Hotline Miami 2 Preview: The Same, But Better

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How do you write about a game that manages to be 100% everything you expected? Especially when you’ve already explained at length why it’s something you should care about in the same way you care about oxygen and food in the first place? That was the dilemma I had coming out of my hands-on demo of Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, during an off-site meeting the week of E3 2013.

If you’ve read our previous coverage of Hotline Miami, including my review, then you already know almost everything you need to know about Hotline Miami 2. It’s the late 1980s, Miami is a hellish dystopia, and murder seems to be a way of life for its many citizens. Throw in charming NES-era graphics and a truly spectacular soundtrack, and you have it.

That’s Hotline Miami 2 in a nutshell. If you love the first game – and you should – then you’re going to love this one even more. There. Preview done, I guess.

Just kidding. Fortunately, Hotline Miami 2 also managed to sneak in some major improvements that feel like they should always have been there, even if you didn’t realize it. And in addition, its replication of what worked about Hotline Miami is a triumph rather than a retread. In short, it’s different while being exactly the same. It’s better without noticeably making the original seem worse by comparison. And it’s possibly my favorite game from E3 2013.

Hotline Miami 2 started life as a DLC expansion for Hotline Miami, but shortly after teasing the expansion, Dennaton Games’ Jonatan Söderström announced that the DLC would in fact be a full-on sequel. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been here before with Saints Row 4. Like Volition’s upcoming sequel, Hotline Miami 2 is absolutely built like crazy on top of its predecessor, but unlike Saints Row 4 (which I loved and am looking forward to seeing completed), Hotline Miami 2 isn’t just escalation and expansion of the previous game, it’s an outright meta commentary on violent games, making the satire inherent in the first game strikingly obvious.

That satire isn’t something I missed, exactly, the first time I played Hotline Miami, but I didn’t pay close enough attention until later playthroughs that the entire plot is itself a commentary on the enjoyment we take from engaging in (usually virtual) violence. The main character of that game was essentially a maniac waiting for phone calls telling him to go kill, which he then did ruthlessly. That’s you, gamers, by the by.

This time out, the focus is on the way we celebrate the violence. It’s been some time since the events of the first game (though still the late 1980s), and the masked killer of Hotline Miami is now a posthumous celebrity. Miami is still reeling from his rampage, and into this comes a new crop of killers seeking to get a bit of his cultural immortality for themselves. During the demo, I played two of these factions (yes, factions. More on that shortly): a movie crew making a film based on the events of Hotline Miami called “The Pig Butcher”, and a group of fans who desperately want to become hired killers just like their idol.

Each segment covered only one scene. With the movie crew, I went around mimicking some of what happened in the first Hotline Miami, wearing a pig mask and killing people until a cutpanel showed the director yelling “cut!” and the shoot wrapped for the day. It appeared this was about to be the jumping off point for an adventure with the actor whom you control, but the level was cut short. Immediately after this, however, we switched to the fans, and got a taste of how Hotline Miami 2 differs from Hotline Miami.

The level with the fans started at a theme party held in honor of the mask killer from the first game. The four members of the fans faction – symbolizing, we were told, the fans’ wish for Hotline Miami 2 to be just like Hotline Miami – are bored. They talk for a second and decide, so it appeared, that after months of talking they’re finally going to go out and live their dream. So they leave the party and relocate to a building filled with people they intend to kill. One of them gets ready to begin murdering, and just like in Hotline Miami, you select which of the various animal masks you want to wear to disguise yourself, and have at it. Here’s where some of Hotline Miami 2′s newer elements kick in.

In Hotline Miami, the various masks you could wear came with their own buffs: for instance, the frog mask the masks gave you longer combos, while the panther mask allowed you to walk faster. Choosing a specific mask could make levels easier or harder and open new strategic options, but they were largely slight adjustments. Hotline Miami 2′s masks, at least with the Fans faction, have much more varied effects. In the demo, I first played using the tiger mask, which prevented its wearer from using firearms or melee weapons of any kind. All kills were punch only, and punches were far stronger than normal.

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