There are many video games built around macabre topics. Murder is an integral part of the medium, for better or worse. However, it takes a special effort to make the player feel that their despicable actions genuinely mean something.
Last year, Swedish developer Dennaton Games burst onto the PC scene with their ode to the critically acclaimed movie, Drive. On the surface, Hotline Miami looks like many other “indie darlings” on the market, with its retro aesthetic and top-down perspective. But, one can only understand the true aura around this title when they dive in to the seedy underbelly of America’s Sunshine State.
Deplorable behaviour is the norm in a story that sees the unnamed protagonist go down a vicious rabbit hole of death and deceit, as his only goal is to cause as much havoc in every single level as possible. To delve into Hotline Miami’s plot is to reveal far too much about the mesmerising tale. All players need to know is that before each stage begins, they will find themselves in their apartment where a ringing phone will inform them of their next mission. Vague messages from this abrupt caller lead into the breakneck gameplay of Hotline Miami.
The idea is simple: eradicate your surroundings of all patrolling bad guys. Using all manner of guns, knives, snooker cues and more, the player must brutally murder every single enemy in one section of a level before moving on to the following area – similar to the side-scrolling beat-’em-ups of old. Whilst the expressionless lead is prone to one hit kills from his foes, the sharply dressed opposition can also be felled with one bullet or swing of a melee weapon. People are quick to describe Hotline Miami as unforgiving – and while that is true to a certain extent, the fact that almost every enemy can be eliminated in the same fashion counteracts that. Once bludgeoned, the player isn’t forced to wait around for a loading screen or anything else that halts momentum – with the press of a button, the jacket wearing anti-hero respawns and can jump back into the fray. An understated, yet important, detail.
Like other games of its ilk, death is a regular occurrence, therefore a quick restart keeps the hectic action flowing at a rapid pace. Hotline Miami wouldn’t last the distance if it was just mindless murder, though. As the killing is quick, the strategy needs to be flawless. One wrong move and your proposed victim gets the better of you, ending any progression. Masks play a vital role in terms of tactics because of the individual abilities they bestow on the wearer. As the mute primary is keen to keep his identity mum, a whole array of animal looking latex can be donned. Tony (tiger) enables the player to annihilate the enemy with one punch; wearing the George (giraffe) mask will allow the player to look further around the area and Dennis (wolf) will give the player a blade from the offing. Not every supposed disguise will be a good fit for every player, but over time, you’ll find yourself gravitating towards Rufus or Graham, depending on your particular play style.
It may be wonderfully dark in tone, but Hotline Miami’s art style is majestic and really leaps off the screen. A hypnotic psychedelia lays the foundation for a bold and brash, colour-filled world. Dennaton Games offer up a host of different environments such as night clubs, pizza parlours and apartment buildings – all with their own distinct layout and feel. The player’s actions on each map certainly resemble Shaggy and Scooby Doo as they bolt through swinging doors, but the care that’s clearly been taken with level design and the sheer style on display is what keeps everything fresh.
One of the often-praised elements of Hotline Miami is its audio, and for good reason. Every gun shot and clubbing is wince-inducing, but its soundtrack can stand tall as one of the best in video game history. A mix of licensed and original compositions, the tracks feel like they were tailor-made for the game. Trippy beats from the likes of M.O.O.N to Jasper Byrne’s (of Lone Survivor fame) synthesizer heavy tunes, the accompanying melodies fill this dirty, decadent world with the ideal harmonies.
The recent move onto the PlayStation platform has been accomplished smoothly. On the Vita, rather than pigeon-hole some unwanted gimmicks, the game utilises the handheld’s features where necessary. For instance, Jacket can lock on to adversaries by touching them on the OLED screen and players can get a better look at their situation by dragging their finger along the front screen, in order to reveal more of the current stage. Admittedly, the controls don’t feel as tight as they do on PC because of the precision that keyboard & mouse users have. For instance, the assault rifle is more difficult to wield on either PlayStation console because of this fact. However, this still remains a stellar port of what is a very special game.
VERDICT: Video games regularly stimulate players with barbaric, brutal violence and no one bats an eyelid. Hotline Miami, on the other hand, introduces acts of savagery from the very beginning and will have the player sitting on their couch questioning their own character.
With gameplay that will have you going back for more, captivating visuals and exhilarating music, Hotline Miami is truly one of the most engrossing experiences you could ask for in this medium.
INCREDIBLE. This is the pinnacle of our scoring spectrum, reserved for games that truly affect us, that capture our imagination so completely that they affect the standard by which we measure future games. 10/10 is not a declaration of perfection, but an assurance that the game in question is of amazingly high quality and has exceeded our expectations.