Review: Hotline Miami – a little bit of the old Hyper-Color Ultra-Violence

Hotline Miami screenshot 1
Review: Hotline Miami – a little bit of the old Hyper-Color Ultra-Violence

Platforms: Windows PC, Steam

Game Name: Hotline Miami

Publisher: Devolver Digital

Developer: Dennaton Games

Genre: Action, Fighting

Release Date: October 23 2012

ESRB Rating: M for Mature

Developer Summary:

Hotline Miami is a high-octane action game overflowing with raw brutality, hard-boiled gunplay and skull crushing close combat. Set in an alternative 1989 Miami, you will assume the role of a mysterious antihero on a murderous rampage against the shady underworld at the behest of voices on your answering machine.

What We Think:

Set in a re-imagined, darker 1980’s Miami, you play as an unnamed, rampaging maniac, who is being compelled by a series of mysterious phone calls, requiring you “clean up” the entire Russian Mafia. Meanwhile your dreams are being haunted by disjointed conversations, with menacing masked figures. Sound like a bad drug trip? It may very well be the result of one.

In fact, it is the work of Dennaton Games featuring the twisted, brilliant mind of Jonatan Söderström (aka Cactus) – Sweden’s gift to the indie game world – a sort of Luis Bunuel meets Banksy auteur of sordid but deeply personal games who has bucked convention and opened up new ideas for everyone else to marvel or gag at. Working in concert (literally) with Denis Wedin, they have finally figured out a way to bring this short-circuited unbridled creativity to the masses with Hotline Miami featuring highly stylized NES-era graphics, a simple three button control scheme and a fuzzy yet intriguing storyline culminating in a top-down indie shooter with heart pumping, ultra-violent action for your gaming pleasure.

Of interest to indie game developers, Dennaton Games built Hotline Miami with GameMaker from YoYo Games.

“GameMaker is fantastic. I honestly am not sure I would even be able to make games if it weren’t for GameMaker,” says Söderström.

Crude yet crafty. Hotline Miami’s visuals are pretty slick.

Dude…This game looks totally…like…whoa…

When you first start playing Hotline Miami, you can’t help but be taken in by its fully realized and polished graphical style. Though, as stated above, the drawings themselves are crude but convey an incredible sense of vision and grit. This game pushes its pixelated properties to a point that you start to see the bigger picture even if you may initially scoff at its crude facade.

Cut-scenes are presented in the form of in-game dialogue sequences which feature a static image of the character speaking, and each character (although some of the lesser characters seem recycled in appearance) manages to convey the menacing and demented demeanor that can be found carried throughout the rest of the game. The game looks and feels like a twisted nightmare, and I mean that in the best way possible.

The levels come in a good variety and are all equally bleak. Ranging from low-rent shacks to drug-filled nightclubs to upscale mansions, all of the levels manage to approach with a simple overall structure while still containing a layer of polish that helps each area stand out from the one previous. Low-rent shacks have garbage strewn throughout the halls, Nightclubs have hanging disco balls and neon dance floors, and mansions contain statues and reflective floors. All of these are presented in a glorious, and nostalgic, pixel-based realm that cohere directly with its characters, which really helps to create an inviting and involving world.

Righteous Tune-age

The music is another extremely high point. Appropriate tunes are used in all of the different settings, and while tracks are re-used here and there, it’s nothing to complain about; there isn’t one cue used that won’t get your blood boiling or your trigger finger itching, and often it’s the cherry on top to completing an amazing shootout. If the action itself doesn’t make you feel like a total badass, then the gritty and primal soundtrack will.

Don’t expect to be dazzled by highly detailed characters or intense set piece moments. This game’s approach to visuals is bare-bones and blunt, and it’s probably the thing that makes the over-the-top violence stand out just that much more. Though the walls may seem bare, blood splatters, flies, and coats the rooms, almost in such a way that the game is begging for you to give it its own coat of paint.

Painting the Neon Walls

Though the visuals in Hotline Miami are bleak and simplistic, the game truly shines brightest when it comes to its depth and assortment of ways to kill. Though simple in its initial approach, you pick up weapons with the right mouse button, and fire, swing stab etc. with the left mouse button, you eventually learn that this game is not all about balls-to-the-wall action and just shooting everything that moves; you have to rely on stealth, cunning and observation in addition to your quick trigger-finger in order to clear out targets effectively.

Though levels do allow you to approach in whatever manner you choose, if your approach is to shoot first and ask questions later, you can expect to die, and to die a lot. Gunfire (unless using the silenced pistol) will alert any surrounding guards to your position, and if this happens you had better pray to god you have a lot of ammo and a guardian angel resting square on your head because these guys don’t miss often.

Even stealth can have its disadvantages, as enemies – though they do run in certain patterns – are also often unpredictable and will move from room to room as they see fit without rhyme or reason and often I would find myself getting gunned down by an errant guard while laying in wait to ambush another. This forces you to be observant and patient, but best of all, you have to keep on your toes, thus tension is maintained every situation.

Kill with skill, for thrills…with a drill.

Though I enjoyed the stealth scenarios, I found the game shone brightest when in the midst of a high intensity shootout with multiple thugs. A highlight for me came when busting into a room, knocking down the patrolling guard with the door, and then simultaneously hurling the baseball bat I was carrying at one guard, I pummeled another to death with my newly-freed fists all in one swift motion. If all of that sounds dizzying (even the sentence looks dizzying) you just have to watch it in motion. Combat flows once you “get in the zone,” and clearing a room full of thugs feels highly rewarding, especially if done all without firing a single bullet.

Every Room, A Wicked Weapon Cache

This game might have been an entirely different animal if it weren’t for its dizzying array of weapons. Hotline Miami pretty much allows you to use everything except for the kitchen sink (although it may well have been an unlockable that I didn’t achieve) to dispatch your enemies. Guns range from silenced pistols, to shotguns, sub-machine guns, uzis and Magnums and each come with their own perks and pits, forcing you to switch up what you are stocking dependent on the scenario you are about to encounter.

Machine guns have a ton of ammo but no spray, while shotguns can take out multiple enemies in one shot, but are limited in ammo. The balance is impressive, and I found myself wanting to experiment with every gun I came across. Melee weapons also come in a wide variety, but are all fairly similar in use, other than a slightly different reach available to certain weapons. The fun in experimenting with melee weapons comes from the unique ways in which each will dispose of your foes. Baseball bats and crowbars bludgeon skulls, while cleavers and katanas cleave enemies in half, and even thirds. Certain smaller weapons like blades and drills even showcase unique stealth kills.

hotline miami screenshot 4

Though the variety in this game is seemingly endless, I did find certain play-styles that allowed me to exploit the AI (although the AI is fairly mindless until they actually spot you). Once you unlock the mask that gives you super-powered punching, I could simply just fire off a shotgun in a room and watch the enemies flood in. Then all I would have to do was just wait around a corner and swing wildly until there was nothing but a pile of splattered faces. Though I only used this tactic a couple of times to get through the game so I could complete this review, I wouldn’t suggest this play-style as you would be robbing yourself of this game’s most compelling feature.

Another small exploit that I found came during a scenario after finishing off a downed enemy. If other characters with guns see you doing this and you press the spacebar and don’t finish the job – once you’ve tackled the downed opponent, the armed thugs will simply fire over top of you until their ammunition is depleted which leaves them helpless.

These are minor gripes, but it would be nice to see them fixed if possible in the future, especially if a sequel is being planned.

Meet your conscience. Or is it just a horse? Cocaine is a hell of a drug…

In spite of these minor hiccups, heads explode, guts spill and limbs evaporate. It’s all grisly and it’s all great fun. The sheer attention to detail alone is worth replaying scenarios over and over. It’s great to see that the replay value in a game can occasionally come from the game itself and not just the ability to find unlockables and mystery items.

Most Excellent Unlockables

Though not solely responsible for Hotline Miami’s replay value, there are still an unprecedented amount of unlockables and secrets available for you to discover in each level. While unlocking new weapons does give you enjoyable new ways to conclude each conflict, it’s the unlocking of new animal masks that really allows you to open up gameplay. Each mask that you “achieve” provides a perk – for example silent gun shots that draw less attention, or extremely powerful punches that kill enemies with a single blow, or even the ability to see in the dark. Hell, one mask even grants you the ability to find more secrets. This is definitely a game that’s meant to be played through more than once.

Bodacious, Bro

The story is slightly muddled and meandering, and there are a few flaws with the AI, but that is by no means anything that should deter you from picking this game up immediately. Deceptively simple in style, its nuanced and fulfilling shoot-em-up action will leave you feeling something like watching Scarface with hyper-colored glasses. And that’s a good thing…because there are few other good things I can remember from the 80’s.

Get Hotline Miami on Steam

Get Hotline Miami at GOG

[xrr rating=”4.5/5″]

Hotline Miami Cinematic Trailer:

Hotline Miami: The Masks