Videogames—even the most grotesque, violent ones—have a tendency to overstate the resilience of the human body. If we can’t magically recoup our health with a ten-second breather behind a chest-high crate, we can at least patch ourselves up with any old first aid kit we find lying around. When we explode our enemies into piles of sanguine goop and organ chunks, it inevitably takes a sizable explosion or a few dozen bullets to get ’em there. Games teach us that death is an unnatural state forced on us only by the most extreme circumstances.
Hotline Miami offers up a somewhat different lesson. We’re fragile. We don’t have any special aptitude for survival, just cushy lives in a civilized society where, statistically speaking, no one will every try to do us serious harm. Comfort, stability, health—those are the unnatural things, and Hotline Miami wants you to know it. It’s an interactive memento mori. It’s a reminder that, at this very moment, a few pounds of force applied at at the right angle is all it would take to splatter your brains across the carpet.
That’s a fairly unsettling sentiment, but, then again, Hotline Miami is a fairly unsettling game. It is, after all, an experience built entirely around senseless, graphic murder. Your unnamed protagonist receives cryptic messages on his answering machine instructing him to head to a specified location and kill everyone inside. You hop in your DeLorean, slap on the animal mask of your choosing, and make with the massacre.
Of course, it’s not entirely that simple. Your enemies will die in one hit, be it from one of the many melee weapons or the handful of guns—but so will you. That means an awful lot of patience and trial and error. Much like a stealth game, you’ll need to memorize the locations and routes of your foes and gradually build out a plan of attack through death after death after death. Unlike a stealth game, however, you don’t have the luxury of stalking your prey from the shadows. Instead, you move in quickly and use the element of surprise to charge enemies and plow through crowds. You bust through a door to knock one guy over, dash across the room to beat down another, then hurl your weapon to take out a third. It’s frantic, fun, and incredibly refreshing.
While you can cheese your way through levels with the same handful of cheap tactics, earning a decent score will require you to use every tactic at your disposal, and there’s a surprising amount of depth if you’re willing to look for it. The constant variety is aided greatly by the masks, each of which offer gameplay buffs, cosmetic tweaks, or general silliness, and really help you build out a distinct playstyles.
The byproduct of all this violent improvisation is a whole lot of pixelated gore: shattered skulls, intestines unfurling from stomach wounds, and gallons upon gallons of spurting blood. Like any game, though, you eventually stop consciously processing what’s happening onscreen and instinctively react to it instead. Everything boils down to the systems, to optimum pathways and angles of attack, to strategies and opportunities. You don’t notice the violence anymore, because you’ve long since become accustomed to it. Those aren’t people you’re killing, they’re points you’re earning.
And that’s really the crux of what Hotline Miami is trying to say. After his first assignment, our anonymous hero vomits in disgust; by the end, he’s completely desensitized. It’s all a bit on the nose, but it’s still an interesting, reasonably novel take on an increasingly common theme—that violent games need to comment on the questionable nature of said violence.
It certainly helps that the message here is more than just moralizing lip service. There’s an offness that permeates the entire experience, from the way the top-down levels are presented at a slightly askew angle to the minimalist story beats that channel David Lynch weirdness to great effect. Even the thumping retro-chic soundtrack chips in, with lots of droning, wavering tones and tracks that sound like they’ve been slowed down just enough to be a few cents out of tune. In terms of maintaining a consistent tone and atmosphere, Hotline Miami is probably one of the most effective games I’ve ever played.
While the gameplay largely holds up its end of the bargain, there are plenty of areas that could definitely have used more polish. The AI routines are occasionally wildly inconsistent, which can be frustrating in a game that demands this much precision. You can act out the exact same plan that succeeded five seconds ago, only to discover that an enemy is now ten feet away on the opposite side of the room, just far enough away to blast you with his shotgun before you can close the distance. Hit detection is routinely wonky as well. Stand too close to an enemy, and you’re unable to damage each other—you’ll just fire straight through them and vice versa. And while I can’t prove it, I’m almost certain that a few of the trophies are completely bugged and, as of this moment, completely unattainable.
Then there are the platform-specific issues. I never got around to playing the PC version, but I imagine its keyboard and mouse setup is a bit more intuitive than the twin-stick controls in this PS3/Vita port. When the margin for error is so narrow, the imprecision of aiming with an analog stick really rears its head, and you’ll die frequently thanks to shots that miss your attacker by a fraction of an inch.
There’s a lock-on system designed to alleviate that problem, but it’s even clunkier than attempting to aim manually. To activate it, you press the square button, and the game will automatically lock your crosshairs on the closest target, but it doesn’t take line of sight into account, so that’ll frequently be the guy on the other side of the wall you’re standing next to and not the one bumrushing you with a baseball bat. You can then push the right stick in the direction of the person you wanted to lock onto, but if there’s more than one enemy in the same general direction, it’s still a crapshoot. On the Vita, you can alternatively just tap your target on the screen, but you can probably imagine how cumbersome that is. By no means are the controls unworkable—they’re just not nearly as smooth as they should be.
Still, even Hotline Miami‘s worst flaws are overshadowed by all the things it does right. Few games have channeled such a dark, subtly disturbing tone with this much cohesive success. If you can come to terms with the unwieldy controls, the gameplay is addictive enough to keep you coming back for more, obsessively striving to improve on your performance and inch closer to brutal perfection.
It may be a bit rough around the edges, but Hotline Miami still makes for an immensely interesting addition to the PSN library, and its short, pick-up-and-play levels are an especially good fit for the Vita.
Dennaton Games, Abstraction Games
M – Mature
|Hotline Miami (PS3/Vita Version) is available on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita. Primary version played was for PlayStation Vita. Product was provided by Devolver Digital for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|