Hotline Miami ReviewJosh Holloway
It's no question that the indie game movement is growing at a rapid pace. New indie games come out nearly every day, even if you never even hear about most of them. Those that get passed over tend to feature a striking visual style or a unique game mechanic but ultimately offer shallow gameplay. Once in a while, though, an indie game comes along that promises the total package - a rich experience that fuses style and substance in a refreshing way. Hotline Miami is one of those games.
Each of Hotline Miami's missions sticks to a similar formula: get dropped outside a target location, infiltrate the building, and kill everyone in sight quickly and efficiently. You'll approach each level from a top-down perspective, zipping between rooms and taking down enemies one by one. Your mission is not complete until everyone in the building is dead, at which point you walk back through the carnage you created, hop in your DeLorean, and move on to the next hideout.
You're directed to do all this killing via anonymous calls on your home answering machine, the titular hotline. The intentionally vague story follows your unnamed anti-hero protagonist through a disorienting journey of drugs, Russian gangs, and contract killing. The story is left open to interpretation, and by the end the end you might be more confused than when you started. Read into the story and research the theories if you want, but ultimately it's simply a means to a murderous end.
Your goal of killing everyone is complicated by your character's limitations. Your vision has a limited range, and by the time you've seen a foe, there's a good chance he's seen you as well. Your enemies are just as fast and ruthless as you are, and although almost all of them take only one hit to kill, so do you. Your only real advantage is the element of surprise, which you quickly lose when spotted or heard. Taking on more than two or three enemies at a time is a futile task unless you can tip the odds in your favor.
Fortunately, your foes will drop a variety of weapons that you can use against them, ranging from baseball bats to assault rifles. Most of the melee weapons behave alike, with small differences in range and attack speed, but the firearms each have unique properties that suit them for a variety of situations. While it might seem ideal to grab a gun and take on your enemies from afar, ammo is scarce and gunshots attract serious attention. You'll have to swap weapons quite often to adapt to the changing situation around you. Further aiding in your ingress are an assortment of animal masks, which you can choose from at the beginning of each mission. These give you special abilities such as faster movement, lethal unarmed blows, and increased visual range. The different effects gained by the masks provide for interesting gameplay twists and a variety of different approaches to the levels.
The action happening in Hotline Miami might resemble something out of a Tarantino film, but when you take the controls yourself, the violence and gore fades into the background, and you'll have to approach every situation like it's a puzzle. Indiscriminate movement and attacks won't cut it after the first few levels, and efficiency is key. Thankfully, the controls are precise with either a mouse and keyboard or gamepad. Even better, when you die - and you will die - you can jump right back into the action with little penalty at the press of a button. This instantaneous switch between the frustration of failing and the thrill of success will keep you coming back for more.
Once you figure out a path through a floor or building, it won't take long to execute on it. But the intense period of trial-and-error that comes before your victory is where the bulk of your time in Hotline Miami will be spent, and every second of it is frenetic and fun. You're graded on each level based on your efficiency and style, so after you've beaten a level once you can go back to try for a higher score and more achievements. The score system would have more incentive with the inclusion of online leaderboards, which Hotline Miami unfortunately lacks.
There's no lack of excitement to be had in Hotline Miami's gameplay, but it offers an immersive atmosphere to boot. From the title screen to the end credits, Hotline Miami is positively dripping with style. The game sells its late-80's setting perfectly with a vibrant neon aesthetic that successfully transports your mind to the seedy underbelly of Miami at the height of its cocaine craze. The pounding rhythm of the electronic soundtrack is as intense as the gameplay, a driving force that guides the pace of your action.
The gameplay of Hotline Miami moves at such a satisfyingly fast pace and the style rarely ceases to amaze, so it's unfortunate that they both grind to a halt near the end with one ill-conceived stealth level that stops your progress in its tracks. On paper a slow-paced level with no weapons sounds like it could be a nice change of pace, but in execution it falls flat, feeling more like a chore than a game.
Hotline Miami leaves you little room for error, so it's fortunate that the game itself is as tight as it expects your play to be. With its distinctive visual style, frenetic gameplay, and intense soundtrack, Hotline Miami delivers an exhilarating experience that lives at the intersection of style and substance.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.