Hotline Miami: All Style, No Substance, Mostly Awesome
Let’s talk about the 13th chapter of Hotline Miami.
I had to single-handedly storm a police station and murder every single cop inside. I started out without any weapons, but managed to get my hands on a shotgun rather quickly after taking a few cops out with my bare hands. I ran out of shells just as several cops cornered me in an elevator, so I tossed the shotgun at one of them, stunning him, punched the other cops as they rushed me, stunning them, then picked up a crowbar one of the cops had been carrying and proceeded to beat all of them to death as they came-to. When the last cop died and “Level Complete!” appeared on the screen, I felt like John McClain. I literally couldn’t believe I’d just pulled off something so simultaneously cool and hardcore.
Hotline Miami constantly surprises you with moments like that. Brutal and bloody, trippy like the day after a particularly awful acid trip, it’s as amoral, as ridiculous, and as shallow as the finest ’80s action movie. And it gives you this experience with graphics that are identical to an NES game released on 1988. Yeah, it’s also buggy as hell, and thanks to a top-down view that is punishing to people for whom WASD isn’t second nature, it has to be one of the most frustrating games you’ll play in 2012. But it might be the single coolest thing to happen on your PC since anonymous payment was invented.
Hotline Miami: PC (reviewed), Mac (due next month)
Developer: Dennaton Games
Publisher: Dennaton Games
Released: Oct. 23, 2012
A Real Human Being And A Real Hero
Hotline Miami shouldn’t work at all. The plot — it’s Miami, Florida in 1989, and a nameless contract killer is gradually losing his mind as he commits increasingly terrible crimes — should require a 3D build to allow for the player to soak everything in. You have to portray the player character’s gradual loss of sanity via crazy visuals, you need the story’s beats to pop, you need to convey bleak comedy through dialogue and incidental moments. Further, you also need to effectively put the player in the position to deliver terrible violence that includes: beating people to death; mercy killing via neck-snapping; blasting a hole in someone with a shotgun; shooting an enemy’s face off; bashing an enemy’s head off with a baseball bat or crowbar; stabbing someone and watching as he bleeds to death; knocking someone out by hitting him with a door; tossing a bottle at someone to disarm him; knocking someone out and then killing him by kicking in his face. You also need to make the Miami setting apparent.
That Hotline Miami manages to do all of this with 16-bit graphics indistinguishable from something like Metal Gear is a dirty, drug-addled goddamned miracle. Whether it’s the endless enemy henchmen decked out in identical white dress suits, the hard-to-take visage of a mortally wounded enemy crawling around on his belly, smearing blood everywhere, the explosion of red and pink when you blast someone at point blank range with a shotgun, Hotline Miami nails every moment perfectly. At every turn you’re shoved into tense, anxious moments that genuinely make you feel as though you’re in the middle of Scarface, albeit the ’80s video game adaptation version.
What’s especially surprising is the way the game’s simple story is effectively advanced. Here is how almost every mission works: The titular Hotline is the player character’s answering machine. At the beginning of each chapter you wake up and check your answering machine for messages, each new one a coded set of instructions for your next hit job. You then walk to your car, are delivered to said location, and go right in through the front door and proceed to kill every single person inside. Once you’ve accomplished this rather grisly task, you return to your car and trigger the chapter completion point tally. Next, you’re delivered to some local business, either a pizza place, a convenience store, a video rental shop, or a bar, where you talk briefly to the clerk, whose dialogue (text only, as with all in-game dialogue) lets you know that the things you’re doing are freaking the city of Miami the hell out. Rinse, and repeat.
As you play through, hints that your character isn’t actually sane begin to seep into the game, until the formula is finally upended in the game’s twelth chapter. I won’t spoil what happens, but suffice to say things change from a crime thriller to a revenge story, with elements conveyed with some of the most deliciously hackneyed dialogue and that then change into something even crazier. And again, all of this is done using graphics and sound effects from the NES era.
That might be the game’s second most brilliant masterstroke. Using graphics and sound effects from the era when George Bush was president to depict a disturbing slice of America during that period feels even more spot-on than the pitch-perfect parody of the ’80s seen in Vice City. The game even feels meager and cruel in a way that we imagine of the worst excesses of 80s era-capitalists (and their cousins, ’80s-era drug lords). Controls are a simple WASD-plus-mouse combo that is still a little too complex for a game that evokes the D-pad and A/B buttons of the Nintendo era, but manages to feel part of the same family (mostly; see below). And the difficulty is insane.
This isn’t Dark Souls-level hard in the sense that being hard is the point, it’s just Nintendo Hard. A reliance on patterns and sheer luck is needed to get through levels comes with an implicit guarantee that you’ll constantly die and have to play a level over again. And again. And again. And then leave your computer so you won’t have to explain why you’re shouting “F–k!” at it. And then play again until you manage to complete the chapter and advance to your next impossibly frustrating task.
Hotline Miami’s most brilliant aspect, however, is the amazing soundtrack.