What drives countless video game protagonists to kill? It's a question not often broached by developers, and even less often is that consideration passed to the player. Death drives the progression of just about every thing we play, and yet, few manage to make it as poignant as Hotline Miami, the stupendously designed action title released last fall.
Hotline Miami's gross irony is that, beyond its score counts and letter-grade rankings, death is addressed with a raw, uncomfortable tone that is both socially aware and relevant to its cryptic, absurdist story. 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, kill every last person there. A frightened, long-haired man delivers unknown rewards through pizza boxes, convenience store snacks, drinks at bars, 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.
Hotline Miami pulls off the rare accomplishment of eliminating any sort of filler from the act of playing a game. It 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 deadly instrument to clear buildings of some measure of Russian crime syndicate that's hinted at throughout the adventure. Fighting is fast and brutal 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 brief motion. And what a motion it is – pixelated showers of blood and pieces of skull soar through the homes and businesses you rampage through. Combined with some curdling sound effects, the swift manner in which death arrives is always thrilling and unsettling, often at the same time. Few games can make your heart race like this one, especially while using ballistic weapons - which require surgical accuracy to aim, leave a gruesome mess, and attract nearby foes with their cacophonous blasts.
You must be aggressive but wise, as the same rules of mortality 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 that inevitable fate 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 manages to hold up for the entire runtime. I feel alert, afraid, entranced while playing. And that’s something I simply cannot say often enough about a video game.
The Sony versions of the game deliver a more or less identical experience to the PC original. You won't be able to use a mouse and keyboard to control the action, and although I still prefer that option best, a controller works nearly as well and offered no real annoyances. The only wrinkle with the scheme is a bit of awkwardness when scanning with your camera and locking on to targets - something you never really have to do on PC - but with a small amount of practice, it's no big deal. Vita players get to lock-on by tapping enemies on the screen, which seems like a time-saving measure. Sadly, I wasn't able to get any hands-on time with the portable version myself, but all signs seem to point to another worthy edition of the game. It's also a Cross-buy title on the PSN, and so one purchase will net you both versions.
Each level in Hotline Miami begins with a choice – which rubber animal mask will you wear? Pixelated, haunting renditions of a variety of animals are represented. Dog, insects, donkeys. Which would you prefer? It’s a powerful and completely cosmetic decision that blends simple, fast action mechanics and surrealist narrative to an incredible accumulation. None of that changes during its transition to Sony platforms, and with a sequel now officially on the way, there's never been a better time to play.