Hotline Miami review

“Do you like hurting other people?”

A man gets out of his car and puts on his chosen mask, he collects his thoughts before outlining a basic strategy in his head, and then he gets to work. He crashes through the front door, taking the guard by surprise, beating him to death with his bare hands on the ground. No time to catch breath, he cuts into the next hallway, flinging a pocket knife into the next fool’s throat before he can raise his weapon. He takes the now-free shotgun, but two armed guards have heard the commotion and sprint through the hallway. Shit. This wasn’t the plan, but hesitation means death, so he improvises. He flings the shotgun at the first guard, knocking him down and ducking into the nearby room in the same movement. The second guard gives chase but he’s ready for him, smashing his face with a golf club. His jacket bathed in blood, he moves back out towards the downed guard, slumped in a daze against the wall, he kicks his head down with a sickening crunch.

4x Combo. Stage clear. Welcome to Dennaton Games’ Hotline Miami.

An ultra-violent, reflex-orientated game, Hotline Miami involves playing the role of a hitman with a cloaked motive to clear stages full of enemies, and by clear I mean savagely eliminate anyone in your way. It employs a top-down perspective with the player being able to manipulate the camera to calculate how many enemies they need to cut through and if some are lurking behind otherwise off-screen areas. This enables a strain of tactical thinking, and one which you will need to exploit the further you progress. The critical mechanic however is that largely everything is a one-hit kill and that works both ways. To manage this system clear rules are set out, melee weapons are quiet, but guns draw attention, moreover enemies are laser-sighted with their shooting, they will rarely if ever miss. Hence, consolidating a continuous combo throughout a stage often requires precise timing and frantic improvisation; it all means that it prevents the action from suffering from too much predictability.

To succeed in this bloody neon-tinged playground is to allow yourself to be consumed by the rhythmic beat of violence that Hotline Miami drums, avoiding the line of sight is linked to your speed. The increased fluidity of your twitch-like movement is a noticeable process, and the sense of reward for efficient killing is substantial, the feeling of a custom style, your own personal imprint of destruction is one of Hotline Miami’s greatest feats.

The structure meanwhile plays out in a series of ‘Acts’, each Act contains a series of ‘Chapters’ for you to work through, at the start of each chapter, you have the option of choosing one of a series of masks. These masks which the hitman adopts is basically Hotline Miami’s version of power-ups, for example the ‘Tony the Tiger’ mask gives the player the ability of lethal melee attacks, even if they haven’t equipped a weapon; other mask abilities include faster walking and more bullets. Efficient murder is rewarded, quick combos rack up higher-scores while more flexible strategies such as throwing projectiles and using doors to stun enemies is similarly encouraged. Your efforts are tallied at the end of each chapter with a ranking system ranging from A+ down, it resembles the form of an old arcade cabinet, the just one-more-go feeling grips the player to try again for a higher place on the leaderboard. But boy, will you have to work for it, the game has an insane difficulty curve, the opening tutorial is deliberately basic and from then-on you’re plunged straight in the deep-end. This is palpably smoothed by the instantaneous nature of the restarts, while the pulsating soundtrack only feeds your growing bloodlust to overcome a tricky stage.

The twitchiness of the gameplay however requires some really tight controls, and for the most part Hotline Miami does its best, but the lock-on system hasn’t translated well to Playstation. All too often, the lock-on would float between targets that were nowhere near my position, whilst stubbornly refusing to target the guard right next door. As the stages grew more complex, it became a bigger issue, the level design is sublime so on that account you never feel cheated in death, but if the lock-on fails you when it simply could afford not to, there’s justification for annoyance.

Hotline Miami flirts with the existence of a narrative, the masks act as a motif reiterating that your identity rests on what you do, not who you are. However there are scene transitions between chapters and certain plot strands are concluded in some form, the hitman you play as is given a job on his home voicemail at the start of each chapter, all messages are disguised as something trivial such as attending a ‘noise complaint’ or picking up laundry. These odd messages are matched by the player experiencing disturbing hallucinations throughout the game where other masked characters judge your actions and profess that you will never find out what is truly going on. The senseless killing is echoed through a deliberately illogical narrative, they act in perfect symmetry, and the ending provides a fittingly cynical explanation for all the events that occur.

The style of Hotline Miami takes more than a few cues from the cult-movie ‘Drive’ with the director even mentioned in the credits. The neon-heavy lighting and unflinching bursts of shocking gore splattering the camera lens is contrasted against the gaming-familiarity of retro pixel art adorning the characters. This is a psychedelic neo-noir visual experience and one that leaves its player completely hypnotised.

Of course, the real show-stopper here though is the soundtrack, good grief. What. A. Soundtrack. This is up there in the pantheon of the great game soundtracks of all time and perhaps the apex use of a soundtrack in a gaming experience. Utterly representative of the game’s themes, it cannot be overstated how integral it is to the overall experience, conveying what the player should be feeling so effectively. The relentless high energy, brutal beat drops and hazy synth voices provide the backing to your whirlwind of savagery. Moreover, like a whirlwind, such energy eventually dissipates and that’s the case here, following the clearing of a stage, the sound is abruptly cut as if a vinyl was removed. Only the disturbed ambience remains as you check back through the corridors, comprehending the full scale of your atrocities. The sound of this game has been crafted so deftly, it envelopes the game’s identity, perfectly synchronising with the murder and mayhem, all contributing to create a kind of wicked catharsis for the player to submit themselves to.

Hotline Miami is pure mechanics in a blood-soaked casing, the ferocious pace highlights how impeccably designed each stage is. Although the iffy lock-on controls detracts some fluidity away from your murder sprees, the pulsating soundtrack and instant restarts smooth over any long-lasting frustration. All said and done, Hotline Miami is an intoxicating thrill-ride with a mean swagger in its step.

8.5/10

+ Mind-blowing soundtrack

+ Hypnotic visual aesthetic

Outstanding level design

+ Addictive, frantic gameplay

– Awkward lock-on system