Warning: This review spoils a few gameplay elements from the final levels of the original game. If you haven’t played the original Hotline Miami, you should go do that before reading this, and not just because it’s excellent.
I was about halfway through Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number‘s lurid technicolour death-spree when a thought burrowed into my brain and nested there for the next few hours. That thought was this: “I wish someone else was reviewing this.” Hotline Miami 2 isn’t an easy game to review, and it’s certainly not a game to which I can casually affix a score.
As a sequel to a game that was almost absurdly well-received by both the critics and the public, Hotline Miami 2 has quite a lot riding on its shoulders. And… well, it doesn’t match up, but not for lack of trying. In understanding where it does and doesn’t work, we need to take a quick look at its predecessor.
Hotline Miami was a simple game that put pretty much everything of importance in the players’ hands. The game gave you a level staffed with enemies that could kill you in a single hit, and that was basically it. It was up to you to pick a perk-giving mask, decide your route through the level, and viciously slaughter everyone in your path before they slaughtered you.
It was a brutal and chaotic murder sandbox, basically. You could go in fists flying, or lure people out carefully, or grab a gun and make some noise and lay an ambush. The layout was just the shape of what was to come; it was your individual playstyle that really fleshed it out.
You were constantly pressured to play recklessly – to charge into a room, slam a pipe into someone’s face and then throw it at a gunman to knock him down before he could take aim, and then grab a fallen pistol to finish off a third foe before he got close – and you were rewarded for doing so, not just in terms of points but mostly in terms of how goddamn amazing you felt. And then you might try it again with a different mask or taking a different route, to increase your score and to try to top that feeling of being in control of the bloody chaos that erupts within five seconds of starting. And if you fuck up? Press R to restart, instantly.
There was a plot (and not a bad one, to my mind; its simplicity worked for the game rather than against it, and its grubby brutality and schizophrenic feel added a lot to the atmosphere) but it largely took a backseat to the gameplay. Nope: Hotline Miami was about sudden, vicious violence.
Hotline Miami 2, uh… doesn’t do this so much. It’s heavier on the cutscenes, heavier on forcing you to play how it wants you to play, and a whole hell of a lot heavier on the difficulty, which renders some levels into a repetitive and frustrating cycle of trial and error that feel like they rely on luck as much as they do skill.
The narrative jumps back and forth between something like nine sets of protagonists and it leaps backwards and forwards in time depending on what part of the story it’s telling; it’s your job to mentally weave these disparate narrative threads together. There’s an actor filming a movie version of the original killings, a group of fans who idolise Jacket, a writer trying to piece together what happened back then, a detective who’s as callously violent as the people he hunts down… and they all tie together. It works well, too; I love the feeling when bits and pieces of the narrative slot neatly into place, giving way to a few new revelations about how things played out. I daren’t say anything about the quality of the story, because I’m fairly certain there’s an entire article in What It All Means, but it’s well done.
What doesn’t work quite so well is what this does to the gameplay. Hotline Miami gave you one protagonist with a variety of masks, all of which gave him some sort of buff or debuff; maybe your fists became lethal weapons, or slamming a door into people killed them, or maybe your controls were reversed, or you opted to start with a drill that gave bonus points for bloody kills but left you exposed for longer. The last few levels didn’t do this, instead shoehorning you into a particular role with a particular skillset. That’s pretty much every level of Hotline Miami 2.
That’s not to say you don’t get options; you just don’t get as many, and plenty of them are locked out. On any level where you’re playing as the Fans, for instance, it’s your choice which of them you want to control, and they play wildly differently. One guy is pretty much a bog-standard Basic Guy, but with a dodge roll. One can’t use any weapons, but his punches kill. One character is actually a pair, with one permanently equipped with a chainsaw and the other – tagging along behind – has a pistol. The final one is dual-wielding machine guns. As you might expect, each of these forces you to play the level extremely differently.
But not all levels give you a choice, and when the characters are so radically varied, that’s a bit of a problem. Another protagonist can’t pick up any dropped weapons and instead has to resupply (10 bullets at a time!) from pre-ordained ammo dumps on the level, which is a bit frustrating when melee-immune enemies are chasing you and you can’t simply grab a fallen rifle from the floor and blow them away. These levels, in particular, feel a little bit like a fan-made game using roughly the same engine and mechanics, but spectacularly missing what made the original so joyful.
On occasions, it works; the Writer is a personal favourite, and I really don’t want to spoil his quirk. But most of the time it just feels uncomfortably forced. This design decision means far more levels that enforce stealth, or ambushes, or whatever tactic is designed for them. It means less going back and trying a level in another way.
It also doesn’t help that Hotline Miami 2 is far, far, far harder than its predecessor. By around level three, the difficulty has spiked about as high as the first game ever got, and it only gets harder from there. I expected this, as anyone who’s finished the original would need more of a challenge to get much mileage out of a sequel.
I’m not too keen on the way the challenge is offered, though. There are far more windows with immobile guards stationed within. Levels are now sprawling, so there’s usually at least one patrol you haven’t spotted, and dying towards the end means replaying a relatively large slice of level.
Failing a level in the original game usually meant adjusting your plan or trying to execute it a little better; here, the line between success and failure is hair-thin. Enemies come in huge waves, and dying because you either didn’t spot a patrol that was on the other side of the level – too far away for you to see, even while holding down Shift to free-look – or an enemy at the far end of a narrow corridor, or an enemy that was still alive but could barely be seen in the pile of corpses strewn around, happens a lot. That’s not fun. That’s just annoying.
And at times, the requirements really do verge on luck. One level – which offers no perks of any kind and starts you with no weapon – immediately forces you into a room with a dog and a melee guard, with another load of guards staring in through windows. The only way I found to do it was to rush in, hit the guard, grab his weapon, and use it to kill the dog. If the guard randomly wandered to the right instead of the left while I was making my initial run towards him, the dog would kill me before I reached him. Waiting wasn’t an option, because the dog’s patrol seemed to take it into my starting room. Again: not fun. Just frustrating.
Sadly, you can’t even go back to these levels with the different protagonists just to see how things would shake out; replaying levels requires you to use whatever character that level demands. While this probably stops one or two of them from verging on the impossible (and/or stopping people from massively inflating their scores by picking characters that can complete the levels much more easily) it still feels like a missed opportunity.
But! But. For all that I complain, Hotline Miami 2 is still – at its core – Hotline Miami. It’s still got an utterly fantastic soundtrack underscoring your acts of horrific violence. It’s still got a few genuine corkers of levels tucked away in there, which I will replay again and again. It’s still a game that sometimes makes you feel like an unstoppable death-dealing monster. It’s still got a few utterly fantastic tricks, like the very final level, which I am absolutely not going to spoil. It’s still got some of the finest pixel animation and the most brutal pixel murders I’ve ever seen, somehow conveying truly herinous acts in a tiny amount of low-resolution space. It’s still got beautiful aesthetic touches, like the way lots of stuff is themed around video nasties, and the pause menu is a VCR menu.
It’s just that the difficulty, the frustration, the level design, the enforced playstyles, and the bugs detract from all this. A lot.
Oh, right, I didn’t mention the bugs! Well, doors are tricky things, and they will regularly screw with the vision of guards in ways they shouldn’t, screw with your hit detection in ways they shouldn’t, and make dogs stand still and spin in circles for all eternity. In ways they shouldn’t. Even if it is very funny. These don’t honestly bother me much, as the original game was released in a far worse state, but it’s probably worth mentioning.
Hotline Miami 2‘s best feature might wind up being the level editor, but I can’t comment on that because it’s going to be patched in sometime in the next few months. Knowing what rabid communities are like, the best player-designed levels will likely hit the same heights as the best of the original, and they might well be worth the purchase by themselves. Emphasis on “might”, and “likely”, and “might” again.
At its best, Hotline Miami 2 is just like its predecessor: a pulse-pounding, music-thumping, neon-coloured death bomb exploding in your brain. Unfortunately, it’s at its best a lot less often than its predecessor ever was, and you’ll have to fight your way through a whole lot of frustration to get to these moments.
I commend Dennaton for doing a sequel that doesn’t just add more masks and more levels, but Hotline Miami 2 simultaneously cuts too close to its predecessor and strays too far away. It moves away from the original’s sandbox-y score attack feel, but it stays close enough that, unfortunately, it just feels like a less skilled imitation.