Video Game Review: Hotline Miami
Right now, there’s a beat playing in my head. It’s exhilarating. It’s got my heart pumping and my gut in a knot. I’m not a violent person, but this pounding in my brain brings back memories of some truly gruesome things I’ve done. The songs now on repeat in my head have been stuck there since playing Hotline Miami, and I can’t imagine they’ll be leaving anytime soon. Not since Bastion has a game, and the emotions it evokes, been so connected to the sounds of the experience. Every tune, from the disorienting menu music to the frantic beats accompanying each level of this brutal puzzle game, feed perfectly into the main character’s psychedelic murder spree. This game sounds like drugs — bad ones.
Hotline Miami is probably the most violent game I have ever played. Sure, it’s 8-bit style doesn’t depict death and destruction as graphically (see what I did there) as something like Gears of War or most other modern violent media, but it has a way of making you feel the blood on your hands like no other video game does. Though it is bloody, it doesn’t feel needlessly so. Later, I’ll explain the impact this game uses gore to make, but for now let me tell you why it’s so damn fun.
Each of the twenty chapters starts with you waking up in your apartment to the phone ringing. You walk over and pick up the receiver and a voice on the other end says something cryptic. They tell you they need a service person like a babysitter, for example. They tell you the kids are really rowdy and give you an address. The music picks up just as you arrive outside a building; it seems to be tilting back and forth as you approach and the space around it appears empty except for the bright and ever-changing color. Clearly, you aren’t sober.
From your top-down view, you can see part of the interior. It’s usually filled with neon-colored decor and men in white and blue suits — attire perfectly befitting the 1980′s setting. You put on a mask and wait for just the right moment to burst into the building. Once you enter an enemy’s range of visibility, this game suddenly moves at an extremely quick pace. If they have a gun, they shoot a half second after seeing you. If they have a melee weapon, they immediately rush you. You never have any armor or very much health, so death happens quickly if you don’t approach these situations with a plan and execute it perfectly.
You rush through the door, knocking the henchman immediately on the other side to the ground and his baseball bat flies from his grasp. Using this small window of opportunity, you rush to his partner at the other end of the entryway and punch him, knocking him flat as he aims his pistol. You pin him, grabbing his head and bashing it into the floor until the blood starts to pool around it. You take his weapon, just as you notice the first guy is up again, bat in his hand once again and he rushes toward you. You miss with the first and second round, but the third lands right in his skull and he drops to the ground right in front of you. Then two men rush out of the door to the adjacent office and you catch one but the other spills your guts with a blast from his shotgun. Did I mention this game is violent?
Luckily, when you mess up and die, something that will certainly happen a lot, you restart with the press of a button. You grip the controller (or keyboard and mouse) a little harder and head back in. Knock down the first guy, rush the second, pin him, bash his head, take his pistol, throw it at the first guy, take his bat, bring it down on him and the entryway has a second pool of blood. Because you didn’t fire a shot, no one on the other side of the office door heard and you can approach those enemies when you are ready. Respawning is as quick as the combat, and armed with the prior experience, it takes but a second to get right back to where you were — no matter how many armed men stand between you and where you last lost your life. Removing most of the sting of death distills this game down to such a pure high of exhilaration that it’s almost as addictive as the drugs your character is surely on.
Because you can see only a section of the level at a time, there is a going to be a lot of learning as you go, but it always give you enough information that you never feel you are going into combat completely blind. The camera lets you see just enough of your enemies’ placement, movement, and weapons to form a plan of attack, though it won’t always work out. As a general rule, it’s better to avoid guns until you must use them because these weapons cause a lot of noise that others hear, and will lead to you getting rushed by anyone in adjacent rooms. That said, gunshots can also be used for bait to lure these white suits into a situation where you maintain the element of surprise. The simple mechanics manage to provide a lot of experimentation, and the blistering speed makes failing at attempted maneuvers almost as fun as success.
Once you’ve cleared a level of enemies, there’s usually at least one other floor of the building to move on to. These points are the only time the game checkpoints, but you can take any weapon dropped on the previous floor and start that next level with it upon every respawn. After you’ve cleared every floor, the game tells you the chapter is completed and the music halts. It then makes you walk back through the building, stepping over the bodies you’ve left along the way. Despite every enemy being completely faceless, I always got a very sobering knot in my stomach that sort of disoriented me at this part. I would end up getting lost on the way out and ended up wading through even more of my destruction than necessary before reaching the car again.
When you do reach the car, it gives you a score based upon deaths, time taken, variability of weapons, and some other factors. You often unlock another weapon that will randomly drop in enemy hands and another animal mask with a new ability. When you leave this screen, you find yourself at a pizza place or video store and talk with a guy, always the same long-haired dude, behind the counter. He’s always got something weird to say, and then he tells you your order is on the house — giving the impression that your payment for these jobs is being delivered through these establishments.
The game’s story is oddly delivered, which feeds into the atmosphere and intrigue even more, but I was a bit disappointed with the lack payoff in the end. I’ve heard Hotline Miami described as Drive: The Game and I feel that’s a quite an apt comparison. Maybe it is supposed to be a coked-out Ryan Gosling under all those creepy animal masks. Hotline Miami also has some pretty gnarly technical issues; some players can’t get the music, one of the most important pieces of the experience, to work while a few can’t get the game running at all. I did have a couple errors while playing, but nothing a quick restart couldn’t fix.
Despite its weak ending and the couple of technical hiccups, I enjoyed this experience more than I have any other $10 Steam purchase, and more than most games I played in 2012; I would highly recommend picking it up and murdering your way through it over a weekend. There is a lot to be enjoyed in Hotline Miami, especially for the low price, but as violent and weird as it is, it isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like bloody or high-stress games, I would still say you should check out the awesome soundtrack. If nothing else, you can at least enjoy the electrifying music of this entrancing game.
Follow Levi thoughts, most of which aren’t about drugs and murder, @biggunsfowler