Greeted by a council of dangerous men in haunting animal masks, you’re given a series of warnings. This will not end well. You will be punished for your appalling actions. The directives of these creepy figures come for you over your home telephone via some sort of psychosis-inducing hotline. The order is always the same – go to the location given, and kill every last person there. A frightened, long-haired man pays you for your work through pizza boxes, convenience store snacks, drinks at bars, and obtuse chit-chat. And through it all, your character is disturbingly nonplussed by the world around him. Such are the ways of Hotline Miami, a game that merges fairly traditional game elements – running, shooting, snippets of dialogue, high scores – in incredibly gratifying, effective ways that make it more than a summation of its sublime parts. This is a surreal, absurdist action masterpiece, the video game equivalent of a David Lynch film. A nightmarish dive into human depravity, Hotline Miami bolsters its wild and grim presentation with some truly outstanding running and gunning that feels incredibly challenging and responsive. Few games I’ve played are more fun to play, let alone execute so wholly on their mechanics.
This is a game you should most definitely check out.
If I had to reduce my entire critique of this game into a single word, it would have to be “precision.” Tasked more or less exclusively with completing mass murder jobs for the aforementioned animal-headed gang, this game lays down a few ground rules and spends the rest of its time expanding on and taxing your skills with them. You can use knives, pipes, bats, pistols, rifles, shotguns, beer bottles and all other manner of gruesome instruments to clear buildings of bad guys. The main hook is how fast and brutal the violence is from its first moments. Weapons swing or shoot at the exact moment you trigger them, and just about every attack will kill a foe in one strike. And what a strike it is – showers of blood, pieces of skull, and entrails dress the homes and businesses you rampage through. Combined with some awesomely gross sound effects, the swift manner in which death arrives is always thrilling and unsettling, often at the same time.
This is especially true with ballistic weapons which require surgical accuracy to aim, leave a gruesome mess, and attract nearby foes with their cacophonous blasts. Using doors to knock down and snuff out enemies offers similarly dark entertainment. Attacking with your fists or by throwing your weapon is a good way to close the gap with more powerful, gun-toting enemies, but will often knock a thug down without killing him. This leaves you to climb on top of him and take him out with a finishing move unique to the weapon you’re wielding. From a cut throat to gouged-out eyeballs, there’s no shortage of brutal sights to see. The game wastes no time upping the trickiness of the level layouts or headcounts of gun-toting thugs, either.
The same rules apply to you, as well – absorb just one blow from the rooms of enemies you must extinguish, and its your blood festooning the floor. Movement is brisk, attacks hit hard, and you’re never more than one slip-up away from meeting your maker. But death is always expected in Hotline Miami, and meeting that expectation is simply met with a quick load back to start of the last floor of the structure you reached. Though some frustration with such a tough health system is occasionally unavoidable, the game nearly always uses its precise and challenging gameplay to create an astounding sense of tension. It’s difficult to fully grasp without playing it yourself, but few games ever achieve the same level of heart-pounding tension that Hotline Miami manages for its entire runtime. I felt alert, afraid, entranced while playing. And that’s something I simply cannot say often enough about a video game.
When your cruel deeds are done, a triumphant 1980s electrobeat pulses through your speakers, and the game breaks down your score for a given level into a letter-grade indicator of your performance. The first time I finished a level, I usually ended up with a C or B because of my predilection of waiting for enemy patrols and biding my time between moves through levels. To get a great score, you have to ditch all that. If you dash through levels without stopping, expose yourself to as many dangers at once as you can, and try to kill multiple targets quickly for bigger combo strings, you’ll get that A-grade yet. If you really register with the thrills the combat provides, it’s very easy to get into perfecting runs through levels and trying to maximize the carnage you deal, if only to keep playing this gem.
The story never really concerns itself with a concrete resolution, and instead presents you with a framework of surreal drudgery and a grave look at the psychosis inevitable to anybody who can so flippantly take human lives. This downtime between murderous sprees is just as tense and interesting as the action. Hotline Miami is a master of showing, not telling. Before and after the core action, you accept the next job via a spooky phone message left at your apartment. Many action games don’t even attempt to humanize its character or the events unfolding on screen. This game does it by simply by offering you a life of squalor beyond the bullet-counts and high scores of the action. You can move through your apartment’s rooms and spot the ghost of a loved one or some spoiled food on the floor. And as the killings continue and you become more notorious for your crimes, the apartment changes in other, more significant ways. With the exception of one late-game sequence, you’re never a minute or two away from more arresting action, but this game is equally as entertaining in its mysterious presentation and narrative framing as it is with its violence.
You never get a clear conclusion to the psychotically suggestive phone line, and the game is much better for that. The juxtaposition of absurdist, meandering plotting and fast action is key to how Hotline Miami invades the sensory and pleasure nodes of your brain and roots itself there. Although the game is quite short – about five hours long – its hold lasted far beyond that. I wanted to go through chapters again and again, earn higher grades, unlock more rubber animal masks that grant you small bonuses in combat, and generally just drink in more of the game. Whether you play beyond the credits or not, though, this is a game that will stick with you long after you quit out to your desktop.
The low-tech, top-down interiors and creepy pixel portraits of characters do an awesome job of locking down a lasting sinister tone on your every action. The game’s colour palette consists of contaminated pastels, grimy distillations of hot pink and lime green that decorate the rundown buildings you shoot through and blanket the outside world in a vast neon fog. Animations aren’t entirely fluid, but the swiftness in which you and your enemies react to attack supports the combat superbly. The game extracts a ton of affect out of its relatively simple visual framework, with lots of gore and pouring blood to punctuate the sickly action. A special mention to the masks you collect; their twisted animal visages only seem to get creepier as the game goes on.
Then there’s the soundtrack. Hot damn, that soundtrack. Not only does Hotline Miami have the best soundtrack in any game this year, it has one of the best soundtracks in video games. With tracks from Jasper Byrne (of Lone Survivor fame), M.O.O.N and many others, every last track is a demented, warbling gem that not only matches the swimming grit of the visuals but is extremely listenable on its own merits. The whole batch of tunes has become regular listening for me, and even if you have no intention of playing this terrific game, I urge you to check out the free stream of the soundtrack over on SoundCloud. It really is that good, and when you combine it with the game’s frantic framework, it takes on an entirely different life.
As I played on through the game’s cavalcade of violence, I came to a realization I very rarely come to when playing a game: I couldn’t think of a single thing that I would change about Hotline Miami. Every aspect of its creation – from the one-hit damage model to the speed of your movements – has been pushed to the absolute maximum intensity and compatibility, resulting in an ecosystem of violence, absurdity, and fear that is exhilarating to play and easy to see yourself coming back to. It is difficult to describe just how perfect this game feels without it being in your hands, though it all quickly slides into focus moments after picking it up for the first time. The scope and execution of Hotline Miami is flawless, and each and every aspect of its design is used thoroughly and meaningfully toward making it a blast to play.
The game did have a few problems following its launch on Steam regarding controller support and framerate hitch-ups. I didn’t personally run into issues of any kind, so I can’t directly comment on much of that. From some glances into forums prior to writing this review, it seems as though many who had updated drivers had their remaining issues ironed out with a patch released a mere hour or two after launch.
Although its grim presentation and hearty challenge won’t be for everybody, Hotline Miami is a rare game that articulates its own design thesis not only thoroughly, but with palpable enthusiasm. Underneath its moody graphics, stellar sound design and masterfully tuned combat is a strong feeling that this game’s creators love making video games. They really looked into their own work and arose with action and a surrealistic tale of morality and illness married in a breathtaking way. Each of the individual pieces that make up the experience are awesome on their own, but it’s how wonderfully and satisfyingly these pieces are arranged and play off each other that make it something truly special. A perfect realization of its concept.
Hotline Miami is among the best, most unique video games I’ve ever played, and I can’t recommend it enough.