Hotline Miami is a top down, 2D shooter-come-melee game that overflows with style and ambience. Wrapped in an 80’s inspired pseudo-retro world, the game is filled with neon lighting, whirling electronic soundscapes and moments of extreme violence that combine the aesthetic with the disturbing.
One of the most stand-out features is the AI system. Admittedly the enemies' ability to detect the player is relatively basic, either through direct line of sight or the sound of a gunshot, which can lead to them standing still if you take out a nearby friend with a silenced weapon whilst remaining out of view. Once they discover you, their general tactics boil down to a frantic rush to close the distance, but neither of these issues count against it. This isn't some hyper realistic stealth game; it's a mad, fast paced action title where the player goes from level-headed calmness to a massive spiking adrenaline rush in a fraction of a second. The fact that most levels are made up of tightly interconnected buildings, with thugs scattered among a number of rooms, means that just a single firearm discharge can see all hell unleashed on the player as shooters rinse your position, while close combat adversaries and packs of dogs close in.
What makes the AI of Hotline Miami such a strong contender, however, is its sheer variety and versatility. While the enemies are always in the same locations, they never behave the same way twice. It‘s impossible to predict how they will react to you, meaning that you can't simply memorise input sequences and expect to get through the levels. With the one hit kill system, on both the enemies and the player, that subtle movement or timing difference between two runs can be what separates a glorious victory from violent and painful defeat. Certainly repeated play is useful in so far as building an overall strategy, and in this regard level layouts play an important factor, but when things kick off you will always have to adapt on the fly - skill is always the presiding facet over memorisation. This makes the combat so much more exciting, with such a fine line between survival and death, and provides an exhilarating thrill as you scrape through by the tightest of margins. It also makes the game that much more rewarding, knowing that it was your reactions and quick thinking that pulled it off.
This happens a LOT.
The fact that regular checkpoints are provided after each floor and the completion timer only takes into account the successful runs means that the player is free to experiment with different approaches for later levels without becoming overly frustrated with the challenging combat. There's never any doubt that a death was the player's fault; if you'd just reacted that bit faster, aimed a little bit differently it could have all gone down differently. It keeps the gamer flying by the seat of their pants and can be immediately panic inducing if you get caught off guard. Balance between the melee weapons and guns is maintained through a tight control over ammunition counts, which when combined with the noise they generate can rapidly bring down more enemies on the player than they have bullets for. The fact that movement is so fast and that, within a certain radius, the melee weapons have a huge advantage due to their wide swing and lack of need for such precise aiming, ensures that players who stick solely to gunfire are going to be hard pushed to make it out alive.
If there's one caveat to this release it's that it really does need to be played with a wired 360 controller. The guns require some very particular aiming, and with this control device you can click in the thumbstick to automatically lock on to the enemy that is next to your crosshair, allowing for circle strafing. It really feels like combat was designed with this in mind as the main interface, as due to the overhead view and twin stick style combat a lot of players will find they react so much faster and smoother than with the normal mouse and keyboard. The whole thing feels a lot more natural when experienced this way and the flow and immediacy have been really well tuned to this.
Pom-Pom... such vibrant colours!
Before beginning each level the player can also choose from a range of masks, which are unlocked during the course of play through high scores and finding them within levels. These tweak your abilities, for example letting you run faster, take multiple bullet hits, start out with a particular weapon and even alter some less game related areas, such as changing the visual style or providing different translations. These provide some really interesting diversity and encourage the player to vary up their strategies. For example, one early mask stops dogs from attacking, a very useful ability, but experimenting with later masks, such as ones that increase your movement speed open up new possibilities - wherein the player can close with a dog before it starts its dash. Alternatively the player could use the knife wielding mask, which attacks so fast that you can cut down a leaping canine at the very last moment, there's a great deal of scope and trade-offs. These often factor into the scoring system which features your standard time based combo mechanic but varies it up with brashness and skill, encouraging the use of doors to knock your opponents down and go for more challenging kills.
Oddly for a low resolution, 2D game, one aspect that may put some off is the degree of violence on show. Not only is there a lot of blood but some of the executions are downright brutal and their depiction doesn't leave much to the imagination. Thanks in part to the zoomed in camera and the fact that the animations aren't exactly quick, there are times when it can turn your stomach far more than the violence found in more realistic looking 3D titles. Sometimes it can leave a bit of a sleazy aftertaste, and it would have been nice to have had more player control over the degree to which this aspect is displayed.
The storytelling is strong in this one.
This issue aside, Hotline Miami is an absolute triumph in the visual and audio departments. A lot of companies use retro-themed pixel art as an excuse to shave the art budget down, but in this case, through good use of visual effects such as rapidly scrolling scanlines, subtle level rotation and some bright, neon laced background shading, it all comes together nicely. The style is consistent throughout and is immediately immersive, this wasn't a design choice made to curb costs but one made to mesh perfectly with the feel of the twisting story and detached world in which it resides. The soundtrack is at times eerie and haunting, at others more of an up-tempo, club-cheese, with lots of heavy synth and midi work that sits well within the whole package and really helps bring you into this weird, twisted environment.
Storyline-wise everything starts out fantastically, with strange talking head segments and a constant feeling that things aren't quite right. For much of the duration the developers keep messing with your head but upon completion the player is given the chance to play as another character which, while offering some nicely varied combat mechanics, reveals an altogether more dreary and mundane plotline underpinning the whole thing. It doesn't overly take away from the package but undermines a lot of the great other-worldy quality that the campaign had the first time through.
Remember points mean prizes. Well, masks, but you get the idea.
Overall Hotline Miami is a great little action game, it's short – easily beatable within a long afternoon, but rewards quick pick up and play sessions too. Aesthetically it's a tour de force and the scoring hooks and wide range of masks on offer provide some solid variety for repeat visits. Strip all this away, however, and you are still left with a really solid set of combat mechanics and AI that make for a truly cracking 2D action game.