Saturday, 27 October 2012

REVIEW - Hotline Miami (PC)

The elevator stops at your floor and the doors open, acting quickly you hurl your empty shotgun at the guard, knocking him to the floor. In a second you are on him, smashing his head against the floor in a shower of blood, another guard enters the room and you dash at him, flooring him with a right hook. Taking his pistol you grab him by the neck and pull him to his feet, and using him as a human shield you enter the next room, firing at the guards seated on a sofa. Another catches you by surprise and unloads a shogun at you, killing your hostage, his body slumping to the ground as you dash for cover. Bursting into a bathroom you quickly slit the throat of a urinating hostile, before being set upon by a vicious guard dog who tears out your throat, decorating the walls and floor with fountains of crimson. You are dead. Again!

If you thought that GTA was the pinnacle of video game violence then you ain't seen nothing yet. Hotline Miami is a new indie game that fuses together elements of the original top-down GTA games with the sickening ultra violence of games like Carmageddon, and Man Hunt. With a sleazy Neon 80's vibe that brings to mind movies such as Scarface and, more recently, Drive, and the hazy psychedelic insanity of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, this game is a brutal and twisted adrenalin rush from the very beginning.

Coming from the twisted minds at Dennaton Games, whose previous game Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf was also a work of utter insanity, Hotline Miami has arrived with a lot less hype than many other Indie titles, but has been the surprise hit of the year. It has been wowing gamers with it's crazy arcade action gameplay, over the top violence and gore, and fantastic 80's soundtrack.

Hotline Miami has you assume the role of an unnamed man who, after being taught how to murder by a deranged looking homeless man, begins the game in his sleazy apartment (he should really hire a cleaner). Upon receiving an anonymous answer phone message with coded instructions you are then visited by 3 mysterious men in animal masks who offer you no clues as to who you are or why you are carrying out your murderous missions. You then drive off in your DeLorean (yes, the Back To The Future car) and arrive at your destination. What ensues is a wave of frenzied blood letting, and a body count that would make a Rambo movie green with envy.

Following the recent popularity in incredibly difficult games (Blah Blah Dark Souls, Spelunky etc) Hotline Miami follows suit and is fiendishly hard. You will die.. constantly, but thankfully the developers have taken a leaf from Super Meat Boy's book and so a quick press of a key instantly places you back at the start of the level / floor you died on, meaning there is no time to get frustrated.

Using the classic WSAD and mouse controls you must kill every person (and canine) on each floor of the building. Enemies stroll along set paths but can be diverted when they hear you fire a gun or see you, or evidence of your 'work'. Sure, you can rush in and stab stabbing, bludgeoning, throttling, and shooting everyone in sight, and this tactic may even work on occasion, but more often that not this will see your brains decorating the nearest wall. 
The fact that you can only take one shot, or blow to the head, means you have to apply method to your madness. You must constantly look ahead and plan your moves on the fly. You can hold shift to look a little further around you which helps no end, and you can also middle mouse click on enemies to stay focused on them, meaning you can enter a room ready to fire in their direction. Doors can knock enemies to the ground if opened at the right time, and this can give you valuable seconds to kill another bad guy before returning to swiftly finish off the temporarily stunned foe. This mild stealth mechanic gives the game much needed depth and replayability, you have to be quick on your feet and think ahead.

The finishing moves are particularly vicious. Pressing space next to an enemy will slit their throat, and engaging this finishing mode while standing over an enemy you have knocked down will lead to a variety of gruesome fatalities that would make Mortal Kombat wince. Drills are driven into skulls, thumbs burst into eye sockets, heads are swiped off, or just pummeled against the floor. It is extremely over the top and gory and if you have a weak stomach for pixelated gore then this certainly isn't a game for you.

Due to the 8-bit style and overall rough look of the graphics, the game never becomes as nasty and sickening as Condemned or Man Hunt though. The visuals have a neon haziness about them which gives the game the appearance of a drug sequence in a movie, the slightly wobbling screen and the subtle flashing lights outside the main play area that mimic the on-screen action (red when killing someone naturally) all add to this. It echoes the tongue in cheek vibe that previous controversial games like the original GTA, and Carmageddon had, and the arcade style top-down gameplay make it feel more like Gauntlet for Psychopaths. 
The hideous animal masks are further evidence of this, each one a grotesque visage of a different animal complete with amusing name. You start with only one, but doing well on a level will unlock more, every mask giving the player a special bonus i.e. Faster movement, starting with a knife, guard dogs not attacking you etc. My favourite is Don Juan, the horse head, which makes opening door fatal to enemies.

Each level is separated by a playable cut scene of sorts where you visit a convenience store or pizzeria and talk to the weird clerk who works there, getting more info on the story (as well as a snack), then it's off home to bed before waking up to start the whole sorry saga again. The story gets more disturbing as the game progresses and keeps you hooked and determined to get further so you can find out what the hell is going on. I played the whole thing in one sitting, which took about 2 hours or so, but after a much needed break, I wanted to play it again, it's very addictive. Each level also gives you a rating which can be improved upon by being faster or more brutal in your killings, and you will find yourself returning to stages over and over to do so.

The soundtrack is part of the games overall appeal, with a collection of excellent 80's techno, sinister drone pieces, chiptune tracks and more. It not only suits the game perfectly but is also a great soundtrack in it's own right, and you will want to listen to it when not playing the game (I am listening to it as I write this). The way the music instantly stops (complete with vinyl rewind sound effect) when you kill the last bad guy in a stage works wonders for the game's atmosphere. You must then retrace your steps back to your DeLorean, accompanied by a hazy ambient backing track. You then get to really see what carnage you have caused during the mission as while playing you are too focused on survival to really take in the utter mayhem going on. It's on this walk back that you see the bodies littering the floor and the amount of blood lining every surface, it doesn't exactly make you think about your actions or anything deep like that. Hell no, but it is a shock to the system after the frantic pace that proceeds it, and is a reminder of how gory this game really is.

Hotline Miami is not without it's faults though. The controls can often feel a bit off, WSAD and mouse is my preferred method of controlling most PC games, but here it felt a bit loose and was often hard to get my character to face in the right direction in the heat of battle. With lightning reflexes needed and zero room for error this leads to many unnecessary deaths. The boss encounters are a weak point, being overly difficult and dubious with regards to collision detection. I found them to be quite irritating and unsatisfying and just wanted to get back to the regular stages.
As for the presentation, the graphics, while cool and retro, are rough around the edges and could have used a little more polish to bring the characters and game worlds to life. These are fairly small gripes mind you, Hotline Miami has produced one of the most insane and enjoyable gaming experiences of recent months. After the hugely disappointing Retro City Rampage, it is great to have a retro style top-down action game that really hits the spot and doesn't just rely on crap jokes and a barrage of tiresome references to 80's movies and games (tee hee Ninja Turtles, ho ho Back To The Future ha ha Saved By The Bell etc etc ad infinitum). A hybrid game taking the best elements of both titles would truly be the best game ever made.. developers take note.. make this game.. IMMEDIATELY!

Overall Hotline Miami is violent beyond belief, sleazy and sordid, indeed all kinds of wrong. But is also a breath of fresh air and a hugely enjoyable game deserving of high praise. Sure it is not going to win over any of the doubters in the 'Are Video games Art?' debate, but it's bloody good fun and should be experienced by everyone.

Hotline Miami is out now on Steam and

The Good:

  • Addictive Arcade Action
  • Amazing 80's Soundtrack
  • Crazy Violence and Disturbing Atmosphere
  • Great Fun and Very Challenging
  • Gotta Love Those Animal Masks

The Bad:

  • Rough Around The Edges
  • Dumb Enemy A.I.
  • Controls Not Perfect
  • Boss Encounters Slightly Weak