It’s the exact type of game that the press loves to pillory. A game designed around hyper-stylised violence, with the player forced to slaughter people in brash and callous ways to continue. Hotline Miami is exactly that sort of game. It’s also a game that will be considered one of the greatest independently developed games for the PC.
The basic concept is that you are sent to various locations to kill everyone you find inside. It’s a basic concept indeed, one that belies the deep complexity involved in surviving the genocide you spend your time bringing to neon drenched buildings. Playing from a top-down view, it’s reminiscent of the old-style Grand Theft Auto games, both in graphical style, perspective and the gushing of blood from the victims of your sociopathic rampages; the spurts of blood left by your victims decorate the environments in a way that complements the 1980s trappings of the levels. The music is dragged screaming from that era too: between the thumping and twisted themes denoting madness and fear and the upbeat high-energy tunes that act as a backbeat to the pulse and dart of each kill, it’s easily one of the most expertly chosen soundtracks from recent gaming history.
There’s a rather screwy plot that frames the levels, an American Psycho style kaleidoscope of interface screws and apparent mental degradation but focusing on the plot is really to miss what the game does best. What the game really excels in is taking the brutal violence and somehow turning it not only into a pixellated ballet, but providing a sense of strategy not seen in many other places outside of chess. There’ll be three men in a room, to take a typical example. Two are patrolling the perimeter of the run, one armed with a gun, the second with a baseball bat while a third is staring away from the door, armed only with a knife. The player character holds a lead pipe and his patience, waiting for the moment to strike. Waiting until the gun wielding guard passes the door, the player slams the door forward knocking his foe onto the ground stunned, quickly turning to bludgeon the second of the patrolling guards. The third guard has his head stoved in before he can react. The stunned guard lies on the floor, alive, until the player executes him using one of the game’s canned animations for executions. This will take place in the space of a few seconds of play, with the typical WASD controls moving the player into the room, Space executing the fallen guard and Left-Click attacking.
However, the most important button is the R button. R for restart. You will die countless times. Your character is human after all and a knife to the face, the tear of a throat or a bullet to the skull is enough to drop them to the ground. Part of the appeal of Hotline Miami is the knowledge that restarting isn’t a punishment and it isn’t a game over, it’s the knowledge that your death is part of an iterative process that teaches you how to approach each challenge in the level. It’s a hard as nails game that doesn’t have a way for you to fail. It has ways for you to learn.
Unlockable masks with unique abilities and unlockable weapons spice up the desperate attempts to beat your own score on each level; my personal favourite mask is the Don Juan, a horse mask that makes slamming an enemy with a door an instant kill. Each player will have their own bias here; I know I’ve found use out of the dog mask that makes dogs non-hostile and the mask that allows for an increased movement speed. Combine that with the long reach of the unlockable katana and you’re a veritable blur of death and steel.
It’s excellent. It’s a miracle of design and philosophy. So just go buy it.
R TO RESTART.