Thursday, June 27, 2013

REVIEW - Hotline Miami.

Hotline Miami is a surrealist, trippy, top-down retro action game that offers a touch of stealth and a lot of blood. Set in late 1980s Miami, players retrieve innocuous messages off their answering machine that each contain a new address, directing the character to their next hit.  The player then steps out of their DeLorean at the prescribed location with nothing more than a rubber animal mask and a willingness to butcher everyone inside.

It's got a ton of secrets, unlockable items and collectibles to discover throughout its decidedly old-school world for folks who want to get as much replay value out of it as they can, and can be completed in a few dedicated hours.

Let's dig in.

It's disturbing.  I've enjoyed a lot of games with some pretty gross content and not batted an eye, but this is different.

Unlike a lot of high-concept yet kinda'-preachy modern games that are mindful of and reflect on the violence the player enjoys, Hotline Miami is reflective without ever feeling like a sermon.  It just kinda' points out that you like this and leaves it at that.

Lets you mull it over for yourself.  Makes me think about an article I read ten years ago where this psychiatrist or psychologist or whatever pointed out that horror movies are date movie staples because horrific, gory violence subconsciously arouses both genders, which improves one's chances of getting laid afterwards.

Watching people getting killed turns you on.


Makes me think of A Clockwork Orange.  "A bit of the old ultraviolence."

Before entering a level, you select a grotesque mask from those you've unlocked.  Though I should point out, every face in this game is grotesque.  Richard (heh - get it?) is for purists who don't want any hand-holding or upgrades activated.

When wearing the tiger mask, Tony (heh, get it?), you'll one-shot dudes with just your fists.

Don Juan, who allows opening doors into enemies to kill them, is pretty handy, but given that you start every mission without a weapon by default, you may favor Dennis or Carl or Richter, who each let you begin with lethal arms.

Why give the masks human names?  What's the message, there?

That's up to you.  Lately I've been favoring Peter, as - to be honest - I'm not fond of the game's somewhat-ridiculous difficulty when it becomes a shooting gallery, and while he doesn't render gunshots completely silent (enemies will come running from all over when they hear a shot), he certainly allows for more patient and (to my eye) satisfying strategies and... execution.

Hotline Miami is hard.  And I can't admit I find it entirely hard in the Dark Souls way or the Mirror's Edge way or the Enemy Unknown way.  It often feels too random and unpredictable, and draws infinitely more curses from my generally placid tongue when the AI does something seemingly-random which I couldn't have anticipated.

Which is, I suppose, interesting - but I also found it regularly frustrating.  I love that the player is just as mortal and death-prone as his enemies - it makes the combat very razor's-edge - but I also regularly find myself feeling that, even with flawless timing, there was no solution to the eight angry gun barrels just flooded into the room from all angles.

On the bright side, when you die (and you will die, over and over and over and over) the game restarts you at the current floor instantly.  There's absolutely no load - which makes one-more-try far more appetizing - and, interestingly (in a good way), the weapons strewn about the level and often even in enemies' hands will have been randomized, sometimes along with their behavior.

I'm sorry, where were we?  Oh yes.  Ultraviolence.

I'm about to walk you through the first mission - far and away the easiest in the game, and in no way indicative of its merciless difficulty - but a fine example of mechanics and tone.  You've been tasked with obtaining a briefcase, and - as in every mission - dealing with everyone inside.  I'm about to show you a successful run of this mission.  Please keep in mind that as easily as I dispatch these fellows, it's after a lot of practice, and a lot of deaths and education in frame-specific timing.

Your enemies are just as fast as you are, have the exact same reach you do, and - just like you can to them - they can one-hit-kill you with whatever weapon they happen to be holding.

Let's begin.  The setting is a train station.

This goon is standing behind that door - which is lucky for us.  By busting through the door when he's standing in front of it, he gets knocked on his ass.

With no other thugs around to interfere, we are then free to straddle him, grab him by the head and bash that head into the tiles until it breaks. You have to mash X.

He had a bat.  Let's pick it up.  We could probably rush this dude taking a leak in the bathroom (if you look closely you can see the stream), but why take the risk of him turning?

Best to throw the bat at him as we come through the door, which knocks him on his ass, wanging his head against the tiles.

Then, we can break it.

Floor clear - time to head upstairs.

This one's got his back to me - I can just rush him and bust his head open with the 'ol Louisville Slugger.  The dudes below are walking in a circuit - so I just have to wait until the fellow on the left gets his back to me, blitz forward and crack!  Home run!

Now, wait by the wall as the fellow below does his circuit - he'll get reeeal close, and

the crowd goes wild.  No, the AI isn't brilliant - thugs won't care when they see one of their buddies shattered across the floor.

Then it's a simple bat-throw to disable the third dude.  Pick the bat back up, stand over him and whack, with this sickening, sloppy, crunching sound effect.


Finally, there are two men in the west hallway.  I drop Louie and pick up the knife one of the above thugs dropped when I brained 'em. 

I lock on to one of them, dash past the doorway that opens into the hall and fling the knife.  I get lucky - which just as often (if not more) goes the other way in this game - and it takes them both out with one perfect shot.

I'm not sure who this asshole in the green is.  Doesn't matter.  He's gotta' go.

Batter up.

 And there's my briefcase.  Time to get back to the DeLorean.

The client wants me to leave the briefcase in an alley - but I didn't count on... whoever this is showing up.


Shit.  You gotta' die, son.

Nothin' personal.  Wrong place, wrong time - you know how it is.

And he goes down easy, but... that doesn't go down so easy.  And dinner comes up.


But we didn't do so bad. The score counter says so.

The weapon unlocks don't allow you to select weapons. Instead, they're added to the randomized instruments you'll find placed throughout the levels.

B minus ain't too shabby.  And things only get better from there. 

 Or worse, depending on how you look at it.  But we don't ever puke again.

Y'see the little red flecks on the bottom of the above screen?  Not the blood splatters, but the little ones, with the gold tips?  

Those are shotgun shells, ejected from the gun I used to eliminate those four men.  You've gotta' hand it to Hotline Miami - it's got a real attention to detail.  Enemies can die in dozens of different ways, depending on how, precisely, you kill them, with limbs exploding because they were struck just so by a spray of bullets or the swipe of a blade.  You can literally cut men in half with a shotgun in this game, and you can see tiny pink entrails snaking away from tiny torn-open bellies.  I've seen ostensibly triple-A games that weren't so thoughtful in the execution of their executions. 

Tiny hands hold tiny weapons.  Your tiny mask is always visible, and changes as you change it.  Tiny dogs prowl tiny hallways, and will happily rip out your tiny throat if you let them get the drop on you.  

There are tiny tables and tiny beds.  Tiny bathtubs, tiny toilets for tiny enemies to take tiny shits, tiny bar stools in tiny night clubs.  As far as retro-style games go, Hotline Miami may be narrow in scope, but within its smallness, it's dense.

The fact that the graphics are so low-res - and combined with the rather-detailed animations, massive variety of death scenarios, ambiguous, sparse, haunting narrative, thick sound effects and the game's fantastic soundtrack - ensures that a great deal of the... intimacy of its violence is painted in the mind of the player.  If anything, the old sixteen-bit style visuals make it more distressing than it would be in a modern triple-A, where this sort of thing is almost commonplace, and easier to ignore. 

It recalls our innocence as it holds a mirror up to how desensitized we've become, even as we find ourselves driven forward to keep playing - just one more try.  

There's a word that keeps coming up when I think of this insane little indie - and it's a good match.  The game is 
1. Gruesome; horrible; revolting.
2. Glaringly vivid and sensational; shocking.
3. Terrible in intensity, or unrestraint.
4. Lighted or shining with an unnatural, fiery glow.
-some dictionary -
Lurid.  You could crack open a Webster's and see a picture of Hotline Miami next to the word, and in its uniquely gruesome, glaring, shocking, intense, unnatural way, it's spectacularly successful. 

That said, I can't give the game a carte blanche pass.  It's largely worthy of the attention it's received, if only for the sake of how profoundly different an experience it is - but within this terribly unique niche its carved for itself, I can't shake the feeling that Hotline Miami has room yet to grow.  I can't shake the sense that its strange formula has the potential for a perfection it does not, here, achieve. 

The gameplay remains vicious and exciting.  Its oft-frustrating difficulty is tempered by the siren's call of instantaneous retries, and a practiced gradient to its challenge - this is a game you will sit down with to "just try out," and the next time you glance at the clock you'll find three hours have passed.  By the time you reach the final encounter, your repeated and near-instant deaths are comforted by the solid belief that this can be done - you just have to figure it out.  

But, upon having figured it out, I must admit, I didn't find Hotline Miami as satisfying as so many other writers have assured me it is.  It rarely felt entirely like it was my own success, when I defeated its more intimidating levels - merely that the not-entirely-predictable AI hadn't screwed me this time, and/or I had straight-up lucked out on a few kills.  It's a fierce, foaming-at-the-mouth, original little game - and I love that the ambiguous narrative asks questions of the player without ever preaching at them - but I would find the price point ($10) a bit steep, were it not for cross-buy being on the table as well.  

If this review comes across as negative, it's only because I wish to raise a counter-point to the almost uniform praise the game has garnered.  It's great, but I can't call it excellent.  I certainly can't consider it the best indie to launch in 2012, because I'm quite confident saying it wasn't

I can say it's a special game.  A very different game, and successful in its ambition to be so...

Well, yeah.  Lurid.

-Niklas Åkerblad-

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