1989, it’s hard to believe it’s been 23 years. In ’89 Sega Genesis was released and George H.W. Bush held a bag of coke in his first televised Presidential speech to the nation. Times were different. Hotline Miami is a digital love letter to the late 80’s. That is, if you remember the 80’s as a drug fueled bloodbath. Hotline Miami is not a nice game by any means, but it’s a lot of fun.
The game is a top-down shooter that forces you to think about your next move. You play as a man that has been receiving phone calls from an unknown source. You’re given a story and a location and you book it. Once you arrive, the goal is pretty simple: kill everybody.
That’s the goal, the execution isn’t so simple. At the start of each level, you choose which animal-themed mask you’d like to wear (because no good killer goes into a job without his Frog mask). Each mask grants you a different perk. The rabbit mask, for example, allows you to walk faster (which could prove useful during a boss battle), the giraffe allows you to see further ahead, the dog mask prevents dogs from attacking you, so on and so forth. You unlock more masks as you progress through the game.
So you’ve picked your mask, you’re ready to go on in and kick some ass- aaand you’re dead. Okay, that was a fluke it’s time to fuc- never mind, you’re dead again. You will die in this game. A lot. You will die so many times that the game will give you an Achievement on the occasion of your 1000th death (I’m happy to say I haven’t reached that goal yet). This is why thinking ahead is important. The game is controlled by using the WASD keys for movement and the mouse for shooting and throwing weapons, as well as landing punches. You can also lock on to enemies by clicking the scroll wheel. The space bar is used to execute downed enemies. Controller support has now been patched in to the game, but I highly recommend you give it a shot with the default controls as well.
In most cases, you can see the entirety of a room you are about to enter (you can hold the SHIFT key to look ahead). There will likely be some badass dudes patrolling the joint. Sometimes they bring their dogs to sniff out the intruder (you). The A.I. in the game is not going to win any awards. Enemies walk in patterns that sometimes change. If you open a door, they might just walk through it without blinking an eye to wonder who opened it. Occasionally, enemies will get stuck at an open door and jitter in place until you move them with a bullet or something stabby.
The A.I. is simple, but it’s also pretty effective and makes for a fun/challenging game. If an enemy sees you, he will attack you immediately. That’s a bigger problem when they’re packing heat. If he’s holding a melee weapon, it’s easier to attack him head-on. If he’s got a gun though, be prepared because he will shoot it at you as soon as he sees that sweet jacket you’re rocking. Another important note regarding the game design/A.I. is that if you shoot a gun, nearby enemies will be alerted and they will attack. Sometimes you can use this to your advantage by purposefully blasting some shrapnel into a nearby enemy or wall and running your ass into the nearest empty room with chasing enemies in tow. As they file in, you can just blast them away, one by one. Stupid as it is, it’s pretty fun fooling these bruisers.
Hotline Miami takes place in the late 80’s so it’s only fitting that the game looks like it came out of that era. Much of it looks like a really nice NES game. The art style is very reminiscent of that era. On a technical level, however, Hotline Miami throws so much more at you. It’s modern design with a retro coat of paint. As you unravel the game’s cryptic and twisted story, you discover early on that there is something seriously wrong with the protagonist. There is a constant, colorful, digital haze in the air throughout the entire game. Levels often feel a bit tilted and wobbly, creating a slightly unsettling effect. Imagine your old NES dropped acid and then told you to play with it for hours and hours while it ranted at you about all of the crazy people in its life. That’s Hotline Miami.
The music is fantastic. The game’s soundtrack is composed of 80’s-inspired electronica from a variety of different artists. It’s very fitting of the era and it moves fast enough to keep the game’s tempo up. When you kill everyone, you’ve pretty much completed a level. After the last body drops, so does the music. It serves as a subtle reminder that what you’re doing is murder. You are also reminded of this as you traverse all the way back through a level to your car. You will walk past every body that you killed. Nothing disappears in this game. You will enter a building with nice decorations and carpets. By the time you leave, that same building will be filled with dead, bloodied bodies, bullet shells and brain splatter.
As far as longevity goes, Hotline Miami offers up some ways to keep you playing. The game is composed of 15 chapters and 4 epilogue chapters told through the perspective of one of the game’s bosses. A bonus chapter has also been added to the game, only further complicating the game’s mysterious story. You are graded at the end of each level as well. If you’re the type that needs to get an A+ at everything, you’ll be playing quite a bit. Each chapter also contains a puzzle piece to find. Once you’ve found all of them, you can unlock the game’s “real” ending. I was able to finish the first 15 chapters in about 5 hours or so. I’ve since put several more hours into the game however and I intend to come back to it often. There is a healthy amount of different masks and weapons to unlock as well, which can change the way a level is experienced.
Playing Hotline Miami was not a completely smooth process. I once foolishly tried to remap the keyboard controls and it sent the game’s main menu in to a rapidly cycling whirlwind that could only be fixed by going into the game’s install folder and deleting a file. The game also popped up an error dialogue box and crashed on me twice while playing. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it did show that the game needed a bit more polish before being sent out.
All in all though, Hotline Miami is easily one of my favorite games of 2012. Aside from a few bugs, Dennaton Games have crafted a highly enjoyable experience that I constantly want to return to. It’s flaws are mostly technical (and fixable), but they do exist. If you’ve got the urge for some challenging violence and stealth, give Hotline Miami a shot. I’m ready for more.