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Hotline Miami Review

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The first time you fire up Hotline Miami, you’ll swear your PC has gone wrong. It’ll likely hang for what seems like an age, and then take you to a title screen burnished with blocky text in Russian against an eye-straining dayglow backdrop. It’s the 80’s. It’s Acid House all over again.

What happens next most assuredly isn’t. An ugly, bearded man will swear at you repeatedly as he teaches you the basic concepts of the game. Sneak up on people by using the building topology to keep out of sight, then eviscerate them or shoot them, or just punch them to the floor and then brain them by smashing their heads repeatedly against a door frame.

And that, essentially is Hotline Miami. Twenty-one levels of appalling top-down violence rendered in cheerful fluorescent tones and backed by a thumping techno soundtrack. Except that it’s very hard to describe quite how something so brutally primal can be one of the most intelligent and knowing games I’ve played in years.

The whole thing is a beguilingly circular, self-referential piece of design. The extreme gore passes silent judgement on the acceptance of violence in games. The unreliability of the narrator is a window into into the virtual worlds that games construct. Even the plot bends back in on itself, but to delve too far therein would being giving too much away.

It’s a hard game, but it never feels unfair, and any gamer could beat it with patience and practice. A single hit will end your murderous rampages, so you need to be careful, using stealth and silence where appropriate and making calls on the right time to go in, all guns blazing.

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As a game, just like as a piece of social commentary, what’s really impressive about Hotline Miami is how such a small thing manages to fill so many different shoes. A beat ‘em up. A stealth game. A tactical shooter. A puzzler. It’s all these things and more.

But ultimately the game gets hijacked by its compact and bijou nature. For most of your first playthroughs new guns, new powers, different enemies and novel scenery to interact with will keep you going. Toward the end you’ll notice that all the guns are pretty much the same. So are all the enemies. Many of the powers aren’t really useful, or even fun.

Completists will enjoy finding the considerable quantity of hidden things, and theorists will enjoy replaying the plot for the intriguing ambiguity it provides. Otherwise you’ve got perhaps one or two play-throughs of a two to four hour game.

But who cares. It’s cheap. Play it for its glorious inventiveness. Play it for the violence. Play it for an abject lesson in how much one clever designer can cram, Chinese-doll like, into one small package and then consider how little huge corporations manage to fit into vast, spacious AAA games, echoing like howling ruins in the desert. Just play it.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

3 thoughts to “Hotline Miami Review”

  1. This game is absolutely brilliant. It’s a great example of how games can be aggressively transgressive, self-reflexive, and ambiguous in terms of player agency and ego. The violence is extreme, but it’s in the service of messaging and it’s hardly gratuitous…unless you’re a psychopath that only plays games to see blood, death, and murder.

    The part where the guy asks the character (i.e. YOU) “Do you like to hurt people” was so bluntly direct, impactful, and really quite profound. You’ve been playing this vicious, brutal game and it more or less asks you point blank why you’re doing it. Not why the character is going around on these missions and killing all these people. Why you, the player, are sitting there doing this over and over again.

    I love the structure of it- the quick deaths, the recycling, the process of sorting out how to be the most efficient,effective shark in the tank. There’s an almost robotic element to it, it’s so savagely dehumanizing in every aspect from the 8-bit pixel graphics to the animal masks.

    I love the grainy, scruffy quality of it all…in particular, I like how the overhead map is never quite squared up. It’s always _off angle_, even when it queasily shifts to a slightly different angle. It’s a very subtle visual trick that adds to the psychedlic overtones.

    I think this was one of the best games of last year…but when I first started playing it, I kind of didn’t get it. I thought it was just another lame bullshit retro indie thing. I didn’t see right away how smart the game was or what it was trying to accomplish- some of that is far beyond just good gameplay.

  2. It required some interesting skill and reminded me a lot of super meat boy as far gameplay. The story was a treat and I definitely recommend trying to unlock the full story ending. That is super tough so you may just want to check it out on youtube.

    All around good wedding of theme, mechanics, and music. Such cool music.

  3. Well at least it’s not because my computer is a piece of shit that the game takes forever to start up. No other review I’ve read of this game even mentions that anywhere.

    Other than that I’ve really enjoyed the hell out of this game every time I’ve started it up.

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