‘Hotline Miami’ Review: Neon Violence

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Written by Jason Nawara, @JasonNawara

Last year Hotline Miami was one of the hottest indie titles on the PC. It was a perfect mix of Tarantino-esque, over-the-top violence and it delivered a bloody valentine to the top down shooters of yesteryear. I loved it when it first released, and I still love it now, but it’s not without it’s own murderous faults.

It’s important to note right away that if you’re coming into this whole Hotline Miami thing as a virgin, this is not Smash TV. Hotline Miami, at it’s core, is a puzzle game of trial and error. You could even call it a Puzzle Shooter, or a puzzling shooter, if you take into account the obtuse plot in which men wearing animal masks illuminated by a television with nothing but static on the screen ask you if you remember April the 3rd, 1989. That’s the day you received your first ‘assignment.’

Your tasks are accepted by you, the silent ‘protagonist,’ with a click of the playback button on your answering machine in your messy apartment with suspicious stains on the floor in a very.. How do I say this? A very, ‘Would you kindly’ sort of way. Each mission is is as straightforward as a blade to the throat: kill everyone, and pro tip: recklessness is rewarded. The creators of Hotline Miami want this to be an 80′s action movie set in the same universe where Alex Murphy is being turned into a Robocop a few thousand miles north in Detroit. The player is expected to solve the gruesome puzzle that boils down to you playing like a natural born killer, just like if Mickey and Mallory got an SNES port with Oliver Stone’s stamp of approval.

Each level features you infiltrating some sort of enemy compound, like an apartment building where you take someone by surprise at a urinal with a baseball bat to the back of the head. Or a cliche Miami Dance club, blow on a back table and all. It’s your job to clean the place up in the messiest way possible, with fast-paced action with an 8-bit flair. The action is fast, and your life expectancy is shorter than a ditzy camper in a horror movie. You. Will. Die. And you will kill — a lot.

Only with trial and error, and the will to perfect your runs through the seedy drug dens and hotels of your enemies will get you through this game. There is no such thing as luck in Hotline Miami. The only guarantee is blood and lots of old-school gamer frustration. Moving through a level is an exercise in patience and complete anarchy. The game wants nothing more than for you to run in and chuck pipes at the heads of your enemies, then slit their throats or bash their heads against the ground. It’s really quite glorious.

But, therein lies the huge, gaping wound its creators Jonatan Soderstrom and Dennis Wedin have built into the design of the game: wanton destruction is the heart and soul of this brutal game, and a relatively clean, efficient play-style is awarded with only average grades and scores. I get it, you want the game to be nutty, but why make the holy grail of weapons in the game a silenced pistol when stealth isn’t rewarded? The scoring system seems arbitrary, and when there is a leaderboard, and rating system in the game, I naturally want to receive a high score. So why am I getting 2,800 points for beating a guy to death an 600 for a stealth kill? Is this inverse scoring a jab at the stealth-heavy play-styles of today’s games, or is it just the product of two dudes making their first title? Probably both.

This confusing scoring system makes its way over to the games masks, which act like perks, for the Call of Duty crowd. Wear a mask of a horse while you butcher your marks for example, and you’ll have the ability to slam open doors and knock over your opponents. This is an awesome perk, and is extremely useful. Too bad you aren’t given many points for having it on, so to say. And not to mention you need high scores to unlock masks, so you have to use a certain play style to succeed.

I hate the fact that the game wants you to beat up everyone with your bare fists, and pretty much not use weapons or you face a crappy score, thus ruining your chance of unlocking more masks. It’s a vicious cycle of odd game design. Furthermore, the randomized weapon drops when a level loads hurts any type of strategy you may want to create before heading into said level. Maybe this is the anarchic development style of the game, or maybe it’s an oversight, but are you seeing a pattern in the blood here?

Hotline Miami featured a deadly efficient mouse and keyboard setup on the PC, with 360 gamepad support if you had one. On the PS3 the controls are almost exactly the same, featuring a dual analog type shooter setup that feels slightly mushy. They added a lock on button for this PS3 port, but I almost never used it unless I was dealing with a single foe. In other words, I miss the PC controls. When it really, really comes down to it, the controls won’t hinder your enjoyment of the game at all, it’s still going to be a frustrating joy to play, just… Different. I guess it’s like cracking open a skull with a baseball bat compared to a crowbar; both have the same end result, it’s just a slightly different journey to get there. This game has clearly sunk it’s teeth in me.

The sound of Hotline Miami is pretty much what you expect. The splatter of brains and slitting of throats all sound appropriately 8-bit, or 16-bit (12-bit?) and do nothing but immerse you into the game’s hectic violence. The real star however, is its thumping soundtrack.

This is simply one of the best gaming soundtracks in years, and it puts you into a violent trance in which all you can do is seek out your next victim. The house beats and blaring techno are a perfect fit for the neon lights, and you’ll be tapping your foot in a puddle of blood in no time.

The Final Word: Hotline Miami is a sum of its parts. With the music hitting your chest, your lead pipe hitting a face and the controls hitting your nerves, everything comes together in a beautiful cacophony of gore and violence that will make you want to keep playing long after the **** hits the fan and the chunks of meat hit the walls. For all of its faults and frustrations, this is a game that many of us have been waiting 25 years for: A top down shooter/puzzler that is obtuse enough in its plot to make you become a fan of the universe, and featuring gameplay wild enough to make you want to keep playing over and over again. Even if it isn’t to beat your high score.

The PS3 port sees little differences from the PC outside the lock-on button and an exclusive mask that shows the world in stark black and white, but leaves all of the blood red.

Hotline Miami was reviewed using PlayStation 3 code provided by the publisher.