch got his hands on GTA: Vice City and decided to make an aerial-perspective Hitman game.
Sound like too much of a cacophony to actually hold together?
Well, surprisingly, it does, and very well.
You move your character around using WASD and point and click to shoot. The AI is remarkably stupid (not really a failing for a game which doesn’t encourage stealth behaviour), so you’ll find yourself dying repeatedly not from being outsmarted, but either out-gunned or just out-paced. It’s a very reflex-heavy game, requiring that you be thinking strategically about how to take out each room full of dudes while being able to nail arcade, lightning-quick executions (no pun intended) in the blink of an eye.
The story is rather chaotic, beginning with a brief tutorial, and having your avatar then speaking to a handful of animal-masked strange people in a room who each appear to be carrying on a different conversation with you. Estranged and confused, you awaken in your apartment in a flashback to find out why these people hate you so much, and meander out the door after a phone call beckons you to a location.
Once there, the objective of ‘kill everyone’ is thrust upon you, and like an obedient gamer, you obey.
It isn’t pretty. You don’t just kill, you massacre each and every person in the level (and their dogs), hacking their faces open with machetes, slicing them in half with a katana, pummelling their faces into the ground repeatedly until their head is only half on and much more besides.
Of course, Hotline Miami gets away with this because it’s so infused with old-school gameplay pacing and graphical style that you’re pleasantly laughing at the mayhem rather than finding it off-putting.
Yes, stylistically, this game is exactly what it intended to be. The music is a grab-bag of 80s themed tunes which are so rich and strong as to be an essential part of the gaming experience. To illustrate, when you’ve been laying waste to a nightclub full of people and finally take down the last guy on the top floor, the oh so relieving ‘chapter clear’ sign appears and you must make your way back down to your car (a Delorean, just FYI).
So you do, and you’re having to walk back, knowing your completely safe, through a bloodbath. There are bodies everywhere, blood in every room and not a single note being played. Just you, your footsteps and your handywork. It’s actually quite haunting, and only enhanced by the developers’ decision to occasionally mess with you by having your supposed safety be a lie.
In fact, you’re being lied to throughout the bulk of the Hotline Miami experience.
Things will happen on screen which aren’t really happening, characters will be one another with little rhyme or reason, and the minute, pixelated characters grow on you to such an extent that, even without voice acting or detailed animation, there are some scenes which are downright horrific.
It’s got its flaws, though, with some infuriating difficulty spikes standing out in particular. One ‘boss’ fight has you needing to take down five minions while a sixth gentleman hurls Molotov cocktails at you from a van. Of the five guys, two are impervious to melee and require guns to take down, but the weapons which spawn are random, so don’t always provide firearms. Considering that you’ll likely have dozens of attempts at each checkpoint, making it only technically possible to get the arms you need in half of those is a major oversight.
Then there’s some occasional moments where you’ll drop out of the world (or an enemy will), which is infuriating with no easy restart option.
But these aren’t showstoppers. This is a must-play game for those who can handle it – there’s simply nothing else like it anywhere. The only caveats to downloading it right now would be to prepare yourself for the difficulty, that you *must* be a seasoned gamer to handle it, and that you’ve got a thick stomach.
The Final Verdict
Hotline Miami is brilliantly executed, sublimely creative and sadistic to the extreme. Not to mention chock full of surprises and bares a superb ability to keep you on your toes. Some questionable elements aside, hearts will race playing this game. It’s the most novel new approach to the action genre to come out so far this year.
By Leigh Harris