There are no clean escapes in Hotline Miami. There is nothing clean at all about Dennotan’s vision of Miami, in fact. Even through the typically detached, low resolution, top down perspective, it contains some of the most gruesome depictions of violence I’ve witnessed. Every building you enter you will turn into a House of Sadism. Hotline Miami is filled with exactly the sort of brutality that critics of the medium associate with our “amoral culture”. In fact, Hotline Miami goes so far to encourage it.
While the perspective and violence of HM may initially conjure up the image of the original GTA series, the actual experience is far from it. HM will have you performing the same surgical assault games like Frozen Synapse and the modern XCOM expect from you. Except that HM is an unlicensed medieval mob doctor. A scenario occurs as follows: you breach the door, knocking over an enemy in the process. From there you pick up their dropped weapon, throw it at the armed guard around the corner, punch out the guy coming at you with the steel pipe, pick up the gun of the fallen enemy, shoot the two armed guards coming around the corner, toss the empty weapon at the guy near the door getting back up, rush to the other downed guy and smash his head repeatedly against the floor, then grab the pipe and smash the last guy’s face in with it.
Discretion, smashed heads - same thing.
It’s exceedingly brutal as well. Every hit, shot, and cut is accompanied with a sickening sound effect and burst of viscera. At one point there was an enemy crawling along the floor. Performing an execution saw my character straddle the helpless sap, then twist his neck. It was an agonizing sight, and I actually winced upon seeing it. It’s a testament to the game that the violence continued to feel brutal throughout, where most games desensitize you to it by the end.
On the surface, it may seem that Hotline Miami is attempting to sell itself purely on the brutality of the spectacle. Underneath, however, is an arcade soul. Bathed in the neon lights of the 80’s arcade scene, and driven by the hypnotic beats of the music, HM has a mechanical core that pushes you to keep playing until you ace the challenge. The scoring mechanics encourage near reckless momentum, leading you from one pinpoint act of brutality to another, in an effort to chain together a series of kills and keep up your combo. As you play you’ll also discover what almost amounts to stripped down stealth mechanics. Overtaking areas successfully will require you to skirt lines of sight, avoid windows, and balance between the long range efficiency of guns and the need to avoid alerting large groups with the noise. Hotline Miami may not be incredibly complex, but it’s flexible in the ways it allows you to create your death traps, creating mini-sandboxes of violence to explore.
A sandbox is nothing without tools to explore it, of course. In HM these come in the form of various weapons and, at times, the environment itself. As you progress, you’ll also unlock new weapons which are then randomly placed at key points throughout the levels. For the most part, weapons come in three flavours: melee, guns, and thrown. Melee weapons are for getting personal, and allow you to dispatch enemies without a sound. Guns allow you distance, but have limited ammo and alert others to your presence, which is especially dangerous if they are armed as well. Thrown weapons allow you to quietly take out enemies from range, but are are either single use or need to be picked up again. While the locations of the weapons stay the same between deaths, the particular weapon randomizes. It creates an interesting moment to moment dynamic where you need to decide between the immediate danger and what you’ll need five seconds into the future.
The game tends to get messy.
It also means a lot of death. Get too close to an enemy--dead. Miss a shot or a swing--dead. Mistime a throw--dead. Dead dead dead dead dead. For every death you cause, you will experience one of your own. This leads to a Super Meat Boy like rhythm of death, experimentation, and memorization as you make your way through the level trying to figure out what combination of actions will prevent you from joining the corpses on the floor. Paired with the visuals and music it becomes hypnotic, almost ritualistic. Within the ambiguously sinister phone calls you receive at home, the surreal intros between levels, and the donning of the reality twisting, attribute changing animal masks at the start of the stage, there is a sinister mental thread. The slight details, such as the way your home changes, humanize the underworld of Miami just enough to make it hurt when it all goes wrong. Then you go from thinking something just isn’t right, to knowing it. What exactly is all this sadism achieving? Is it even important to know?
Hotline Miami won’t give you any answers. Plenty of questions, lots of bizarre images to carry with you, but ultimately, you’re left with a puzzle missing a few pieces. You’ll continue to enact the ritual, reliving moments, returning to perform sadistic experiments with your enemies. It’s sickeningly satisfying, and stimulating to the point where it becomes physically and mentally exhausting to play for extended sessions. It’s got a few bugs as well, as of release Steam integration is a bit iffy, and you’ll likely to come across a few errors in a playthrough. Dennaton have been great at updating quickly, however, and interacting with players through the forums, so take that as you will.
Hotline Miami is at its core a message of ambiguous, sadistic melancholy, delivered in pulsing hyper-neon 50 Deaths-per-Minute arcade gameplay. It’s fucking good. That’s all I’m sure of.
- The Pulse: the soundtrack alternates between states of droning ambience and hypnotic driving beats
- The Blood: the result of every action is a cathartic combination of brutality and guilt
- The Heart: just enough humanity and emotion in the story to carry it through to the end
- The Look: a hyper-stylized Miami underworld awaits you
- The Mind: even as I continue to replay the game, I’m still not sure exactly what story it’s telling me
- The Slip: like the rest of the game, the technical side is not quite stable
My older colleagues in non-PJ related matters were quite excited when the first trailer for Miami Hotline appeared. I took it as bad sign, because I’m quite against pretentious artsy-fartsy indie games (for an example of a non-pretentious artsy-farsty indie game, buy last year’s Bastion). So inevitably Stunt blessed me with a review copy. And it wasn’t that bad, actually. The art style is interesting, to say the least, the pace is rapid – a well executed level leaves a feeling of fast, unrelenting violence like no other.
The game’s shortcomings come on the technical side of things. The first screen to greet me was “Turn on Steam (might not work)”. The loading times were terrible and there were no visual or audio options. This begs the question: why did they release it unfinished? It’s not like it has much competition or a release date that was first announced shortly after Flood and postponed ever since. And, after the releases of Elemental: War of Magic and Sword of The Stars 2, which were more bugs than game, I have little tolerance for such shenanigans. Also, as one Habermann points out, the game can be crazy difficult at times, and is that not an indie shorthand to extend playtime, much like stupid puzzles and fetch quests were for Resident Evil? These are the considerations that force me to give a lower overall score.
This is the game that a lot of players would perceive as a good old throwback to GTA 1 or 2 from the first glance. But it’s not. It might have the same vibe but it’s a different type of game. There is no freeroaming the city here and nicking cars. Though you have shooting and brawling. A lot of it. The game is based on short, very challenging levels, where you have to kill everyone in the most brutal way possible. Your “performance” is measured in points. Shooting someone results in fewer points than knocking them out and then finishing them off with a melee weapon. It’s very fast, adrenaline inducing action, that will keep you on the edge of your seat with music that only enhances the experience. The game is very simplistic in its looks. Highly pixelated visuals help censor the violence just to a point where it stops being grouse and starts being cool.
Unfortunately the game came out with quite a few issues that aren’t as much game breaking, as annoying. Especially for those who like their achievements or steam overlay enabled as none of it worked until today. The promising thing is that the developers are hard at work quickly fixing the bugs and the progress done indicates that the game will have most of its problems resolved within a week from release. If it’s your style of game and the lack of steam overlay and achievements don’t ruin your life, then no point in holding yourself back.