Developer: Dennation Games / Publisher: Devolver Digital / Played on: PC / Price: $9.99 / ESRB: Not Yet Rated
Games like Hotline Miami only release once every few years. Not only does it present an entirely new gameplay experience, but it also uses amazing presentation to create a feel that is unlike any other game. If you’re interested in games as a medium, play Hotline Miami immediately.
STORY AND GAMEPLAY
The narrative in Hotline Miami hits the magic sweet point between concrete plot details and vague silence to completely hook you. The technique reminds me of Half-Life or Portal — you’re given just enough to know there’s a deep rabbit hole to tumble down. Hotline takes place in 1989, and you play a nameless man who, after receiving a message on his answering machine, wordlessly drives to a location specified by the message and ruthlessly slaughters everyone inside.
In case that wasn’t disturbing enough, you don a rubber animal mask before starting your murder spree.
Once inside, the game plays out from a similar perspective as the original Grand Theft Auto or Smash TV, but there’s not really a good point of comparison since Hotline is so unique. Every level is a weird blend of stealth, action, and panicked, last-ditch reactions. In each level, your simple goal is to murder everyone, but doing so requires several deaths and restarts. Enemies come equipped with melee weapons or guns, and will either charge directly at you or open fire the second they see you. One hit from anything and you’re out.
At this point you may be thinking this game is just a 2D top-down Hitman, but even that doesn’t fit. There’s a certain randomness to the levels; enemies will carry different weapons or behave slightly differently every time you play. There’s never a perfect set of moves to clear a level. Sooner or later, everything will go to shit and you’ll just have to deal with it. This results in a lot of frantic moves, like running into a room and wildly spraying your gun until the clip is empty, praying that you kill everyone before a random bullet tags you. Oddly enough, with constant death and slight permutations on every run until you hit perfection, this game feels more like Super Meat Boy than anything else. This game is incredibly sharp and pure — every mechanic is there for a reason, and taking one of them away would wreck the whole experience.
Once the slaughter is complete, you return to your bitchin’ DeLorean outside and and try to return to “normal” life. This is the routine of the game. Get a message, brutally murder several people, then do something banal like pick up a pizza or rent a VHS tape. This only makes you feel more detached and broken, as the friendly clerk notices that you don’t look so good only to cheerfully tell you that this pizza is on the house.
The way you feel like you live in a completely different and savage world reminds me of No More Heroes, only not nearly so tongue-in-cheek. Even this routine starts to break down as the game progresses, mirroring your schizm with reality as you are consumed with senseless and savage violence.
The game’s conclusion does even less to console you, and is in fact the ultimate bottom. You play the entire game with questions: who is leaving these messages, why am I obeying them? There are enough straw men placed throughout the game to maintain the illusion, but ultimately the game asks the most disturbing question of all — why did you, the player, get this far without a reason? Furthermore, you apparently don’t need a reason at all. You got this far without one, and now you just want one to excuse the terrible acts you’ve committed. The way the game places the burden of player action squarely on you reminds me of the excellent Spec Ops: The Line, but is even more subtle and sinister in its approach.
The game is grimy, dirty, and actually makes you feel like a psychopath. The raw brutality of the game reminds me a little of Manhunt, but the manner in which your character tumbles down a dissociative spiral reminds me of movies like Taxi Driver or Fight Club. Even though actually playing the game is extremely fun — all the rules and mechanics work very well together — the larger experience is thoroughly disturbing and unnerving. It may not be pleasant, but I’ve played the hero in so many games, it’s astounding that a game would instead make you play the monster.
Hotline is essentially a three-button game, but even still I ran into a few slight problems with the controls while playing. There’s no one critical flaw, just a collection of minor annoyances. For instance, I occasionally lost track of my cursor on screen, especially when the acid-laced 80s visuals start pounding. Guns also add a dead zone of space between you and the point at which bullets fly out, meaning an enemy can stand right next to you and avoid getting shot (this may be intentional to create a situation in which melee weapons are more useful). The most common problem I hit is picking up a specific weapon out of a stack. You just have to pick up and toss them until you get the one you want.
Just to be clear, these are all issues that occur once every 20 minutes or so. In every other way, the game controls very well and almost every time you die, it’ll be purely your fault.
VISUALS AND SOUND
Every aspect of Hotline Miami’s presentation works perfectly. The visuals are built with blocky yet detailed pixel art similar to Sword & Sworcery, which is a perfect fit given that the game takes place in 1989. The entire world tilts and shifts subtly, conveying your character’s gradual break from reality. The game’s hyper-violence even seems more terrible when seen through this pixelated, almost-cute filter. Even the VHS-style visual filter overlaying the entire game fits the game like a bedazzled denim jacket.
The soundtrack is phenomenal as well, not only in raw quality as a score but in implementation. Every level is accompanied by a pounding synth track that sounds like it came straight from the tape deck of a 1988 IROC-Z, but it cuts to an empty ambient track as soon as you finish a stage. You’re then left to walk back through the stage, wading through all the murder and death left in your wake without the pounding music to assure you that it’s what needs to be done. It creates the horrible moment when the adrenaline is gone and you realize that you’ve just murdered thirty people.
Hotline Miami is one of the very few games that is a perfect union of gameplay mechanics and production values. Not only does it provide a rock-solid gaming experience, but it also offers plenty of commentary on violence and really makes you feel. That feeling isn’t pleasant, but that’s the hallmark of a great work of art. That’s exactly what Hotline Miami is, and you owe it to yourself to play it if you follow the development of video games as a medium.
+ Unique, hectic gameplay
+ Wonderful commentary on violence
+ Amazing soundtrack
9.5 / 10