The original Hotline Miami is simultaneously one of the easiest and most difficult games to describe. Difficult because there’s no way to fully capture the essence of the game with descriptions, but easy because if I pick any random adjective from the dictionary, it will almost definitely apply in some way. The only word that doesn’t fit at all would be “mild”. The game provided both cathartic, primitive release and deep, sombre introspection. It was propelled by blasts of sensory overload, but it frequently screeched to a halt for periods of stunned silence. It was extremely violent, but…well, OK, it never stopped being extremely violent, but it seemed to be sickened by its own violence and hoped the player would be too. It was a one-of-a-kind game…until now. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number has been unleashed, and it’s just as memorable, flawed, and insane as the first one.
“The same but more” is everyone’s first impression of Wrong Number, and while that’s correct in some respects – the core gameplay is virtually unchanged – from a structural and narrative perspective, the game is surprisingly different. Perhaps most notably, there are 13 playable characters, and not all of them are crazy. Or at least not as completely loopy as the protagonists of the first game. Now, instead of a pair of hallucinatory narrators whose stories each contain the other’s death, the plot jumps between a handful of interwoven scenarios, Pulp Fiction-style, over the course of six years. It’s still trippy and confusing as all hell, only now the talking animal masks are reserved for literal drug trips and unexplained premonitory visions. The way it repurposes old material is similar to Majora’s Mask without the added darkness, if only because creating something darker than Hotline Miami is all but impossible.
It surprised me to learn that Wrong Number was originally planned as DLC for the first game, because its story retroactively improves the original’s so much in a way that normally only happens for sequels that are planned from the beginning. The first game was an unexpectedly profound commentary on the entertainment value of sensationalized violence, but it had a hidden ending that seemingly existed solely to push the limits of how out-of-nowhere a twist could be while still remaining coherent. The sequel sets out to mine the depths of that twist, exploring the origins and repercussions of the serial killer-spawning phone messages that drove the first game’s plot. The result is perhaps less relevant than its predecessor, but equally jaw-dropping and sophisticated, if not more so.
Narrative scope wasn’t the only thing expanded for Wrong Number – the levels are larger, and the running time has been doubled. Despite this, some of the more poorly-received features have been removed. Boss fights are now few and far between, and much less frustrating than before, while the slightly underrated midgame stealth section is gone completely. While it’s nice to see developers excise things that didn’t work, those things weren’t replaced with anything in this case, leaving the standard combat to carry all of the gameplay alone. With a few exceptions, players are no longer allowed to choose a power-granting animal mask at the start of each level, either. On the plus side, this prevents balance issues with overpowered masks, but it also compounds the game’s newfound lack of variety. Finally, high scores no longer unlock new weapons or masks, eliminating a great source of replay value.
Fortunately, the core gameplay is still one of the finest guilty pleasures gamers have ever been offered. Removed from the story’s context, it’s basically the game that we’ve all spent decades convincing parents and fear-mongering politicians that all games are not. It’s a game of pure action, where 95% of the objectives are “kill everything with a pulse”, and everything with a pulse can be killed in a split second, including the player character. Instant respawns maintain the game’s ferocious pace, which, combined with torrents of gore, intense difficulty, and a scoring system that rewards recklessness and efficiency, creates an undeniably desensitizing experience. Of course, given that the first game was a commentary on its own violent existence, the gameplay is probably specifically designed to desensitize its audience.
One of my favourite aspects of the first game was the ridiculous action movie-style stunts that could be performed by players through organic gameplay. Actions like knocking unaware enemies to the ground by slamming a door into their face or turning empty assault rifles into lethal thrown weapons were so uniquely over the top that it was impossible to get bored of them. Wrong Number contains all of these and more, adding characters that can fire guns in two different directions at once and a katana-wielding character who can throw his scabbard to stun enemies at range. They’re both completely impractical, but they’re so stupidly awesome that it doesn’t even matter. Other fan-favourite features return as well; the dance-heavy soundtrack is more forceful and psychedelic than ever, and the brutal sound effects are instinctively satisfying in a way that our therapists would probably like to hear about.
Of course, with so little deviation from the formula, all of the faults in the gameplay are retained as well. The door physics are still unreliable, and the top-down retro visuals, while appropriate thematically, are terrible at conveying what objects are and whether they’ll act as cover or obstacles. Most problematically, the enemy AI programming is just as amateurish as before, featuring oblivious, suicidal melee enemies and absurdly proficient ranged ones. Enemies in Hotline Miami have next to no reaction delay, allowing them to shoot you the instant you enter their sight, which has a longer range than yours and isn’t necessarily restricted to the direction they’re looking. Weapon selection is also in desperate need of a priority system that would prevent players from picking up empty handguns in favour of the fully-loaded machine guns that are occupying the same space.
Largely because of the game’s AI problems, the more expansive level design ends up being its worst feature. The player is much safer in cramped environments where they’re able to lure enemies around corners and not worry too much about long-range marksmanship. But many of Wrong Number’s levels are comprised of wide open spaces with enemies waiting to pick the player off through innumerable breakable glass walls. The result is that most players will find themselves relying on firearms for most of the game, not to mention completely paranoid that every step they take will lead to their demise. Both of these things could have worked in other games, but here, firearms are less enjoyable than melee weapons, and the paranoia merely drags down the all-important pacing – and not in the abrupt, meaningful way that the end-of-level lucid moments do. Larger levels also mean sparser checkpoints, making for a much more tiresome challenge level than the first game.
Hotline Miami’s difficulty already kind of bordered into unfair territory, so it’s likely that fans of the original will be able to forgive this sequel’s faults. It does absolutely nothing to attract new fans, but then, no one was asking it to. Alienating and somewhat disappointing as it may be, the game is still a relentlessly stylish, frighteningly addictive delivery system for visceral thrills, driven by a twisted but thoughtful narrative. What else can you hope for from a sequel to Hotline Miami?