Have you ever thought about how strange conversations about games sound out of context? I mean, most gamers are a pretty laid-back, peaceful lot, but you’ve probably heard someone joke that you shouldn’t discuss your average first-person shooter in somewhere public like, say, an airport. That’s fairly sound advice, and it goes double for the brutal but brilliant Hotline Miami.
Example: the game actually opens with a pixelated homeless man teaching you how to kill people. From there, it’s one high-octane, excessively-violent confrontation after another, peppered by short, vague story-sequences that add a great deal of flavour to the experience. Controlling the protagonist from a birds-eye view and using a mouse and keyboard in a similar manner to dual-stick shooters such as Geometry Wars, you’ll punch, kick, smash, shoot, butcher and blast your way through hordes of suited thugs with a variety of melee and ranged weapons. And then you’ll do it again and again.
This might sound overly simple, but that would be unfair to how satisfying the base gameplay can be. Unique level elements – such as glass windows that enemies can shoot clean through, or doors tripped with explosives – mix up the formula on a frequent basis, ostensibly turning an arcade shooter into a puzzle game for brief bursts as you try to figure out the best the best way to tackle a given situation. Finally, there are the masks: unlockable goodies you can equip at the start of a mission to offer a specific bonus, such as more lethal take-downs or minor damage resistance.
Hotline Miami walks a fine line between challenge and frustration, and for the majority of the game, does so expertly. There are times, however, when the attacks from your foes – lunatics charging towards you and waving baseball bats, or a particularly vicious canine lunging for your throat – feel seemingly random in their effectiveness, as do your own responses. They’re not, of course, but don’t ever expect the same strategy to work twice in any instance.
That’s part of the fun, though. You can methodically plan your entrances into each gun-laden den of crime (“maybe I could use the front door as a weapon to incapacitate the guard and take his knife?”), or you can go in guns blazing. Both strategies are about as valid. And thankfully, crucially, there’s little punishment for failure; hit the “R” key and you’ll reload on the same floor you were on. Like the Trials games or Super Meat Boy, this promotes that “just one more go” feeling that is so vital to continual play.
You’ll probably want to continue anyway to find out what’s going on with the bizarre narrative, or to listen to more of the fantastic soundtrack, which makes wonderful use of 80’s synths and 90’s euro-beats. Sadly, the whole experience is pretty short; I ploughed through the main campaign in about three hours, only halted by a couple of close encounters that took some strategy and luck to beat. On the upside, the game tracks your performance as you play, encouraging you to replay each chapter for a better performance grade, or to unlock new weapons and masks. Fans are already clambering for more of the game, asking the developer for random level generation or to enable mod-tools, both of which would be ideal for extending the life of the game. Here’s hoping!