Hotline MiamiIt’s 1989, Miami, Florida. You’re at your bachelor pad when the phone rings, seems it’s gone to voice mail. Past neon colored carpets, a sleeping hooker, and flies hovering over left open pizza boxes, it’s almost like you can smell the cigarette smoke emanating from the game world as you walk over to the answering machine. The message says some nonsense about you having to pick up laundry, so naturally that means hopping in your 82 Delorean out front, driving to some hideout, and putting on a freaky animal mask before killing everyone inside with baseball bats, shotguns, and katanas. Maybe you’re nuts, maybe you’re some kind of Russian sleeper cell, who knows? When the killing is this much fun, who cares?
For a blurred mess of pixels, it’s amazing how well Hotline Miami is able to render violence, and thus it’s underlying message or purposeful lack of one. You’ll punch a guy in the face, take him to the ground, and slam his head against the floor until it breaks open. Have a baseball bat and you’ll pound his face to a bloody pulp instead, or gouge through it with a crowbar, or just completely behead him with a machete. Whatever the tool of murder, and whether it’s the subtle animation of the sprites or the simple sounds of smacks, thumps, or splitting body tissue, homicide is just plain delightful in Hotline.
Trance out to some bopping electronic music and wipe the floor with thugs at hotels, apartments, and nightclubs, and replay it all again until your need to kill is satiated. Unlock and slip on new animal masks before each level, adopting new approaches with the perks they grant. Make your unarmed strikes lethal with the cheetah mask, scope further around the map as the giraffe, or move faster using the panther. Among over a dozen or so, though, that’s about as interesting as they get. And when the best feeling offered by the game is making a bloody mess, it would have been nice to see more methods made available -- in the weapons department especially. Baseball bats and shanks are fun and all, but it gets dull when the game doesn't toss you random spawns of more interesting devices. Not even because they are more efficient (everything kills the same, really), but because the different murder animations are just a real joy to witness, and serve as a big draw to the game.
Room to room, floor by floor, Hotline uses a top down layout paired with twitch reaction difficulty, making it a game of careful strategy. Melee weapons kill you instantly, guns kill you instantly, dogs kill you super instantly. Thugs whip around the moment you approach them, some will even shoot you from off screen before you even know they exist. It’s a merciless series of trial and error where whoever shoots first survives, and so it demands planning. Wait for the patrolling guard to walk by the door and then swing it open, knocking him to the floor. Before he gets up grab his knife and slit open his advancing buddy, then throw the knife at the guy getting up from the couch. Feels good.
However, that intensity really only holds true for those unwilling to exploit the game’s shaky fundamentals, or those just slow on the mouse in general. A few frustrating boss fights and an inane stealth mission demonstrate the limited nature of the engine (hell, it was made with Game Maker), where everything outside of that is very abusable. Strafing out from behind a corner will tease an enemy’s line of sight causing him to jog after you, allowing you to easily take him out as he rounds the bend. It works every time, and so it’s a little demystifying when you can rush in a room full of goons armed to the teeth, and run back outside and wait for them to clog the doorway.
Though, to Hotline’s credit, this kind of abuse can also be pretty hilarious. For instance, you can fire an automatic rifle and the noise will draw most of the floor running your way, where you can then try to mow them down in one clip. It’s one of the few games that doesn’t rely on pointless achievements or challenges to make players want to try stupid shit. It’s just enjoyable, and it’s both with disappointment and pleasure to admit that most Game Overs will come from playing like an idiot.
But then you hit a key and you’re back at the floor entrance and everything has respawned, an immediate transition void of loading times and it’s like nothing ever happened. The music hasn’t stuttered or stopped, the beats just pour on uninterrupted in a disturbing, hypnotic drip. It’s incredibly hard to put down, like it wants you to sit there and kill and kill again until you get the patterns right. Death is painless and killing is soothing, and when everyone is eliminated the music abruptly stops, and it’s back to your car. Maybe grab a pizza or a drink on your way home and wait for the next call tomorrow. Probably a whole 30 seconds before you’re driving to another target.
It’s just an absurdly good time, and for seriously primitive reasons that other game developers should be taking notes on. If corpses disappeared in this game, for example, then it simply wouldn't be worth playing. But because they don’t, because they lie there in a pixelated mess of sprawled limbs and kool’aid colored blood, Hotline Miami works. Corpses stay because the picture they paint is morbid proof of dominance. Each murder a breadcrumb behind your path of destruction, each room cleared a sprinkled aftermath of your rampage, never stopping until all the floors have been spattered red. Now, should this kind of thought process make the gaming community uncomfortable? Hotline leaves the phone off the hook on that one.