A few years ago, The Onion ran an article about a fictional video game called Close Range, in which the sole objective was to shoot enemies in the face. Literally; enemies would appear on screen and you would shoot them. People, animals, whatever. For those of us in the know, it was a hilarious satire of what the perception of video games is by people who don’t play them. Obviously, video games are (and have been for at at least two decades) multilayered and complex, and are about far more than just ‘killing for points’.
Then in 2012, Dennaton Games released Hotline Miami and demonstrated that sometimes video games ARE just about shooting enemies in the face.
Hotline Miami consists of your character (referred to as ‘Jacket’) taking on missions as a hired killer; busting in on houses, apartments, and the like, and killing everyone in sight as quickly and efficiently as possible. The primary mechanic comes across as being deceptively simple, but it is truly amazing how many elements from other games it evokes. Some of the more obvious ones are the top-down view of early Grand Theft Auto and room-clearing gunplay of Max Payne. Along with those influences, this game calls upon titles as varied as Rainbow Six and Dark Souls in how it causes the player to take note of enemy patterns and environments that can be used to exploit weaknesses. Like Super Meat Boy, Hotline Miami doesn’t give you time to wallow in frustration at its difficulty (and it is very difficult). Instead, at the touch of the ‘R’ button it throws you back into the meat grinder. ‘One more try’ quickly turns into three hours. There are a variety of masks you can don which grant you abilities or weapons, raising or lowering the level’s difficulty.
There is a palatable tension that the player feels standing outside a door waiting for the right moment to bust in and kill them before they get you, while keeping an eye on the other room down the hall with the patrolling guard. It forces you to change gears with the random nature of enemy behavior. I had a hell of a time getting past the first few levels until I realized that boldness and risk/reward is a necessary component to being successful. Sure; you’ll die a lot (and I mean a lot), but clearing out a floor is incredibly satisfying.
It’s usually the death knell of a game when it tries to appeal to different types of audiences; reaching in all different directions while not doing any one thing particularly well. Hotline Miami somehow manages to pull off this trick of having elements that pique the curiosity of players from genres such as puzzle games, action, stealth, strategy, and even platforming. Elements from this incredibly diverse range of genres blend together seamlessly and create a gaming experience that tests your nerve like few others this year.
Hotline Miami has really got me thinking a lot about the concept of immersion and how most modern games are missing the point. Nobody (except for perhaps the protagonist himself) would mistake the visual world of this game for what we call reality, but I felt more present in any random chapter than in the entirety of Grand Theft Auto 4 or Saints Row the Third. That’s not to say they’re bad games (in many ways they are vastly superior), but what Hotline: Miami boasts is immediacy that draws the player in.
Despite its straightforward gameplay, Hotline Miami’s story is as twisted and elusive as the man in the mask. Disjointed bits of story drip-feed the player, and it takes much more than a single playthrough to get anything resembling a coherent picture of what’s going on in this world. While the look of Hotline Miami wouldn’t be out-of-place in the Commodore 64 era, its controls are superb. It takes a bit of getting used to with a keyboard and mouse but once you get the feel for it, look out.
For all its strengths (and it is to be commended for them), Hotline Miami has more than a few technical issues that range from mildly annoying to making me reflexively move my mouse to the ‘uninstall’ button. Music cuts in and out, error messages pop up which sometimes crash the game and other times have no effect, and selecting the ‘360 controller’ option can only be done manually. I don’t know; maybe it’s fitting that this game is so sloppily presented considering the damn-the-consequences nature of the gameplay. In addition to these issues (which are supposedly going to get ironed out, according to the developer), the visual style leaves a lot to be desired. In a way it’s quite bold and striking, but the text is very blurry, and can be a bit of a chore when playing the game for a longer period of time. Not only that, but enemies can blend into the environments which can create some frustrating moments. Granted, the easy-reload nature of the game makes this a minor issue, but it is an issue nonetheless.
So much of Hotline Miami feels like the kind of game that gets featured in movies and TV shows to demonstrate the transgressive nature of gaming. I’ll be honest that when I first heard about this game, I rolled my eyes at how cliched and obvious it seemed. Like few games I can think of however, this one manages to push past most of them by focusing on doing that one thing well…and it does it really well. Technical issues aside, the only other real issue I have with Hotline Miami is that it just feels like…too much. The last time I felt this way while playing a game was when I tackled Manhunt on the PS2. Where that game failed was in its inability to balance the horrific goings-on with a sense of maniacal glee; something this one has in spades.
In terms of straight-up gameplay, Hotline Miami is one of the most thrilling, tense, and eminently replayable action games I’ve played in a long time. Persistent bugs and sloppy presentation drag it down, and the gleeful nihilism on display makes me a little bit ashamed to admit that it pulled me in so deeply. The bottom line is this: I’m going to give Hotline Miami a strong recommendation, but I’ve got to admit I don’t feel good about it.
[+Simple, elegant combat] [+Wide variety of weapons/masks] [+Seamless transitions between gameplay types] [-Incredibly buggy] [-Casual violence deeply off-putting]