The thing about Hotline Miami is that it is an action game so distilled and pure that it is pretty much impossible to not get a thrill while playing through one of its levels. No joke, there are times when I’m on a particularly good ‘run’, I’ll catch myself holding my breath as I react instinctively to the enemies that are trying to kill me. Even as a spectator sport, seeing a skilled player despatch a room of enemies with ease is just as awesome a sight as seeing another player pull off a complete fluke frantic killing spree. Literally breathtaking.
Hotline Miami is a game about killing. Every level is a building full of bad dudes who will kill you on sight, be that by shooting at you immediately or rushing at you with one of the many melee weapons. You have to kill them all. When you kill them all, you proceed to the next screen. You keep killing until the level is complete. If you’re killed, you simply hit ‘R’ to reset the level and start again.
It is instant, and that’s its genius. You play as a guy who clearly has very little to lose in Hotline Miami and in order to get the best scores you need to act like that. You get bonus points for being reckless, and for killing quickly for combos. You’re supposed to play Hotline Miami like a man who has nothing to lose, and by removing the fear of death you have in other games - YOU have nothing to lose. Go for it. Rush head first into a room full of shotgun-toting goons waving a golf club like a maniac. What’s the worst that can happen? And if it does, you can just try again in a split second. Kill or get killed, you’ll learn something about a weapon, the level or a particular strategy you were trying out every time.
You’re spoiled for choice at every moment when playing Hotline Miami. Every enemy you kill drops a weapon, as well as the countless ones scattered around each stage, and each one gets you a whole load of different options as to how to proceed with your killing spree. Just because you’ve flattened a guy with a door and picked up his shotgun doesn’t mean you have to start shooting everyone you see. You could throw the gun at the next enemy, crack his head against the floor with your bare hands and pick up a nearby fire axe, before rushing into the next room to continue your combo. You could fire the gun, attracting most nearby enemies with the noise and then butcher the lot of them while they’re all in one place. Fuck, you could just ignore the shotgun all together and continue to rampage your way through the level using using only your fists and slamming doors as your instruments of death! Whatever it takes to finish the stage and improve your score.
There’s also the masks. You start off with the soon-to-be-iconic chicken mask, but the various other animal masks you unlock aren’t just for show - they act as gameplay modifiers. Some give you perks, like a particular starting weapon, a speed boost or a longer combo window, whereas some do stranger things, like the owl, which allows you to see ‘secrets’ or the mole, which makes everything really dark and a lot harder! Picking the mask that suits your play style or gives you a particular advantage can be the one thing that allows you to blast through your previous high score.
Another brilliant but subtle thing Hotline Miami does is the ever-so-slight randomization of the levels. The layout and amount of enemies doesn’t change - they’re even in the same rooms, but what weapons they are carrying and their starting position within those rooms is just enough to ensure that, although you can develop your own Tony Hawk-esque ‘line’ through the levels, you’re never going to see some mechanical, unbeatable perfect run through a stage on YouTube. No matter how tried, tested and practiced your strategy, you’ll still have moments where something unexpected will happen and you’re going to have to adapt on the fly or go on instinct. Time to hold your breath.
People are making comparisons to the original GTA and the Hitman games, which aren’t totally inaccurate, but I personally find it much more comparable with games like Bayonetta and GodHand. In both of those games, from the word go you have every little thing you need to be able to succeed. Using the basics alone you could - with enough skill, of course - go right to and defeat the final boss. When you fail in those games, it is never the games’ fault. It was because you made a stupid mistake or simply weren’t good enough to pull off what you were trying to do. That level of tight action gameplay is the backbone of Hotline Miami. More important than the killer soundtrack, visuals and the ultra, ultraviolence that are getting most of the attention.
Another thing it has in common with those two games is that Hotline Miami is pretty damn near perfect. I score it ten out of ten.
Awesome 'Pig Mask' photography found over at garethdutton.com