Developer: Dennaton Games
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release Date: October 23, 2012
Rating: N/A (suggested 17+)
I drive up to a specified location in my nondescript DeLorean. A brief menu flashes before me, offering a choice of animal masks. I choose one and watch the driver briefly pull it over his head. This mask grants him a knife from the very start. Once I push open the door to the target building, everything else is a blur of violence, adrenaline, power, and regret. Welcome to Hotline Miami.
Hotline is one of 2012's most talked-about indie releases. From the minds behind Seizure Dome and Ad Nauseam comes this upstart little game. When you first fire it up, a neon-washed menu screen written in Cyrillic greets you. The text flits about the space in a drug-induced motion. It's trippy and so 1980's that it hurts. From there, things only get stranger.
The main character, who's never given a name, is a vigilante. He accepts his missions from a telephone that records messages from a mysterious sender. Every instruction set uses odd euphemisms and outright lies to detail where you're going and who to kill; you're always out to slay bad guys. Or at least, I think they're bad guys. The farther you progress in the story, the more you begin to question the character's sanity. Is any of this really happening? Are the bad people actually bad people?
When you reach Hotline's conclusion, you'll still be left with more questions than answers. I will spoil nothing of the plot for you, because this game deserves to be experienced. The plot, however confusing and disorienting, is well-paced and constructed. The player will never discover the truth to what's going on; only enough to make theories about each and every character's involvement in the overarching story.
By and large, however, you aren't playing Hotline for the story. You're playing it because of the vicious combat. I have seldom seen melee brawlers as intense as Hotline. Each level is broken down into self-contained stages that need to be cleared of gangsters. Charging in the front door without observing the level's layout and enemy patrol patterns is a death sentence. Strategy is key, though fast reflexes and adaptability are just as important. You could try to memorize patrol patterns and weapon drops, but both elements change each time you play that segment. This wildcard always makes each and every engagement as much about planning as it is improvisation. Use what you have and you might just survive another shootout.
For each and every enemy you kill, you get a score bonus. Kill faster and you score more. The more you score, the more weapons and masks you'll have access to. Puzzle pieces and additional secret masks are also scattered about the levels. If you look carefully, you can find plenty of secrets scattered about the play areas. Every new mask earned is like a badge of accomplishment for the amount of work you'll likely put in. While the new weapons are nice, they don't have the same feeling of reward that a mask brings.
Hotline's visuals and soundtrack are top notch. The pixelated-graphics offer a fantastic, retro experience. While it's not quite 8-bit, I love the overall feel of the visuals. The neon-drenched environments feel like the 1980's. The soundtrack also bleeds old-school charm. It features the talents of bands like M.O.O.N. and Jasper Byrne. It fits the mood of each mission and interlude perfectly. In some ways, the audio and visuals are what truly make Hotline so special.
While I love Hotline for what it does right, there are a few things I'm not in love with. Chief among them are the numerous bugs present during my experience. Whenever more than one person started shooting, my framerate dropped to a near crawl. Sometimes, throwing my weapon didn't register a hit. A few times, I didn't execute an enemy even when I spammed the space button. None of these glitches really prohibited me from enjoying this game. In its current state, I'm still in love with it.
All of the gameplay elements and narrative pieces (bugs aside) serve to moralize in a way you might not expect. Each enemy is simply a small set of sprites until you kill them. As is typical of shooters, they are dehumanized until they're dead. When you see the aftermath of your actions, you slowly come to understand just how terrible the main character is. While you could argue that Hotline loses some of that impact with the scoring system, I think Dennaton uses that for ironic effect. It wants to show you how senseless video games are when it comes to violence. Unlike Spec Ops: The Line, Hotline really doesn't need to make blatant explanations of why the crimes you're committing are wrong. You, as the perpetrator of chaos, know that what you're doing is horrific. Once again, you're a pseudo-villain.
I say pseudo because there are plot elements that suggest that things may not have been your fault. At other times, the game bluntly accuses you of terrible, bloody murder. I can't say which is correct. There is no right answer in Hotline; it's up to you to draw your own conclusions.
While Hotline Miami isn't the best game of the year, I will say that it is one of the most important. On a much smaller budget and with more subtlety and stylistic flair than Spec Ops, Dennaton has managed to criticize the world of video game violence while simultaneously embracing it. It's a maddening, but fitting, contradiction. Nothing is what it seems in Hotline Miami.
+ Incredible audio and visuals
+ Interesting narrative and plot twists
+ Deep, complex combat system
- Quite a few bugs to contend with
- Difficulty spikes can be cheap
Overall Score: 9.5 (out of 10)
I recommend experiencing Hotline Miami at least once. It's exciting, powerful, and one of this year's most important games.