Hotline Miami has a different feeling right from the beginning – from the 16 bit graphics to the pulsating soundtrack, as soon as this game starts you know it’s something different. All that said, the big question is does it work? Read on to find out… Hotline Miami opens to a brief tutorial on the controls and then plops you right into the midst of a weird, David Lynch-type story that begins with you being confronted by some perplexing and twisted masked men, not all of whom seem happy with you.
The character you play could only be warmly described as a homicidal psychopath, someone not unlike Nic Cage’s character in Wild at Heart, though whether this is all in his head or if these are things that actually happen are up for interpretation. You continuously get phone calls that instruct you to go to certain places and slaughter everyone there. The big question is who is calling you? That is something you sort-of find out by the end of the game. The game’s story is one of the strongest elements as it drove me to play through some very frustrating portions of the game simply so that I could get more clues as to what exactly is going on in the game. I wanted to know why I kept getting free pizza, videos, and drinks from the weird clerks at the various establishments visited following the completion of levels. These perplexing and mysterious elements to the story drove me mad and made me stay up a number of nights trying to play through to find out more.
So, we know the story is a mystery and a grabbing one at that, how does the gameplay fair? Well, it depends. The game is a top down shooter in the style of some of the older console games – it has 16 bit graphics, is set in the late 80’s, and contains a spectacular techno soundtrack reminiscent of the time. The controls and gameplay are as simple as can be; you need to hack, slash, shoot, and kill your way through levels using basic mouse and keyboard controls. Sounds easy enough right? In some cases, it is – in others, it made me want to throw my computer through the wall. The thing that makes the game so difficult is that one shot or swing from an enemy that connects with your character kills him – think of Man with the Golden Gun game mode from Goldeneye and you’ll get what I mean. In the hours I have spent playing this game I literally could not tell you how many times I thought I had cleared a level only to get shot or sliced by the last remaining enemy, which resulted in having to start that stage from the beginning.
This took the frustration level through the roof, especially levels where things happen so fast that it’s extremely difficult to comprehend what one needs to do to beat it. Adding to the frustration is the fact that the game would sometimes fail to register my hits, which would result in death. Another problem was when killing many enemies in one spot, it was near impossible to tell if dead ones from ones that were merely knocked down; this resulted in my death and a level restart numerous times. I would take down a bunch of enemies, move on, only to get shot or sliced from behind after a mistakenly dispatched enemy got up. This wasn’t the only irritating thing the game would do resulting in a level restart; the game would inexplicably crash causing me to re-do an entire level. There were a few times where it crashed after beating a level, but after re-starting it I would find myself having to re-do the level again despite having just beaten it. The game has been patched since release but I was still experiencing some glitches and crashing a few days prior to writing this review. These are issues that will go away with time, but nonetheless added to the frustration of this game.
Hotline Miami has a few areas where, if fixed, would make for a much better experience. In each level, there would usually be a few different stages. For example, in one level you are dispatched to clear out a multi-story mansion. Thankfully, as you clear each floor, the game saves. This is nice, as you die a LOT in this game; after dying, you hit “R” and you restart where the game last saved on that level. However, there were a few levels where I felt it was unfair not to include restart points, such as the level featuring a SWAT team that you have to escape from. Another irritation with the restart mechanism was in levels or boss fights that featured dialogue prior to the fight. Every time you died, you’d have to zip through the same dialogue before getting back into the action. This took away from the game and became quite the annoyance on more than one occasion. Also, the mechanic for picking up and dropping weapons works horrifically. You have to hold right click on your mouse to drop a weapon in place; simply pressing right click on your mouse will result in your character flinging the weapon as far as he can. If they had throwing and dropping weapons mapped out to different keys or had included the option of custom key mapping, would have worked much better. Unfortunately the developers didn’t do either, only adding to the frustration in this game. So what’s the bottom line? Hotline Miami is a unique, twisted, and bizarre game that frustrates and perplexes. The game has an awesome feel; the visuals, music, and story are all near perfection. All of these things are a perfect mix that lack one key ingredient: gameplay. It’s not that the gameplay is bad; it just isn’t as good as the other elements. Hotline Miami is buggy, the difficulty of levels fluctuate between ridiculously easy or insanely impossible, and certain things are just missing (like custom key mapping). I have a feeling that if a few of the issues that the game has were worked out I wouldn’t have found Hotline Miami to be quite as frustrating. But as I played it that’s how it was; fun, but at times, frustrating to the point of insanity. I should mention that being frustrated is fine; it’s when you start throwing things into the mix that are outside of the players control that it becomes a problem. However, as some of those issues are worked out (like game crashes following or prior to clearing difficult levels, hit registration, etc) the game will become a much better experience.
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