There was once a time when I found violence to be a necessary evil and little more than a means to an end. It wasn’t like I was a stranger to it, but it never played a large part in my life and I was glad to keep it that way. These days I feel like it consumes my very being. Skills I thought I had honed for my own protection are being contorted and used to benefit someone else. Every night I am sent to carry out the dirty business of people I have never met for money. I am little more than a sinister puppet in a chicken mask; too deep in to quit with my sanity hanging by an ever weakening thread. The only way to get out now is to find the one who holds the strings. And sever them for good.
If you think that indie games are incapable of delivering pulse pounding action on a par with full price triple A titles, then you’ve never played Hotline Miami. Sure, it may seem like little more than a top down retro throwback that involves murdering wave after wave of mafia hit men, but if you strip back this carefully crafted veneer then you’ll find a profoundly unique experience hiding underneath. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of gangsters to kill.
In fact, shooting people in the face is what you’ll be doing for the vast majority of the time. Well, that and stabbing, shot-gunning, baseball-batting, samurai-swording and all manner of other nasty things. Hotline Miami is first and foremost a celebration of all things violent, and even though the visuals aren’t much more detailed than Grand Theft Auto 2, they are leaps and bounds ahead of it in terms of varied death animations. Skulls explode, intestines splatter across the floor, limbs detach from their hosts, throats get cut and faces lie emblazoned with the ghosts of their last screams. Trust me when I say that this isn’t one for the squeamish.
If you can get over this slightly off putting factor however, Hotline Miami has some incredibly addictive gameplay to be enjoyed. Character movement is controlled using the standard “WASD” directional keys and weapons are aimed using the mouse. This sounds like it should be an intuitive control scheme, but it is more commonly associated with first person shooters. Getting used to aiming like this from a top down perspective is a lot like trying to pat your head and rub your belly at first, but once you’re there you’ll find it almost second nature.
If you can get past these early stages without rage quitting, you’ll be glad that you did stick with Hotline Miami. Some of the later chapters are truly the stuff of legend in terms of difficulty, and fighting your way past insurmountable odds using inventive methods of execution is an unforgettably unique gameplay experience. Run out of ammunition? No problem! Just throw your empty shotgun at your attacker and take theirs. Don’t have any weapons? No worries! Just knock them over and pummel their face into a fine paste with your fists. Chaining combos together and disregarding your own personal safety is rewarded in Hotline Miami with new animal masks to wear. As well as looking cool, these masks have passive abilities like awarding extra health points or ammunition and are important for progressing to the later chapters.
If I was being a particularly unfair reviewer, I could find some faults with Hotline Miami. Even though there is nothing significantly wrong with the gameplay itself, the experience does suffer somewhat from the occasional bug. The most jarring of these is the way the frame rate dips drastically if there are too many animations occurring onscreen at once. In one particularly difficult stage, the frame rate was so slow that I didn’t know I’d been killed until about two seconds after the shotgun blast had discharged in my direction. In a game where lightning fast reaction times are everything, this is a pretty crucial thing to get right. The AI at times is also pretty patchy, although this can work hilariously to your advantage.
The genius of Hotline Miami lies mostly in its story. You play as a nameless protagonist who is more than a little gifted in the art of killing large numbers of people singlehandedly. At the start of each mission, you receive a cryptic answer phone message and have to manually manoeuvre your character from his apartment to a waiting car. This may seem a little odd at first, but as the story goes on things change in the appartment to reveal more and more about your character’s personal life and what is going on inside his head. Sections like this are a nice method of breaking up the pace of the game and they undoubtedly add a lot of context and meaning to the hectic slaughter fests.
There are other interludes to. After each mission, your character visits pizza houses, video stores and bars in an effort to drown his sorrows and forget the horrendous things that he has seen. Before long, cracks start beginning to appear and his sanity is called into question. Visions of the people that he has killed start to encroach upon his real world surroundings. You inevitably start to wonder if there is perhaps more to the story than meets the eye. Maybe those incredibly creepy characters in the animal masks have the answers. Or maybe they just have a never ending stream of questions.
Hotline Miami will inevitably draw many comparisons with the 2011 film Drive. Both stories are centred around a mysterious protagonist who has an unerring knack for dispatching people, a love for fast sports cars and a significant other’s honour to defend. They also share the same appreciation for offsetting periods of quiet downtime with explosive violence for greater dramatic effect. The closest comparison that I can draw though is in the style of the soundtracks. Hotline Miami, like Drive, has a fantastic mixture of electronica and dance music. This permeates throughout the experience, making you feel like the coolest man alive as you lay waste to scores of enemies and egging you on for just one more try if you hit a particularly tough stage.
Hotline Miami is a very special game. There aren’t many full priced titles out there that can deliver the same kind of adrenaline fuelled gunplay and even fewer that can offer its brand of introspective storytelling. This is a game that will challenge your perception of what can be achieved by indie developers, but more importantly it has a story that will stick with you for a long time to come. Killing isn’t easy, but Hotline Miami may make you think otherwise.