It’s definitely a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth when hyper-violence, hyper-realism and hyper-fast gameplay have enjoyed a significant boost in mainstream exposure in the past decade. I think we all love a good dose of guts and gore in our games, but as we reach the apex of a golden age of violent games, there’s not really much to be shocked by anymore. This is even worse for developers faced with more competition than ever before to pitch their indie murder simulator to thousands of fresh-faced young killers who can already get their fix of gore from many big-name developers.
And then there’s Hotline Miami.
Set during the late ‘80s, the player takes on the role of an unknown protagonist, who is given instructions every night from a mysterious anonymous caller to go to an address and make a gory mess of every baddie they can find. Not having much of a choice, your job is to blindly follow whatever they say and paint the entirety of metropolitan ‘80s Miami with the guts of your foes. While this is nothing new in itself, it’s the narrative and overall concept of Hotline Miami that really brings it to the forefront. The game soon melts into a postmodern tale of intrigue as the protagonist tries to unravel the mystery of his girlfriend’s death, his hallucinations, and the mysterious man on the other end of the phone.
That said, while Hotline Miami isn’t anything new in the gameplay department; it’s rare to see a game pull off something so basic so well. I don’t feel I need to sing its praises since it’s already received so much overwhelmingly positive critical reception, but it’s too good not to mention. It follows the basic formula of: enter room, kill everyone in room, go to next room, rinse and repeat. What goes on inside the room is some of the most frantic and frenzied experiences you’ll have in a game this year, though it still allows for a rather flexible one. The addition of a minor stealth element to the game gives it that much-needed extra layer of complexity to separate it from simple gun-toting madness. Shooting everything you can find is a perfectly viable playstyle for some people, but other may not prefer to draw the attention of every enemy in the level. Using melee weapons and gratuitously satisfying execution moves allows players to go for a more stealthy route across each level, picking off enemies like the goddamn Predator. The one-hit kills for both the player and most enemies is also a necessary aspect of the gameplay that always keeps tension at its highest. It’s great to see the developers fleshing out such a simple formula and giving the player so many options in which to get from A to B.
What’s interesting about the game is that it’s very easy to notice the game’s influences, but it doesn’t revel in them like other “retro” style indie games. The neon-pink and electric blues of the ‘80s shine throughout the game’s visuals while it still sports a decidedly modern-looking sprite-based look. The brutal violence resembles the commercial horror flicks of the time, as well as acting as a kind of homage other super-violent moral panic-inducing videogames of the time, such as Splatterhouse.
In Hotline Miami, it’s not so much how you deal with your enemies, or how creative you are with your killings, it’s how much fun you have, and as standard, there a load of weapons (both from the start and unlockable) to give a varied and rich experience. Expect lots of weapon-switching to deal with different situations. Melee weapons are good for tight spaces and don’t attract attention, while guns can clear out whole rooms of enemies, but never hold much ammo. Along with various unlockable weapons comes dozens of unlockable animal masks. Aside from making you look like more like a slasher flick psycho, each mask gives the player a different perk to use in each level, such as being harder to track, more gun drops, faster execution moves, etc.
To re-iterate, Hotline Miami has just the right amount of depth to the gameplay to separate it from the rest of the herd. It’s unique in its simplicity (hell, there isn’t even an options menu), especially the top-down perspective and sprite-based graphic style. Everything about the game feels so basic, it resonates a feeling of celebration for all of gaming’s simplest pleasures. It’s hard to match the pure rush of adrenaline that can come from playing this game, and it’s an experience that’ll leave an impact on you long after you finish playing.