It's been far too long since I've really done any reviewing, not to mention for a game that's as relatively recent as Hotline Miami. This game has gotten as famous for some of the circumstances surrounding it as much as the content it hold itself. One of the game designers, Jason Söderström, was noted as visiting The Pirate Bay and helping people who had pirated the game to fix some of the issues they were having. The justification behind this was as follows:
"He just felt he didn't want people playing the buggy version of his game however they got it. He wanted them to get the patch. He basically said, 'I'm not going to criticise this, it's a fact of life. It would be nice if guys could find it within themselves to pay for it, but that's the world I'm in, so you know, you just have to take it for what it is.'"
That being said though, is Hotline Miami worth your time, even if you've decided to grab it for free? Read on and find out.
Title: Hotline Miami
Release Date: 23 Oct. 2012
"Doesn't look like you're here to chat..."
Hotline Miami is one thing first and foremost: an exercise in violence. Said violence is paradoxical; both surgical and explosive, gratuitous and understated, pointless yet meaningful. The game itself is presented as retro kitsch, with a visual style that evokes the original Grand Theft Auto. From the top-down perspective you guide the nameless protagonist through short but extremely challenging levels where the only goal is to end every life you come across with very few exceptions.
Hotline Miami is a deceptively simple game; you go in, kill everyone in your way until there's no one left, and then get out. Seems easy right? Well, not quite. You yourself are just as fragile as anyone else, one hit and it's all over for you. That's part of what this game counts on. Familiarize yourself with the "R" key, because it's going to become your best friend if you play this game for any extended period of time. R, in this case, is for "Retry", which is something you'll be doing a lot.
Things aren't entirely out of your favour though. You're free to scout around the map as long as you want before you enter any house, although once you step through that door there's no going back until everyone on the other side is red paste. You can glean information, plan your attack, and plan you should. I mentioned earlier that the violence is both explosive and surgical, the former is from the over the top retro gore, while the latter comes from the somewhat delicate hand it takes in order to not be reduced to such gore yourself.
Every weapon that an enemy has can be turned to your use, but the question is when and if you should. Melee weapons are silent but carry the grave risk of needing to get up close and personal, while most guns are effective but also have the problematic trait of drawing half the living enemies in the level down on your head from the noise. Add into this mix an assortment of masks that can grant various boons and a scoring system that is eager to reward bold success and punish failure and you get a surprisingly complex gameplay experience given the simple premise.
"Do you like sweet or sour? Maybe you want it bitter?"
As far as design goes I've already mentioned the 8-bit retro feel that this game invokes. Added onto that is the soundtrack which channels the best of the 80s driving club beats. It's honestly surprising how well the pounding music syncs with the violence taking place on the screen, and the musical suite is one of the high-points of the game that has been universally lauded. A lot of work went into the score and it shows through and through.
As for the story. Well, more than anything else and perhaps any other game the story is what you make of it. Personally I found it intriguing; a lot of questions are raised, and the answered aren't just handed to you. In what little interplay happens between the missions themselves the narrative unfolds as your visits to the local convenience store, bar, and VHS depot (this game is set in the 80s, do remember) you get the sense that something is wrong, but how deep you dig and how much you find is mostly up to your own interest. Even then, by the end you may find yourself questioning just how much of what you've experienced in the game is true.
Mirroring the gameplay itself the story is something simple, yet with enough depth to draw you in if you find it appealing. Likewise though, if you want to completely discard it your overall experience won't be hurt that much by it, although I honestly believe that you'll be missing out on some of the fun.
"I know you made it all the way here but ... I think you're in for a disappointment."
It's hardly all sunshine and roses though, believe me. There are some problems with the game that can lead to frustrations. The cursor that marks where your attacks land can easily get lost along the white tile floors that are often found in levels, and the cursor itself is minimalistic enough to easily get lost in the heat of the moment.
More than that though are some rather vexing issues with AI. To put it as bluntly as possible the enemies in this game are wonky to say the least. Even though one of the tips notes that enemy behaviour is predictable in my experience it has generally been anything but. Sometimes foes will ignore you despite your standing a few feet away from them, other times expect to be sniped from off screen by a guy with a shotgun that magically became ultra prescient while you were trying to sneak up on his buddy with a tire iron.
Likewise, the enemy reactions are wildly divergent; sometimes a gunshot will draw enemies from halfway across the map to your location, while other times the enemy in the next room over won't react. The lack of rhyme or reason behind what makes foes react is incredibly frustrating in a game where you should be aiming to use such reactions in a strategic manner. Add to this some outright buggy interactions from time to time such as enemies getting close enough to avoid a point blank shotgun blast or an attacking enemy mysteriously losing interest one moment only to reengage the next and you're going to suffer some ridiculous and needless deaths.
Finally, although it can't really be held against the game as a true fault, you need to know that this is by no means a long title. Hotline Miami can be completed in one solid afternoon of effort. If you're really focused on getting the highest scores you can and ferreting out every single secret then you might extend the playtime by a couple of hours at most. All in all though this is not a long game, and even at ten dollars the price seems somewhat steep. I picked it up while it was discounted 50% and that price seems about right, but I couldn't fault anyone for waiting until the price was reduced even more before they bothered taking a look.
"I'm not here to give you answers..."
Whether or not you've been swayed by any of my comments is really up to your own outlook. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy Hotline Miami for the short, brutal time that it took me to complete it. The game has the potential for so much, and for a first offering from the small indie studio Dennaton Games it's quite well done. There are already plans for a sequel, and if they can expand the scope then I believe they'll make something truly magnificent, but as it stands, it's a good time, but nothing that demands to be played.
Overall Grade: C. I think it would best to describe Hotline Miami like an explosion: quick, flashy, loud, and impossible to ignore for the short time it exists. With the rough patches and the short nature of the game though people may be left either needlessly frustrated or left wanting more bang for their buck. Look at a video of the first couple of missions on Youtube, and then pick this up on sale if you're interested. Good for a fun if frustrating bloody afternoon, but probably not something that you'll be sinking hours into.