Review: Hotline Miami
Once in a while, a name - in this case, Dennaton Games - comes out of nowhere with an indie powerhouse packed into a little package. Through Devolver Digital, Dennaton released Hotline Miami on PC in October of 2012, and it's quickly become one of the more surreal and memorable experiences available in independent gaming.
Let's not sugarcoat this - Hotline Miami is [i]ugly -[/i] in more than one sense. On the graphical level, two-dimensional Hotline is laid on a foundation of fluctuating neon and punctuated by the clashing bloodstains of the goons you bash over the head with a lead pipe. The cut-out floor plan of the building you're running through is all the environment you ever see. Beyond that, there's nothing but obnoxiously colored void.
The audio is beautiful in its ugliness. Between a rolling, forboding ambient track every time you wake in your apartment, the bittersweet tone that plays upon completion of a level, and the dirty, oft-pounding electronica that uncaringly booms beneath a heated several seconds of gunfire, Hotline Miami easily possesses one of the best - and ugliest - soundtracks of 2012.
The ugliness isn't over. Hotline is both grotesque and brutal. Most of the thugs you kill will be lucky to simply lay in a pool of their own blood. As "retro" (read: pixelated) as Hotline is, Dennaton went to great lengths to indicate ultraviolent gore.
That's not to mention the brief moments where you lose control of your character so that he can execute an individual in an especially cold-blooded manner. Beyond the violence itself, Hotline is simply disturbing.
The game begins with your character encountering three men in rubber masks, each one wearing the head of a different animal. They talk about what horrible things you've done and about how you don't remember said things.
It's all rather uncomfortable. The uncomfort is compounded when you receive your first call in your apartment. The message left on your machine may be that you have a date, or if you need to take care of some "bothersome kids" - but the language is indicative of something else.
Leaving your apartment after receiving a message and hopping into your car whisks you away to the location of business, then prompts you to choose a mask. There is a plethora of rubber animal masks that you can earn, some by completing levels, some by finding them hidden within levels.
Each mask gives you a different passive, such as the ability to absorb one bullet or find hidden secrets more easily.
You are then thrust into an intimidating and unforgiving indoor environment packed with thugs.
If you thought things were getting pretty interesting, we haven't even touched on the gameplay yet.
Hotline Miami's action can only be described as hard, fast, and intense. Generally, there are three methods of attack:
1. Knockout - punching someone with your bare hands, throwing your held weapon or swinging a door into someone will put them on the ground. They are then unconscious for several seconds, unless you grab them and slam their head against the floor repeatedly.
2. Melee weapon - Lead pipes, baseball bats and knives usually kill instantly.
3. Ranged weapon - Be it an assault rifle or a shuriken, guns and sharp throwing objects are the most reliable way of killing enemies... except that bullet weapons make quite a noise.
The enemy can do all of that, and then some... and they outnumber you drastically. That's right, the enemy can and will kill you instantly, over and over and over. Remember what I said about a mask that lets you absorb one bullet?
Normally, one bullet - from any weapon - will instantly drop you and force you to restart the level or respawn at the beginning of the floor. There is hope, though! You have the advantage of seeing enemies without the inconvenience of walls hindering your eyesight. Enemies can only see through open space and glass panes.
Factor in that enemies have predictable patrol routes and realistic arcs of vision, as well as mediocre hearing, and you have a gorgeous and well thought-out combination of stealth and run-and-gun gameplay. As fast as the game moves, this means that success often looks like a flurry of quick reactions and decisions. Run in to a room with two thugs, both with guns.
Punch the first. Pick up his weapon. Run back out of the room and hide around a corner. The other thug comes running. The first thug gets up. Proceed to gun down both thugs, then prepare yourself for the immediate rush of half a dozen alerted enemies - and that's if things go as planned. One missed pull of the trigger, one mistimed swing of a lead pipe, one unnoticed goon, and it's all over... but you learn, hopefully. You learn with each defeat, you get better, you get faster, and when you finally succeed. The feeling is akin to success in Super Meat Boy - it's wonderful and satisfying.
In a rather smart move for such a difficult, arcade-y game, Dennaton threw one more wrench into the works - a combo-based score system. You take down enemies quickly and in a variety of ways, or you don't get many points, and heaven forbid you receive anything but an A+ grade at the end of the level! More points means more and better weapons unlock, meaning, appear within the levels for you to pick up and use. If you're not the completionist type, of course, you can ignore your score altogether... but where's the fun in that?
Easily one of the best and most memorable games of 2012, Hotline Miami is beyond worth it for its $10 price tag. It's currently only on PC, but a Mac release is planned for the future. In the meantime, please go grab it on Steam.com or gog.com, respectively.
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