Hotline Miami was almost responsible for the death of our mouse, our keyboard, and our monitor, mostly because each play session inevitably ended with our fist interfacing with one or all of them in a swift and violent manner. That’s not to say that Hotline Miami is a ‘bad’ game, not by a long stretch. But it certainly is incredibly frustrating, bewilderingly unfair, and at times just plain broken.
Hotline Miami’s plot comes straight out of an ultraviolent psychedelic drug-induced Dutch horror movie. You play as a nameless protagonist living in 1980s Florida who each week discovers a mysterious mission waiting on his home answerphone. Every level is essentially the same: you get in your car, you drive to a building, you butcher everyone inside. Between the missions you go get a pizza/drink/videotape which is always ‘on the house’, and occasionally you get visitations from strangers wearing animal masks. So far, so normal.
The game is played from a top-down viewpoint, with distinctly old-school retro graphics throughout. You control the ‘hero’ using the WASD keys, aiming with the mouse. Left click swings or fires your weapon, right click throws it and the spacebar grapples your foe, leaving them ripe for a messy finishing move (often battering their brains against a wall or floor).
If you’re a wee bit sensitive or a Daily Mail reader, we recommend forgetting the name Hotline Miami entirely. Every few seconds you’ll be staving in skulls with bats or bricks, gunning down doggies with shotguns, blowing off limbs and generally being a bit of an ultraviolent badass. The cartoony graphics take the edge off the gristle, and when an enemy ends up crawling away from you, seeping blood from the bloody stumps that used to be his legs, it’s more hilarious than horrific.
Adding to the surrealness is the range of animal masks you can don before each mission. These give you all kinds of different powers, from the ability to see in the dark to preventing dogs from attacking you, although annoyingly you’re stuck with your choice for the duration of a mission, even if you die and have to restart (and you will die, over and over again...)
Somebody kill me please
Hotline Miami doesn’t f**k around. If you get shot or smacked just the once, you die and have to repeat the entire stage. This by itself isn’t the source of our frustration. Unfortunately the game is also ridiculously unfair at times, leading to endless deaths that had our teeth ground to dust. The main problem is the enemies’ lightning fast reactions: you can sneak into a room without making a sound, yet a grunt facing in the opposite direction will immediately spin and blast you with a perfect shot before you have the chance to squeeze off a single round.
Considering how rubbish the AI is, this insane reaction time is even more obvious. One of the grunts can unleash hundreds of bullets and none of his mates will so much as stir. But if you fire just a single bullet, the entire house will come flooding into the room to blast you apart in milliseconds. Similarly, the guards will happily step right over the mutilated remains of their buddies without thinking that something might possibly be afoot.
The fact that guards react to your gunfire is supposed to steer you into a more stealthy approach, but the AI is so broken that it’s possible to simply stand by a door and gun them all down as they run in, until there’s a massive pile of bleeding corpses blocking the doorway. Despite this we still ended up dying over and over, usually thanks to unexpected hair-tearing moments.
For instance, often an enemy you just blasted at close-range with a shotgun will mysterious resurrect, before putting a bullet in your face. Occasionally you’ll run into a room and swing a bat at a baddie only to watch it pass harmlessly through their body, which sadly isn’t the case when they do the same to you. Not forgetting the fact that baddies appear to have much better eyesight than you and can blast you apart before they’re even in shot. Some of the more difficult sections require sheer luck to negotiate intact, as well as abusing the rubbish AI to your benefit. Not the sign of a good game.
And then we have the little glitches that often make missions impossible to win. One time we’d killed everyone on a stage but the arrow telling us to move on never appeared, leading to several minutes of confused wandering and an eventual restart. In another instance, our character vanished completely, leaving us staring at an empty room, unable to do anything except once more restart. In yet another case, the very last enemy of the stage ran through a solid wall and buggered off, again leaving us unable to complete it. The lack of proper save points means you’ll lose any progress through previous stages when things like this happen, which is irritating to the point of actual real-world violence.
Despite the broken AI, frustrating deaths and massively annoying glitches, Hotline Miami is also irritatingly addictive. Finally finishing a stage after a couple of dozen deaths will have you fist-pumping the air and crying bitter tears of joy, and the boss fights are occasionally interesting departures from the standard gamplay (and also shockingly frustrating at times, for a change). The frankly nuts soundtrack is catchy and perfectly complements the game, and the bizarre plot is intriguing enough to keep you slogging on to the bitter end, even if it does eventually drive you insane. Even after beating the crap out of our keyboard and storming out of the room, we’d return after a sufficient cool-off period to tackle the offending level again.
We can’t say we enjoyed our time with Hotline Miami, mostly because of the frustrations involved, but it was definitely a memorable experience and one that we enjoy sharing around the GD watercooler. It;s just a shame the game couldn’t have spent another couple of months in production, to sort out its AI issues and remove the crippling bugs, and maybe add a less punishing difficulty level. With a few little tweaks, this could have been a strong contender for indie game of the year.