Developer: Dennaton Games
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Planning is everything in Hotline Miami. As you survey the group of well-armed thugs inside your neon-soaked target building, you weigh up your options. One of them has a baseball bat. Another has an assault rifle, while his friends lounge on the sofa with their backs turned. Perhaps you could crush the first guard by smacking the door into him, steal his weapon and murder his compatriot without the others noticing? Then sneak around and disembowel the unwary survivors with a samurai sword? When your plan comes together, it's an unflinchingly gory orgy of sleazy ultraviolence, but your brain is your most powerful weapon.
Planning means nothing in Hotline Miami. Once you burst through the first door, everything goes to hell and resolves in five gut-wrenching, unpredictable seconds. Usually with your gory death and an instant checkpoint restart. The first thug falls, stunned by your surprise assault. You grab his knife and slit his friend's throat, pixelated blood gushing from his ruined neck. Another guard bursts through the door with a shotgun. Do you throw your knife? Run for cover? There's no time to blink, no time to think. It's just you, your reflexes and a huge amount of trial and error. Using your brain, even for a second, will get you killed.
Hotline Miami is an therefore an incredibly conflicted game, a seedy and shocking "f*ck 'em up" that sits somewhere between Manhunt, the original Grand Theft Auto and Super Meat Boy. For many, it will also be one of the gaming highlights of 2012.
As a mysterious Miami citizen who's ordered to commit some brutal murders-to-order by faceless callers, you'll clear out a series of enemy-infested buildings level by level. A top-down perspective and slick WASD controls give you a good view of the chaos, which is actively designed to empower players with blistering speed and split-second responsiveness. All but the toughest of foes can be killed with a single attack from a melee weapon or gun, of which there are plenty scattered around the labyrinthine environments, while the scoring system actively encourages you to chain kills together into fearsome combos.
You'll cut, gut, hack, shoot, punch and butcher your way through each stage, smashing your way through doors, stunning some foes, slitting their throats and mowing them down in a few horribly wonderful seconds. You'll cover each floor in horribly mutilated corpses and claret. Rewarded, ultimately, with a path up to the next level and a fat score multiplier to boast about over the office water cooler. It's a gloriously fast, empowering and unspeakably brutal affair.
Except that it absolutely isn't. In fact, that's the best case scenario. You're just as fragile as your enemies, killed instantly by a single hit from any weapon, and foes will aggressively react to your presence. You'll therefore need to consider each situation as a discrete puzzle, working out how best to kill as many goons silently with melee weapons or stunning them with surprise attacks, storming in with guns blazing at the perfect time and hoping for the best. A selection of unlockable masks confer both useful and esoteric benefits, while scanning around the levels by holding shift can reveal deadly assailants lurking in wait. Like a pure stealth game, picking apart the underlying systems, such as patrol routes and how each weapon handles, is just as important as a twitchy trigger finger. Conversely, the best-laid plans can be ruined with a single shot or a foe's randomly-assigned weapon changing between attempts, ensuring that your reflexes and aforementioned trigger finger will need to be unimpeachably ready for action.
There's no 'right' way to complete your mission, just a dizzying selection of incredibly wrong ways that you'll learn through massive amounts of trial and error.
Since you can respawn instantly at the beginning of each stage with a simple tap of the R key, Hotline Miami's surprisingly cerebral execution-based challenges are notably reminiscent of Super Meat Boy; providing major frustration but giving you the tools to overcome your seemingly impossible obstacles. Finally getting the perfect balance of planning, skill and blind luck is intensely satisfying, and unbelievably compelling to boot. Chances are that you'll find it impossible to put Hotline Miami down until it's complete (which will take between 3-5 hours), thanks to that perfect balance of aggravation and sweet sweet payoff.
Calling the storyline 'twisted' would be an understatement. The more I discuss Hotline Miami's underlying premise, the less effective it will be, but know that its increasingly surreal and uncanny revelations gradually introduce a huge number of thought-provoking and deeply unsetting questions - both for you as the player as well as the protagonist. Getting to the next bizarre also keeps you pushing forward, perhaps despite your better instincts.
Hotline Miami's presentation is likely to be incredibly divisive. It's an intentionally ugly 16-Bit throwback, all jagged pixels and primary colours, and everywhere the glow of neon. If GTA: Vice City had been the first game in the series, it might have looked a little like this. Dennaton Games cite Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive as a major influence, and its uneasy mix of sleazy decadence and uncompromising grit shines through at every turn.
Despite the relative crudeness of the graphics, your numerous acts of murder are unflinchingly and brutally realised with fountains of blood, explicit gore and gaping, realistic wounds that would embarrass the Soldier Of Fortune series. It's soberingly raw. Horrible. Disgusting, even. Yet brightly-coloured score bubbles and combo counters instantly disarm any lingering guilt or shame. For some, Hotline Miami will be an exploration of how desensitised we've gotten to virtual violence. For others, it will be a nostalgic throwback to times past. Many will probably think it's unnecessarily hideous. Either way, its garish art direction and synth-heavy musical accompaniment is cohesive and appropriate, giving us a shocking view of the excessive 80s from a seriously warped perspective.
A few issues bring Hotline Miami down from time to time. A truly awful forced stealth level notwithstanding (that ranks amongst the worst I've ever seen in my gaming career), the fact that you have to manually scour the screens to see what's ahead can get extremely wearing. The zoomed-in perspective gives us an intimate view of the killing, but I can't help but feel that giving us a wider overview would have been appropriate considering the cut-throat nature of the gameplay. Enemy AI is also rather inconsistent to put things mildly (sometimes, enemies will react instantly to your gunshots, or blithely continue lazing around on the sofa as their friend bleeds to death in front of them), though this could admittedly be a purposeful design decision to balance the difficulty curve and increase unpredictability.
Sadly, there's a bigger problem. At the time of writing, Hotline Miami is completely broken. Indeed, it's less stable than the protagonist. When I quit the game to jot down some initial thoughts, it instantly froze, hung and deleted all of my progress; forcing me to complete the first two-thirds of the game again. A little sweep of the Steam forums shows that I'm probably not in the minority here... and though I'd suggest that Hotline Miami is more impactful if you complete it in a single sitting, this situation is frankly unacceptable.
Until Dennaton Games releases a patch/hotfix, I'd suggest holding off on what will otherwise be an essential purchase.
- Shocking, brutal, and effortlessly slick violence
- Surprisingly cerebral puzzle elements and thought-provoking storyline
- Unbelievably compelling; memorable and cohesive art style
- Inconsistent AI
- Awful forced stealth level
- Intentionally garish and potentially offensive by design
- Broken at launch
The Short Version: Hotline Miami is a sleazy, shocking, often unpleasant and thoroughly worthwhile use of a few hours. Dennaton Games' murder puzzler is as compelling and exhilarating as it is brutally raw, resulting in a game that works brilliantly despite having little right to do so on paper.
Love it or hate it, you won't soon forget Hotline Miami.