Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is bigger than Hotline Miami in every way imaginable. From a massively expanded runtime to multiple playable characters, an involved canon-hopping storyline and sprawling murder playgrounds, Dennaton have thrown everything they can at the game to give you more bang for your buck.
We expect this from sequels, of course, but being bigger doesn't necessarily equate to being better. Something that Hotline Miami 2 players will find out the hard way.
Hotline Miami 2's storyline is utterly bizarre. Starting with a controversial fake-out, the plot schizophrenically leaps between events before, during and after the first game. New plot threads are brought up and ignored or left dangling. Characters are introduced, killed off, taken in unexpected directions or otherwise discarded. One moment you're storming a garage as a hired goon, the next you're playing as an actor depicting the events of the original or fans obsessed with the legendary serial killer, then you're fighting the communist invasion of Hawaii. Dialogue shifts between uncanny and clichéd on a whim.
The whole thing eventually unravels as the boundaries between fantasy, reality, delusion and videogame break down, the structure collapsing under its own obtrusive and obnoxiously wordy weight. It's confusing, deeply pretentious and I absolutely bloody love it.
Not only does it feel like any number of crappy old half-remembered VHS movies I used to watch, where an overly ambitious director failed to keep his own aspirations in check, but it's tone and pitch-perfect, brilliantly encapsulating a sleazy society on the brink in which bad people do terrible things for bizarre reasons or no reason at all. It has more to say than you might expect, too, both in terms of social commentary and the nature of videogame fandom.
The presentation then seals the deal, presenting a grimy, lurid, shockingly raw yet undeniably smoother visual aesthetic accompanied by what is bound to be one of the best soundtracks of the decade. Pumping electronica and synth fires up your blood, pulling back to foreboding atonality or haunting refrains in more introspective moments. If nothing else, Hotline Miami 2 is a treat for the ears, but the perfect storm of fascinating story with sleazy hot presentation is primarily what pulled me through the game's not inconsiderable length.
Gameplay-wise, the original Hotline Miami was cleverer than many gave it credit for; a perfect clockwork mechanism of guards and goons that players were encouraged to unbalanced in the most satisfyingly ultraviolent ways possible. I described it as "a seedy and shocking f*ck 'em up" in my 9/10 review, praising its slippery arcade gameplay that encouraged us to brutally and imaginatively slaughter our way through its top-down levels like a horrific fusion of Robotron, Manhunt and Super Meat Boy.
We'd make careful plans and abandon them within seconds, chaining together one-hit kills, swapping weapons to suit the situation, making the best of what we had to hand, throwing weapons or smashing through doors long enough to murder their friends before finishing them off with sickening executions. We'd restart and restart and die and die and die, but eventually bravery, skill and a little luck paid off in some utterly satisfying gameplay brilliance.
It was a true modern classic and Hotline Miami 2 is built on the same foundations. Only... bigger. Dennaton decided to expand on almost every aspect of the original with varying degrees of success.
The most successful addition is multiple playable characters who all play very differently, ripping us out of our comfort zone and forcing us to approach levels in a new way. Whether a damaged writer who refuses to kill (using only blunt melee weapons and dismantling firearms instead of picking them up!) or a duo of chainsaw and pistol-wielding thugs who handle as a single character, Hotline Miami 2 shakes up the pace and is largely better for it.
The fun can be prescriptive and restrictive, though, as we're being told how to complete a level rather than being given more options. Some military levels set in Hawaii are also an awful misstep, descending into boring generic shooting galleries starring a soldier so stupid that he won't pick up a gun off the floor even if his own is out of ammo. Still, in the main, it's an inclusion worth making.
How I wish that Hotline Miami 2 had stopped there. The perfect clockwork mechanism has been tinkered with in other ways, too, and the gears just aren't turning the way they used to.
First off: guns. There are too many guns. Foes are now ridiculously well-armed from the first level onwards, with often half a dozen uzis and combat shotguns per floor, meaning that you'll have to escalate your own tactics in order to survive. Sure, you could stun a goon, grab a bike chain, kill his mate, stun a third guard with a quick throw and mop up the stragglers, but chances are you'll just get shot unless you pick up a gun and use it yourself. It's all too easy and tempting to exploit choke points in order to make it through a level so long as your character doesn't object.
To be clear, this was a viable tactic in Hotline Miami, but it's the viable tactic in Hotline Miami 2. A small yet deeply irritating distinction that undermines the riotous experimentation we associated with the original.
This might not have been too problematic were it not for Hotline Miami 2's biggest flaw: the level design. Once again bigger is better as far as Dennaton are concerned, with most level floorplans now much larger and more open, full of wide spaces and windows. Most corridors and even rooms don't fit onto the screen in their entirety.
Meaning that you will die because an enemy shot you from offscreen. Constantly. Over and over and over again. It's bad enough to replay a floor because you screwed up, but being cheaply sniped because the level layout doesn't match the arcade gameplay is down to poor design pure and simple. Naturally larger levels means that each cheap death forces you to replay more each time you die too.
As such, Hotline Miami 2 punishes you for boldness, risk-taking and improvisation, instead encouraging you to advance slowly and surely, peeking around with the shift key, and learning enemy locations by rote. Missing the point as it does so. Worse, though, it turns the good wholesome frustration of the original into anger, annoyance and fury at a game that isn't harder, just less fair.
Longer levels and runtime also provides more opportunities for Hotline Miami 2's mechanical quirks to rear their ugly heads. The AI is odd, occasionally pirouetting madly on the spot, often ignoring a corpse right in front of their face even as guards several rooms away come running to investigate the same gunshot. Doors often don't open as they should, sometimes flapping madly in the breeze or blocking projectiles at the most opportune moments. These issues were present in the original, but the game was snappy and brisk enough that we simply didn't have time to notice them.
All problems that would have completely destroyed a lesser game, but after all that I'm still glad I stuck with Hotline Miami 2 until the bitter (and masterful) end. There are numerous moments of quality, some of satisfying and cathartic levels that do rival and surpass the first game, while the exceptional presentation and challenging story pulled me through and out the other side.
And yet, whereas I finished Hotline Miami ready for another run, I doubt I'll ever return to Hotline Miami 2. Compelling though it was, I'm now rather glad to be shot of it.
- Hot lurid sleazy ultraviolence with the best soundtrack of the decade
- Surprising and challenging (if pretentious) storyline
- Multiple playable characters add refreshing changes of pace...
- ... but can restrict player choice; Hawaii missions are utterly dire
- Sprawling level design and proliferation of firearms punishes improvisation, leads to countless cheap and unfair deaths
- Mechanically quirky, AI borderline-broken
- Frequently infuriating and overlong, outstays its welcome
The Short Version: A stellar soundtrack and fascinating story rescue an otherwise disappointing sequel. In an effort to be bigger than the original, Hotline Miami 2 bloats its arcade gameplay into an grinder that punishes risk-taking and frequently feels irritating or unfair, not satisfyingly tough.
The sensational presentation, challenging plot and plenty of great moments makes Hotline Miami 2 worth playing for fans, but you might be surprised at how quickly it outstays its welcome.
6 – CAPABLE: The key thing to remember here is always try before you buy. There'll likely be some rather glaring flaws or perhaps a distinct lack of imagination, but games that earn a 6 will generally be very capable indeed and probably still provide a good deal of fun to genre fans.
Platforms: PC (reviewed) | PS3 | PS4 | PS Vita
Developer: Dennaton Games
Publisher: Devolver Digital