I don’t know what I expected with Hotline Miami. I’d been meaning to play the game since it originally came out for PC back in October but somehow never got around to it. I’d heard both good and bad things about the game by this point, but nothing really in-depth; I knew it had a great soundtrack and some crazy ultra-violent gameplay at the very least. Hotline Miami is clearly that, but at the same time so much more and, from what I can tell, this Vita release improves on an already pretty great game.
The plot itself starts out simple enough. You play as the mask wearing hitman known as Jacket, answering mysterious phone calls and killing everyone at the addresses these calls give. That seemingly straightforward concept, like many other things in the game, is progressively twisted as you play. With no explanation, the game starts you out in a dim room with three masked beings, each of which has something different to say. One thing stays the same between the three of them–they aren’t remembered by Jacket. These three, the callers on the phone, and a mysterious man who seems to work everywhere Jacket visits are pretty much the only characters you meet in the game without bashing their skulls in right off the bat. This cast of recurring characters asks the questions that keep our story moving along and eventually dive deeper into the reasoning and psyche of our silent murderer. And while they may not provide reason to the senseless murder, they do open up doors that most hack-and-slash gorefests leave closed.
Hotline Miami has already released on PC and releases today on PS3, so gamers have plenty of options when deciding on where they want to experience the game. Given the options out there, I was very happy with how Hotline Miami chose to embrace the unique control options on the PS Vita. Movement is controlled through the left stick, while directional facing is controlled through the right stick. Heavy use of the right stick has been an issue on other Vita games I’ve played and usually ends up with me clumsily hitting x or circle as I try to swap between the stick and buttons, but I never really had any problem with this in Hotline Miami. This is probably due to the fact that the face buttons are used very little. Weapons are picked up with L, attacks are executed with R. The only real use of the face buttons is the occasional pressing of ‘x’ to preform a finishing move on a stunned enemy. The minimalist control scheme makes for a simple and enjoyable play.
Touchscreen controls are usually a hit or miss when it comes to video games. Dragging a finger across the screen moves the camera through the level, letting you see a bit more of your surroundings and better plan out your onslaught. In a feature new to the Vita version, tapping an enemy on the touch screen locks on to that target, making both melee and ranged murder that much easier. In theory the lock on is pretty nice. Because of it, I was able to plan out my first target and strategically fill him with lead, much like a one-use V.A.T.S. system from Fallout. However, more often than not you don’t have time to plan out your shots and using lock-on on the fly is a nightmare. Juggling two sticks, your shoulder buttons, and jabbing your fingers at the screen attempting to hit one of the tiny sprites while it runs around and tries to kill you isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds.
Hotline Miami is described as a ‘2-D top down, action shooter’ by most, but saying that is all there is to the game feels like a disservice. Loading menus inform the players that ‘recklessness is rewarded’ and encourage running through levels with guns a-blazing. Death is always close at hand, with only a single bullet dropping the masked murderer. But, much like it encourages recklessness, the game treats death as a learning experience rather than a punishment for a an incorrect move. Some levels were just a matter of killing everyone as quickly as possible, but others required some real thought and planning. At one time, I tried three different routes (dying more times than I’d care to count) before settling on the one that would ultimately clear the level. Rather than run-and-gun, I found myself invoking stealth and careful planning to take out enemies. The way I experienced the game definitely felt like an action-shooter,but with a hefty helping of murderous puzzler on the side.
Levels are scored based on killings, boldness, combos, time bonus, flexibility, and mobility. If all the points add up higher than the target score, you’re granted a new weapon or mask. Unlockable masks add some personalization to the game, both customizing the experience and the difficulty depending on which mask you choose. Some masks give you more ammo, let you take an additional hit before dying, and allow you to move more quickly or see farther. Prior to this release of Hotline Miami, masks and bragging rights were the only real reason to work on maxing your score for a level. The PS3 and Vita versions introduce an online leaderboard, so you can see just how you stack up globally or against your friends.
I was warned about the difficulty of the game before going in. There is no option for changing difficulty like most modern games. With the way Hotline Miami progressed and introduced new enemies and fight strategies, the curve was never sudden. That being said, I did shout my share of expletives during each level, but I never died without learning something about the game. Hotline Miami isn’t spoon fed to you. If you want to experience it, you need to be ready and willing to learn and train yourself to take on everything it has to offer.
The soundtrack and visual style are both something to be admired. The sound itself is pretty bare-bones. Aside from music playing and the occasional gunshot or blade-slash, there isn’t much offered. I did experience some jumps and moments of silence between tracks as the audio looped over, but in most cases you won’t be in the same place long enough for it to be noticeable. Environments in the game are well crafted and levels are interesting and never repetitive. The gameplay itself may be straightforward, but careful use of doors and walls that you can shoot through add uniqueness to each and every level. Screenshots can’t really do this game justice. Though very simple and blocky in style, bright colors in constant motion keep it visually interesting. Hotline Miami does a great job of invoking a style that is both simple and complex all at once, which perfectly suits its needs.
Hotline Miami does a lot of things very well and overall comes off as a great game. Playing it for the first time ever on the Vita, it’s hard for me to believe it belongs anywhere else. An overall fantastic control scheme and atmosphere keep you playing while a surprisingly deep story creeps in from behind the violence. I’m usually the kind of gamer who sets everything to easy mode, but I felt both challenged and accomplished at every turn of this game. I can honestly say I’ll be playing through it a few more times and keeping an eye out for Hotline Miami 2 which is supposed to arrive later this year.
[+Great Controls and Use of Touch Screen] [+Surprising Plot Depth] [+Gradual Difficulty Increase] [+Great Visual Style and Soundtrack] [+Right At Home on Handheld] [-Lock-On Targeting Often Difficult] [-Difficulty Sometimes Frustrating]