Remember back in the day you could get those unofficial mega map packs for PC games like Quake and Doom? Stuff like ‘500 ULTRA HARD MAPS FOR QUAKE 2’ and that? Decent enough value for money if you were a fan of the game in question, but not a single one of those maps would be anywhere near the quality of the ones you got with the base game. No playtesting, usually intended to be ‘hard’ instead of ‘fun’ and were lacking in the sort of polish you got with something made by your man Romero or the like. Bigger, Badder, MORE wasn’t necessarily ‘Better’.
Hotline Miami 2 started life as an expansion pack for the first game and in many of the design decisions, it shows. For instance, some of the more advanced, difficult gameplay mechanics, like windows, guard dogs and the ‘heavy’ enemies, are in the game pretty much from the off. It is a much harder game than the first, mainly due to much less forgiving learning curve. That would be fine, but that’s not the only reason Hotline Miami 2 is a harder game. Levels are much bigger, not just in terms of length but in their actual size of area. There’s way more rooms that are just large, open spaces with the odd bit of screen furniture to hide behind. This means more holding down shift to look ahead and identify threats than you had to do in the original game, because if you miss that one guy holding a shotgun half a level away, you’re fucked. This means that for the most part, you have to take a slightly more cautious approach, which just isn’t as much fun. You spend way more time walking into a room, alerting the enemies and then quickly running out so you can off them in the doorway than just dashing in, chucking your weapon at them and seeing what happens.
The maps of the original game are legendary. Everyone who has played it can explain in great detail how they would run through Decadence, Tension, or one of the many other memorable stages. Hotline Miami 2 just doesn’t have that. I’ve finished the main game and have gotten stuck on some of the levels for a while, doing them over and over again and as I’m sat here right now, I can barely remember any details. It speaks volumes that in Hotline Miami, the level select screen shows a picture of the map you’re about to enter. Hotline Miami 2 does not.
One thing that is very clear about Hotline Miami 2 is that the narrative is very much pushed to the forefront this time around. Last time the plot sort of ticked away behind the constant killing, almost brooding in the shadows, and led to some excellent little points about violence in videogames and the developer/player justification of it. Everything appears (at first) to be a bit more straight laced this time around, filling in the plot around the events of the first game, cutting between the aftermath of the murders in Hotline Miami and a squadron of soldiers fighting Russians off the coast of Hawaii in the years before them.
The delivery of the narrative is really, really good. I didn’t think I gave a shit about the deeper plot of Hotline Miami but it turns out I’m way more invested than I realised! The way that the story jumps backwards and forwards throughout the timeline, set before and after the events of the first game, fleshing out the stuff we already know from Hotline Miami is really clever and caused a few genuine ‘wow’ moments as something which seemed so inconsequential suddenly ties the two games together.
However, due to this significantly heavier emphasis on the plot, you now have specific characters for specific levels. When I interviewed the lads behind the game a few months ago, they said that this was so all the people who played through the original only using the ‘Tony’ mask (who has killing punches) are forced to try different tactics. Cool, but this does mean your options on every level are limited to the - at most - three or four different characters/masks available for that stage. Some of the new characters also can’t pick up weapons dropped in the stage, so there’s less opportunity to think on your feet and find new ways to squeeze those extra points out of the level. This isn’t a dealbreaker or anything, but another way in which the larger scope of this sequel has scuppered something cool from the original game.
One of the best aspects of the original is when you’re score chasing, switching up your current mask to best compliment the strategy you’re using. The right mask for the right strategy can make a huge difference in your high score and it is really interesting how strategy dictates the choice of mask and vice versa. Some of the new characters have their own unique abilities that really mix up the existing formula. You actually control the two swan masked characters at the same time, one of them wielding a pistol and the other a chainsaw. You can pick off enemies with the pistol before rushing in and causing a mess with the ‘saw, or you can do the supremely rad tactic of taking out enemies while chainsawing another in half. There’s also The Writer, who doesn’t actually kill anyone and will empty any guns he picks up of bullets before discarding them, leaving you to rely on blunt weapons to beat the level. The new character stuff is, for the most part, pretty cool but I think I would’ve prefered these to be masks in the existing game.
There’s a few parts where it taps into the stuff that made the first game so great, but adds the new ideas and larger scope from the sequel on top of it, and it all clicks together brilliantly. For instance, there’s a level where you play as all four of the ‘fans’, switching to a different one as you clear out a floor of the building. It is a more traditional style Hotline Miami level, rather than the newer open plan ones and the whole time Carpenter Brut’s ‘Roller Mobster’ is banging away in the background and it just gave me a violence lob on that still hasn’t subsided. The next thing I remember after finishing that level is waking up naked on a beach surrounded by dead sharks. In fact, most of the stages that are in the more traditional map style are when the game is at its best, regardless of the character you have to play as. When the game gets a bit more experimental with its map design, such as the levels set in Hawaii or the really quite poor level set on a boat, with its huge open plan swaths of land, is when you find yourself slowly edging forward, zooming the screen, seeking that one hidden guy with a gun like you’re playing Cannon Fodder and offing him from range. There’s no meaningful way to keep a combo going or find a flow through the stage without popping off a few rounds of the weapon he has and then switching to his knife when the enemies come to investigate the sound. It’s not very.. well, Hotline Miami.
As was the case with the original, Hotline Miami 2’s presentation a highlight. The whole thing looks like it has been recorded onto a broken VHS tape, with the screen skipping and jumping during pause screens and the rewind and fast forward prompts appearing as the story jumps backwards and forwards through the timeline. The soundtrack, somehow, is even better than the first one. Way more varied, with some guitar based tracks and some more ambient stuff alongside the ridiculous 80s’ synth tinged techno. Dennaton again show that in terms of creating an overall aesthetic and setting a particular atmosphere, they’re right up there with the best and outclass many AAA developers.
A thing that is definitely worth noting is the highly controversial ‘rape’ scene during the prologue level. It has been available online for quite some time now, after the Australian certification board made a bit of a meal of it. I’m aware of course of the position I’m talking from when I say stuff like ‘I was willing to see the scene in context before I judge it’ and definitely feel that the Australian board exaggerated the scene considerably, but the fact of the matter is it is absolutely throwaway. It is a one off incident in the introduction that is so disposable you can choose to skip it mere seconds before it takes place. The fact that it is so throwaway makes it hard to feel like it was put in the game for any reason other than to shock, rather than to tackle a very taboo subject for video games. In a game that is otherwise so smart with its narrative choices, this scene feels extremely cheap.
Soderstrom and Wedin have said many times that this will be the last Hotline Miami game. In my interview with them over on PCGamer they said “This is the last Hotline Miami because we’re cramming everything we have in there. I don’t think we can take it any further after this.” That sums up this sequel nicely. They’ve put every idea they’ve had into this, and not all of them are that great. Following up one of the greatest action games ever made was always going to be tough, but in search of a greater scope - more weapons, more characters, more everything - what made the original so fucking good has been a bit lost.