The first guy’s easy. I slam the door open into his back, the shotgun he’s clutching flies into a corner, and my mask-wearing assassin coolly walks up to the wall where the thug’s body is now slumped. A swift, brutal boot and his little round head explodes into pixel viscera. Pick up the shotgun. Who’s next?
Hotline Miami is almost a stealth game, a top-down layout of rooms and thugs that are too powerful to take head-on. One hit kills (almost) anything, including you. So you need to be a boy scout, and always go in prepared.
Each level is a building with multiple floors, where you have to kill everything then get in your car and drive away. Hotline Miami‘s fights take place over seconds, unforgiving and intense exchanges that an instant respawn button makes irresistibly moreish. The game’s designer Cactus has a considerable history of action-oriented indie titles, and that heritage shines through this compact, exciting combat.
Controls are WASD and mouse, which allow you to both case around places and burst into quick, violent life. The world is full of simple elements that work consistently, like the doors which always slam open when you walk through, or glass walls that can be shot through.
Everything is about anticipation, working out what you’re going to do, followed by the reality of execution.
Vision over the level is entire, and a limited auto target option lets you line up individual enemies not in the immediate field of view – this is for setting up perfect surprise shots, one smooth dash into cover with a deadly salvo in the middle, but it’s too slow for open gunfights. Picking up and firing guns, which can’t be reloaded, is an instant right-click left-click. And even though these controls work beautifully, I guarantee that throughout playing Hotline Miami you will panic and mess them up. Because, basically, things rarely go to plan.
Everything is about anticipation, working out what you’re going to do, followed by the reality of execution – bursting into a room with a shotgun blast, you might duck back out and hide round the corner, switching to a samurai sword to take the chasing guard up-close.
But you forgot that the guys on the rest of the floor would hear the gunfire. They run towards its source, you’re flanked – and as you’re thinking about what to do, a hail of machinegun fire gets dark red all over that pastel suit. The whole thing barely lasted two seconds. Hotline Miami doesn’t spare the details, either. You’ll see your guy’s stomach become a ruined bloody mess from gunfire, or his head cleaved in two by an axe. And you’ll see it a lot.
You’ll see your guy’s stomach become a ruined bloody mess from gunfire, or his head cleaved in two by an axe. And you’ll see it a lot.
The violence in Hotline Miami is very funny, and it punctuates the fights brilliantly. Downed enemies can be ‘finished’ with the spacebar. I cleared a room except for one knife-wielding nutter who charged straight for me. Backpedalling furiously, my shots sprayed without hitting until, out of ammo, I threw the gun and it smacked into his face. Panic subsiding, I grabbed his prone body and smashed the head into the ground over and over, each click a little shot of therapy, a relief. The burst of adrenaline became enjoyable, a smooth wave. Have some of that, chum.
Hotline Miami never blinks. Melee weapons gouge raggedy-red trails into flesh, and gunfire leaves bodies with lovingly-crafted wounds. But the game is so heavily stylised, with its chunky sprites and synth chiptunes, that it feels and looks comic rather than nasty. The whole thing half-dares the usual suspects to get whipped up in a froth about ultraviolence, and undercuts them in advance with blown-up pixel art and a mysterious, tongue-in-cheek story about what a terrible person you are to be doing these things and loving them. You may recall how Manhunt was far too smart a game for its critics, and there’s a smack of that here, though the worlds couldn’t be further apart.
Hotline Miami’s world is the Florida of frozen toothpaste grins, and it lives in the details. Choosing a rubber animal mask to wear at the start of each mission. The terrible euphemisms used by the people phoning you up to arrange hits. The interstitials after each stage, where your character visits a video store or a pizza parlour and the nervous clerks talk about recent massacres while giving you free stuff. Even the way that your car has those vertically-lifting doors that looked like the future in the 1980s.
If you like the idea of comic ultraviolence, guns that have real oomph in every shot, and creeping around surrounded by enemies before swift, OTT gunfights, then Hotline Miami is going to be your kind of game. All of its elements are simple, but they weave together into a series of rat-runs that play out differently every time. It’s blister-packed gunplay at its best, with a wicked sense of humour, and its imminent release feels a long way away.
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