For Hotline Miami, it turns out two is the wrong number.
The first game, a hyperviolent, ’80s-fueled romp from Swedish indie Dennaton, had its fair share of flaws, but they were overshadowed by the purity of deep, open-ended killing sprees and a story that respected the importance of ambiguity. The sequel, Wrong Number, tries to blow that simplistic affair out into a full-on universe, with a huge cast of playable characters, intertwining storylines, flashbacks and flash-forwards, and a general more-is-more attitude that does the game no favors. It’s inferior by just about every metric. In trying to be something more, it retroactively tarnishes what the first game accomplished.
From a storytelling standpoint, Wrong Number fills the same role as the Matrix sequels or Star Wars prequels, the kind of continuation that delivers completely unsatisfying answers that no one asked for in the first place. There’s so much narrative strength in minimalism, in vague descriptions and unexplained fates, and the first Hotline Miami thrived on that. Nameless men received phone calls threatening dire consequences unless they committed heinous murders, so they sacrificed their humanity for self-preservation.
That was more or less enough, and even if you tracked down all of the secrets to unravel the conspiracy, you weren’t being bludgeoned by expository nonsense or hamfisted attempts at characterization. The light touch suited the disconnect in perspective and resolution, brilliantly underscoring the speed with which you stopped seeing the gory murders you committed as disturbing and started reading rooms full of future victims as pathways to a potential high score.
Here, we get a huge cast of defined playable characters with names, backstories, and arcs. We get a deeper insight into the origins of the phone-instigated murders. We get a glimpse into the geopolitical landscape that leads up to a finite conclusion for every single character that’s equal parts lazy and pointless.
None of it is necessary or productive. I didn’t need to know the sordid history behind the first game’s bearded convenience-store clerk. I didn’t need to know about the man who showed up midway through the original game and sent my jacketed avatar to the hospital. I didn’t even need to know which of the endings to the first game was canonical, because it was all of them together that told a full, sufficient story.
The decision to divvy up the story into so many different threads does have a gameplay motivation, too, but I’m not certain it’s a positive one. Whereas the first Hotline Miami allowed you to (mostly) choose between a huge selection of masks with various abilities for every level, Wrong Number locks you into a specific character or set of characters to suit the story. After you unlock additional masks or ability sets, you can still tinker a bit with different playstyles, but your first time through will force you to adapt to many different strategies, some much less satisfying than others.
One character can roll under gunfire, for instance, but as useful as that is in theory, it’s difficult to build it into your game plan for a level when it’s only available a small fraction of the time. Since it’s mapped to the same button you use to finish off downed foes, it can lead to some infuriating moments when you roll away from someone you wanted to kill. In general, far too many levels focus almost exclusively on a guns-blazing approach with no special abilities to round out the stealthier, melee-focused side of things, which forced me to unlearn tactics that had served me well throughout the first game and rely on the frankly much less satisfying gunplay more than ever.
It’s frankly disheartening to go back and read my review of the original game, because every one of my gameplay complaints is just as true of Hotline Miami 2. The lock-on system is still clumsy, the controls are still imprecise enough to feel like a substantial number of your deaths would’ve been avoided with more thoughtful polish. The AI routines are still unpredictable, meaning the guards you counted on being in a certain offscreen location might be somewhere else entirely on your next attempt.
As in the first game, Hotline Miami 2 is only truly fun when you’re playing at a high level, chaining kills together into double-digit combos and dodging death by a fraction of an inch. That dance requires the pattern learning and twitchy muscle memory of a masocore game, but every time Wrong Number throws uncertainty into the mix, intentionally or otherwise, it frustrates attempts at mastery where it should encourage.
All of this is exacerbated by the fact that Hotline Miami 2 just plain outstays its welcome. Having replayed the first game immediately prior to starting the second, it’s amazing what a drastically different experience I had between the two. No level in the original tripped me up for too long, and the number of enemies between checkpoints offered a challenge without slowing the satisfyingly brisk pace.
Wrong Number, by contrast, has more numerous, longer, and more challenging levels that are more densely packed with enemies. By the time I got to the end, close to 20 hours later, I was frankly exhausted and glad to be finished. Unlike when I bested Hotline Miami, I had no desire to hop back in and improve my scores or collect trophies. I just wanted a break—probably forever.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number still sits atop the same solid, brutally violent core that made the first game a success, but it inherits all of its predecessor’s flaws as well, and buries them within a bloated, altogether less satisfying experience. While the sequel isn’t without its occasional charms, there’s no doubt Hotline Miami would be destined for a greater legacy had it called it quits after the first spree.
M – Mature
|Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is available on PS4, PS3, Vita, PC, Mac, and Linux. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Devolver Digital for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|