Review: Hotline Miami
By Liam Lambert
Violence and controversy. These two words have become synonymous with videogames and videogame culture. Ever since the release of the original Grand Theft Auto in 1997, indignant media outlets, political leaders and abhorring parents have been blaming violence in videogames for “corrupting” society; always more intent on finding a suitable scapegoat than tackling real world problems.
The ability to “shoot first, ask questions later” is now an integral part of a great many games, asking gamers to suspend their disbelief while simultaneously abandoning the moral code they live by in normal society.
Hotline Miami is one of these games, and via some gloriously gruesome 16 bit violence, it actually has an important message to deliver.
Described by developer Jonatan Söderström as a “top-down-fuck-‘em-up”, Hotline Miami follows the story of an un-named protagonist, who is left mysterious messages on his answering machine, asking him to perform mundane tasks, a cover for a series of brutal killings the player must undertake.
At the beginning of each mission, the player character (nicknamed “Jacket” by fans, for his iconic 80s Letter jacket) receives a message detailing a time, a location and a task. The player must enter each location, kill all enemies inside, and leave to claim his reward from the local pizza parlour/VHS store/watering hole.
While Jacket can see enemies behind doors, walls and windows, he must time each swing of his bat correctly, aim each shot of his shotgun perfectly, and make sure he takes out all enemies quickly; because these enemies don’t miss. Hotline Miami’s enemies are deadly accurate, have lightning fast reaction times, and can kill the player with one hit. Such a steep difficulty curve might put some players off, but I found the games unforgiving nature to be endearing and exciting, in a manner similar to Super Meat Boy.
Rather like Super Meat Boy, each time you die, you’ll be reverted back to the start of the floor you started on, and to be brutally killed so many times in one mission will only increase your thirst for blood, as well as your will to succeed. This is where part of Hotline Miami’s genius lies; the way it gets inside your head, forcing you to massacre an entire room of random strangers, purely to cure your frustration and satisfy your murderous urges.
To carry out such ungodly acts of murder, Jacket has access to a vast array of weaponry, ranging from simply knives and lead pipes, to pump action shotguns and assault rifles, to samurai swords, meat cleavers and power drills. You can also unlock a series of animal masks that Jacket can wear at the start of each mission, each providing interesting gameplay benefits. The range of weaponry and the frighteningly detailed ways in which you can kill your enemies (particularly the ground based curb stomps and neck snaps) is equal parts thrilling and terrifying; Hotline Miami’s doesn’t skimp on detailed deaths or over the top gore, despite its 16 bit graphical limitations.
This is where the second part of Hotline Miami’s genius lies; within its sheer style. Inspired in part by the 2011 movie, Drive, the game features a stellar 80s inspired soundtrack full of synth-pop charm and catchy melodies. Visually, Hotline’s neon drenched clubs hark back to games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and the refreshingly varied level design and vivid, vibrant environments are a breath of fresh air in today’s brown corridor-flooded market.
Not only is Hotline’s visual and audio presentation stunning, but its narrative is presented with a confidence and an audacity so few games manage to achieve these days. The plot is a multi-strand narrative, often played seen through flashbacks, in the wrong order, or from multiple perspectives. The more people Jacket mindlessly kills, the more he begins to question his own identity, and the identities of the people who order the killings.
Finally, we come to the third part of Hotline Miami’s genius: its underlying message. The more I played Hotline Miami, the more I realised that the game was, in of itself, a commentary on violence in games. At one point, a character asks Jacket: “Do you like hurting people?” While the dialogue is meant to progress the story, it is also meant as an accusation towards the player, a way for the game to point its non-existent finger and say: “Hey you! Yes, you! Did you like plunging a meat cleaver repeatedly into that man’s skull? Did you? You did, didn’t you? You are one sick bastard.”
Throughout the game, finishing kills become more and more brutal, turning my once gleeful expression to one of shock and self-loathing. Much like Jacket, I began to question my own morality, and why I would enjoy watching people die in such a casually horrific manner, regardless of its virtual nature.
9/10 – Superb.
A with a thrilling almost fetishist approach to violence, a stellar art style and soundtrack, and an intriguing narrative, Hotline Miami is an unforgettable experience. While some may find the games difficulty and/or morbidity off putting, I found it to be an intense, adrenaline fueled thrill ride. Hotline Miami will be on my mind for some time.