Do you like hurting other people? This is one of the questions a character asks you in Hotline Miami, and it’s a troubling one. This is after all a game where all you do is go to buildings and slaughter everybody inside for no reason other than the game tells you to do so. It feels like violence for the sake of violence but, perhaps worryingly, you can’t escape the fact that the game is super fun. This could be incredibly unsettling, but it is the genius of Hotline Miami. This indie gem is a superb commentary on violence in video games and cleverly prompts the player to reflect on their actions and to consider whether violence for the sake of fun is acceptable. It’s a game that doesn’t give explicit answers but has enough built into it to allow the player to make up their own mind. Addictive and enjoyable gameplay incentivise the games violent delights, while other design choices allow you to reflect on what you are doing. The game makes sure you are constantly aware of your actions and purposefully uses a lack of context to drive its message home. Is it ok to enjoy such violence? Well the answer is ultimately up to you, but rest easy in the knowledge that Hotline Miami won’t judge you either way.
Like so many recent indie games Hotline Miami dons a retro aesthetic, prepare to use pixelated weapons to eviscerate pixelated enemies in a pixelated world. The retro look may have been done to death in recent years, but Hotline Miami manages to pull it off due to its impressive sense of style. The game is set in 1989 and the look of it could not evoke the period any better. The player is treated to flashing neon colours, pounding dance music and heaps of eighties imagery. Everything comes together perfectly to create a totally cohesive aesthetic reminiscent of Michael Mann’s ‘Miami Vice’ or Nicholas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ (interestingly Winding Refn has a special thanks in the credits). The most notable feature though is the music; one really can’t overstate how good the soundtrack is in Hotline Miami. The infectious beats draw the player in and help to totally immerse them in the experience. The blend of colourful visuals and sound is completely intoxicating, and makes Hotline Miami one of the most atmospheric games you can play.
All this is complimented with superb gameplay. The game is set up like a top down shooter, your mouse controls a crosshair which determines which way you face, and the WASD keys move your character around. If you have any familiarity with twin stick shooters like Geometry Wars then the core mechanics will be very familiar, the main difference being the use of mouse and keyboard and the games focus on melee weaponry. The game does offer controller support, and while this sounds preferable it works nowhere near as well as the standard set up. The left stick may improve movement, but the speed of the gameplay in Hotline Miami requires the kind of pinpoint precision that a mouse offers. The gameplay itself centres around you working your way through buildings of enemies. The game sports twenty levels that all follow a similar structure, you take a call at your apartment which tells you to head to some building, once you arrive you move from floor to floor murdering everybody. Some levels stray from the formula, and there is enough enemy and weapon variety to keep things fresh, but this is what you will spend most of your time doing. Every now and then you will come across a boss battle but these are the worst parts of the game. Hotline Miami is a game that encourages experimentation and the boss encounters are overly limiting. They are pattern based affairs that are simply not well designed and can be quite frustrating.
As a whole Hotline Miami is quite a difficult game, combat is lightning fast and death is common place. It’s a game of one shot kills, almost every enemy is defeated in a single hit and the same is true for you. In other games this could lead to frustration, but for the most part Hotline Miami manages to avoid this due to some very clever game design. Death is very reminiscent of Super Meat Boy, in that respawns are instantaneous and levels are short. This means that dying is never really a setback, making the game’s trial and error nature a joy to work through rather than an annoyance. Hotline Miami is made up of solid mechanics which combine speedy stealth with pure brutality. Enemies obey observable rules and it is by understanding these rules that you will gain your victory. Levels give you a bloody sandbox to play around in that rewards you for taking a varied approach, loading screens tell you to play recklessly and the in game scoring system encourages creativity. It’s a reflex tester, but it’s also incredibly strategic, knowledge of the mechanics and clever usage of what is available to you allow you to get through levels effectively even if you aren’t a video game ninja. Greater variety is added by unlockable animal masks that your nameless character wears in every level. There are a decent number of masks to unlock, and every one comes with its own special power. In Hotline Miami a gunshot will alert all those around you and make imminent death more likely. The usual way round this is to use guns sparingly and take advantage of the melee system, but if you don a mask that quietens gunfire suddenly things are very different. The masks provide a variety of perks that fit multiple play styles, and the levels are mostly so well designed that multiple approaches will be successful. Sadly this isn’t always the case, certain levels clearly lend themselves to certain masks; these levels are still fun but not as enticing as some of the others on offer.
Another notable feature of Hotline Miami is the story telling, which is highly unconventional. If you come expecting a straight up narrative you could leave disappointed, everything in this game is purposefully obscure and it is the subtext and the themes that make it excel. The ambiguity is there for a reason and is why the game is so thought provoking; it distances you from the surface level content and forces you to look deeper. This culminates in one of the most interesting releases of the year and allows Hotline to work on an artistic level as well as a gameplay level. Unfortunately Hotline Miami is not without its issues, specifically technical issues. If you enable steam works the game is prone to crashing on a regular basis, disabling this lessens the issues but you will still probably have the game break on you once or twice. This is a downside for sure, but it is not enough to ruin the experience, levels are short and very replayable meaning that losing a small amount of progress isn’t a huge issue.
In the end Hotline Miami is a thoroughly impressive game that works on multiple levels. It works as an interesting exploration into the use of violence in the medium, but it’s also just a damn fun video game. It’s one of the most thrilling titles you will play all year and it is also one of the best. If you want something that will make you think, pick up Hotline Miami, and if you want something where you just want some classic video game thrills, pick up Hotline Miami. If you aren’t opposed to a bit of ultra violence Hotline Miami is the game for you, and even if you are you will still find some interest here.