Hotline Miami is pretty difficult to pin down. It combines top-down shooter with stealth/tactical action and puzzle elements, mushed together into a sort of trial-and-error mass murder simulator. You’re massively outnumbered, and you’re probably going to get killed multiple times before you even get to the end of the first level – and it’s not always about your skill (or lack of it). All of this makes Hotline Miami one of the most addictive games I’ve played this year. It’s been getting rave reviews and, in many ways, it deserves them, but is it as perfect as you’ve been led to believe?
Set across 20 levels, Hotline Miami sees you infiltrate and kill everybody in certain locations. The graphics look like a throwback from the early nineties, but the many, many kill animations soon break that illusion. There’s a gritty story told between levels, too; as a player you’re expected to carry out hits without really knowing why, and watching your character deal with the psychological effect of his job is one of the beautiful things about this game. It’s an interesting way of delivering an experience which is predominantly about killing people, and the more you question the motives, the more killing you have to do.
And you’ll do a lot of killing. Each chapter is split into multiple levels, and the enemies you’ll face are numerous. Alert those patrolling nearby and you’ll probably not survive. You cannot rely on guns – ammo isn’t plentiful enough to take on a full battalion of goons – and so you have to learn to perfect your timing and aim. Each level becomes a dance almost, a bitter-sweet process of trial-and-error that will have you dying and restarting the level time and time again. You really have to think about your moves and the best players of Hotline Miami will be those who can think quickly, take full stock of their surroundings and never hesitate. Actually, the best players of Hotline Miami will have enough time and patience to play each level over and over again to get the best path, but the effect will look largely the same.
If you want to be one of those people topping the leaderboards (and earning achievements), you’ll need to get used to the controls. They’re a little unusual. Left mouse button attacks, right mouse button picks and throws weapons, and the middle mouse button locks onto an enemy. On paper, it’s easy enough, but it takes a while to fully appreciate the nuances of the control scheme. No doubt I’ll annoy somebody by saying this, but I’m almost certain that a controller option would make things slightly less frustrating: applying varying degrees of power to the sticks would easily top the all or nothing keyboard buttons.
You’ll not only want to get used to the controller but to the music as well, which is very hit and miss. There are some incredibly catchy songs to the point you’ll be humming away hours later, and there are also songs that will make your ears bleed. I know there are people who like that sort of discordant anti-melody, but surely at some point through the rating process, somebody thought to warn “music may cause fertility problems in later life”. (Yup, it can be that bad.) Still, it has to be said: when it’s hot, it’s hot.
There’s a ton to unlock, both new weapons and masks. Weapons aren’t a huge deal, especially given that most of them have the same function, but they’re nice to unlock as it adds a sense of variety to the gameplay (as opposed to making you feel like you have more fire-power). Masks, on the other hand, make all the difference. These rubber masks (all in the shape of animals) will give you an extra tactical advantage in each level. There’s a huge variety of masks and each offer you a different skill – quieter shooting, faster movements, extra life and the like – but you’ll probably end up sticking with what you know.
Believe me, this sounds like the perfect indie game when you read about it. There’s plenty to do, a nice art style and more, but unfortunately Hotline Miami falls a little short of the high expectations. It’s plagued with bugs, to the point where tiles were quite literally disappearing from under my character’s feet. With visual effects that sometimes make Kane & Lynch 2 look like a playable game, this deadly trip to Miami would be perfect if for a little more polish. The AI enemies will stand over a pile of dead bodies and give up searching for you and on the later levels, considering which tactics to use basically boils down to how well you know the system and how well you can take advantage of it.
This is an imperfect game, but that doesn’t make it bad and it by no means makes it unplayable. The relatively high price on Steam (£6.99) should turn away casual interest and a skilled player will make it through their first play-through in a single sitting, so it all comes down to how much you want to play Hotline Miami right now. If you’re not desperate, I’d say wait for a price drop and a patch, but those that pay full price are unlikely to be overly disappointed. If you’re after something imaginative, different, and stupidly addictive – and can look past some minor flaws – you have little to lose.