Games I've played: Hotline Miami (PS3)

Posted by GrantHeaslip (1518 posts) -

When Hotline Miami came out and was showered with praise, I was skeptical about how much of that praise was motivated by Hotline Miami as a game, and not Hotline Miami as an idea or "experience". I (mostly) kept that to myself, and when the game was announced for the PS3, I figured I'd eventually try it for myself. I finally grabbed it once it was offered for free through PlayStation Plus. Now that I've played it, I'm glad I didn't (directly) spend any money on it, because man, I really didn't enjoy it, at least as it exists on the PS3.

Hotline Miami does have style, though I'd contend that most of its style is derived from its music. At this point, I have very little time for games aping 8/16-bit art and expecting people not to question why. It's been close to 20 years since that style -- a style that was necessitated by technological limitation -- was contemporary. I think there's a time and place for retro art -- I just don't think Hotline Miami looks particularly good. This is, of course, a subjective call, but to put this another way, does this screenshot, without hazy 80s-inspired beats blasting alongside it, really look very good?

If the art was my only issue, I'd be willing to look past it, but I didn't enjoy playing Hotline Miami either. There was a certain visceral satisfaction in tearing my way through the early levels, but somewhere around chapters 8 or 9 (I stopped at 10), it got way too repetitive, twitchy, luck-based, and memorization-heavy.

I suspect I'd have been able to get further without starting to hit a wall if I weren't saddled with the clearly-insufficient gamepad controls. The game's balanced with mouse-level precision in mind, and from what I can gather, Abstraction Games did nothing to address this glaringly-obvious issue. The gamepad controls aren't up to the task, and bring with them some really clumsy issues, like the tiny, barely-visible crosshairs (which, get this, turn red to indicate lock-on, effectively turning them invisible in a game so full of reds and purples). Lock-on is inconfigurably mapped to R3, a button I have a really bad habit of hitting under duress, and isn't implemented in a predictable enough way to be reliable in the heat of the moment.

None of this was a huge deal early on when most fights are small-scale and easy to end quickly, but unless I'm missing something, there's eventually unavoidable large-scale fights that would be way easier with twitch mouse controls. I realized at a certain point that I wasn't dying because my game plan was wrong -- I was dying because I wasn't able to execute on it within the constraints of the controls. I was constantly missing shots I'm sure I would have made with ease on the PC. I'm sure part of the problem here is that I'm not very good at this game -- I think it's the only twin-stick shooter I've played aside from some Geometry Wars -- but considering the blatant control downgrade inherent in the port, I don't think it's fair to ascribe my troubles entirely up to my lack of skill.

This doesn't mean Hotline Miami as it originally shipped on the PC is a flawed game, but it does mean the product Abstraction Games put out under the Dennaton Games' blessing is, and I think it's very much fair game to question why nothing was done to rebalance the console port, or even introduce a neutered "easy mode" for those of us who wanted even a bit of a break. I quite simply stopped enjoying playing this game at a certain point, and I try to make a habit of playing games I enjoy playing. I came back to it the last two nights hoping to break through that feeling, but I couldn't. It didn't much help that I didn't find the story or art in any way compelling enough to make want to see it through.

The music is, of course, awesome. This game is a great example of the power of music to strongly define the vibe of a video game. The harsh colours and constantly-shifting game field helped, but it's the soundtrack that really gives Hotline Miami its oppressive, unsettling, teetering vibe. This game made me feel pretty deeply uncomfortable, and at the risk of sounding like a total psychopath, it was the music -- more than the wanton, brutal, remorseless murder -- that got to me. The psychedelic title screen music, the hazy downtime track, the evocative score screen music, and this oppressively bassy level music -- it all sets a very specific tone and setting. I'm not going to finish the game, but I will seek out the rest of the soundtrack.

The soundtrack selection was a pretty amazing achievement, but as I said before, I'm not sure the game would have been particular noteworthy without it. I think it's quite telling that it's almost impossible to talk about Hotline Miami without reference to its soundtrack -- so much so that it often dominates any discussion of it. Even as someone who's something of a game music enthusiast, I think any great game should be able to (relatively) stand without its soundtrack, and I don't think Hotline Miami can.

Clean Asia! (a.k.a. the most obscure game reference you'll ever get out of me)

While I was playing Hotline Miami, I couldn't shake the feeling that it reminded me of something. I googled Jonatan "Cactus" Söderström, and it turns out he was the guy behind Clean Asia!, a bullet hell(ish?) shooter I got into for a few weeks when it came out in 2007. It doesn't have quite the same style, but it shares Hotline Miami's stark garishness, tight controls, and awesome soundtrack. It had a unique gameplay mode in which you attacked enemies by boosting into them, collecting their debris, and firing it in huge scattershot blasts in front of you. It was super satisfying and quite unique, and now that I think about it, I really want to go back and play it again -- much more than I ever want to play Hotline Miami again.

Here's a 360p YouTube video of it -- the best I could find that didn't have an insufferable YouTube personality talking over it. The game is freeware, and you can download it on Söderström's site.

#1 Edited by Three0neFive (2287 posts) -

I loved Hotline Miami but I see what you mean, I don't think I'd have been able to play it with a controller.

If you're not totally spoiled on the experience I definitely recommend checking out the PC version, the twitch gameplay and precision required really makes that game what it is.

#2 Posted by Video_Game_King (35985 posts) -

I'm gonna go into more detail next week, but the reason I liked the game had more to do with how biting and psychotic it was than anything to do with the gameplay mechanics.

#3 Edited by BisonHero (6159 posts) -

I agree that the screenshot by itself doesn't look like an amazing game, in the same way that a screenshot of FTL's sterile overhead perspective with little character detail looks unimpressive. But both those games look better in motion, along with their audio and frenetic gameplay. I'll concede that the gameplay mechanics have little variation aside from larger floors, dogs, and black guys that only die to firearms, but the game is greater than the sum of its parts.

Nonetheless, your impressions are what they are, though I agree with others that I think a gamepad is a frustrating way to play that game.

#4 Posted by nevalis (75 posts) -

When I saw this game pop up on psn+, I'd figured I see what all the fuss was about. I have to agree that the controls took some getting used to, and I hate how they can't be remapped in any way, especially given that a physical condition with my right hand prevents me from using the right analog and R1 trigger at the same time.

The beginning of the game was frustrating to say the least since its so relentless with failure, especially when guns are introduced and the story makes no sense. However, once I started unlocking new masks which provide bonuses (read: more efficient at killing) is when the game started to click.

I also didn't realize right away that the square button was a shortcut for auto-targeting an enemy close to the player's reticle, which made a big difference in surviving as I didn't need to precisely aim, just get 'close enough'. Also, the Vita does a pretty good job adding tap targeting.

I probably invested a good 15 hours in the game, got most of the trophies and unlocked the true ending. Although the gameplay is unforgiving and the story and art is out there, the music kept me going, and once I got into the groove of things, the game was much more enjoyable

I'd say it's not as great as some people say, but it's also not as bad either.

#5 Posted by pyromagnestir (4240 posts) -

the reason I liked the game had more to do with how biting and psychotic it was I am than anything to do with the gameplay mechanics.

There.

Although I found the gameplay to be fun as well.

#6 Posted by Angouri (231 posts) -

Huh. I shared your initial skepticism (I bought a steam copy last year... for the soundtrack only. never played it). When the PS+ version came to Vita, I decided to give it a try, as the Vita has quickly become my before-bed gaming experience.

Hotline Miami looks great on the Vita. Hotline Miami sounds great on the Vita. But, Hotline Miami is way hard on the Vita, mainly because of the shooting controls. As a result, I have played the game far more tactically than I see on Youtube or hear from my friends who played PC, melee-ing through most people, and avoiding gunfights. I'm currently on chapter 13, and looking forward to finishing it. I treat it like a stealth game: there's almost always a way through the environment that requires no guns but lots of tricking the AI to come inspect behind this door where I have a knife.

Also, the lockon on the Vita is the touchscreen: which is great for sniping, but not great when you have to break through a door and shoot 12 people instantly.

#7 Posted by Nodima (1099 posts) -

Yea, I got up to the fourth level on Mac before putting up with trying to learn to play with a keyboard and mouse when I haven't played anything other than SNES emulators and Civilization IV on a PC in god knows how long finally got to me. It was just too hard, I couldn't keep my fingers doing what I needed them to do.

So I was obviously really excited when it got put on the PS+ IGC roster, and downloaded it immediately. But it only took one level for me to realize that, however inferior I was at controlling the game on a keyboard, it was nearly impossible with a controller. It's just not possible to be that fast-twitch with a controller and this is coming from someone with thousands of hours of experience playing the NBA 2K series as well as tens of hours of SSFIV: Arcade Edition with no complaints. But this game was designed for your left hand to be clawed around that left side of the keyboard and your right hand furtively dancing around your desk, and they didn't do anything to make that palatable for PS3 gamers.

It also doesn't look nearly as endearing graphically on a 50" HDTV compared to a 20" iMac.

#8 Posted by Slag (3995 posts) -

Definitely agree.

Hydrogen is the track I like the best off Hotline Miami. It is undeniably a fantastic soundtrack, one of the best ever in games imo.

The rest of the game ain't bad , just not what I go for myself..

#9 Edited by GrantHeaslip (1518 posts) -

@angouri said:

Huh. I shared your initial skepticism (I bought a steam copy last year... for the soundtrack only. never played it). When the PS+ version came to Vita, I decided to give it a try, as the Vita has quickly become my before-bed gaming experience.

Hotline Miami looks great on the Vita. Hotline Miami sounds great on the Vita. But, Hotline Miami is way hard on the Vita, mainly because of the shooting controls. As a result, I have played the game far more tactically than I see on Youtube or hear from my friends who played PC, melee-ing through most people, and avoiding gunfights. I'm currently on chapter 13, and looking forward to finishing it. I treat it like a stealth game: there's almost always a way through the environment that requires no guns but lots of tricking the AI to come inspect behind this door where I have a knife.

Also, the lockon on the Vita is the touchscreen: which is great for sniping, but not great when you have to break through a door and shoot 12 people instantly.

Yeah, I relied on stealth and abusing the AI a bunch (the lethal doors mask was particularly great for that), and it took me to about where I left off before it wasn't enough. But the thing is, abusing brain-dead AI isn't fun. If that's what it takes to play this game well, then no thanks.

I've got a Vita and considered trying it on there to see if it was any better, but by all accounts it's not, and I'm looking forward to playing other games anyway.

I agree that the screenshot by itself doesn't look like an amazing game, in the same way that a screenshot of FTL's sterile overhead perspective with little character detail looks unimpressive. But both those games look better in motion, along with their audio and frenetic gameplay. I'll concede that the gameplay mechanics have little variation aside from larger floors, dogs, and black guys that only die to firearms, but the game is greater than the sum of its parts.

Nonetheless, your impressions are what they are, though I agree with others that I think a gamepad is a frustrating way to play that game.

You're right, picking out one screenshot is a bit unfair. I tend to think screenshots are bad representations of games at the best of times -- stuff like aliasing always looks way worse in screenshots than it does in motion. What I was getting at was more that I don't think the art in this game is anything to write home about, and I think that (in my opinion) weakness ends up getting glossed over because of the soundtrack carrying the day.

I do hope I conveyed well enough that my problems are due to the gamepad. I can see how this game would be way better with a mouse, but that's not the product they're selling on PSN, and it's pretty crazy to me that they made no attempt at rebalancing the game to account for that really obvious platform difference.

I'm gonna go into more detail next week, but the reason I liked the game had more to do with how biting and psychotic it was than anything to do with the gameplay mechanics.

Looking forward to it. For all of my problems with the game, I do think it captures the feeling of psychosis really well. Not that I'd know!

@slag said:

Definitely agree.

Hydrogen is the track I like the best off Hotline Miami. It is undeniably a fantastic soundtrack, one of the best ever in games imo.

The rest of the game ain't bad , just not what I go for myself..

I'm really looking forward to digging into the rest of the soundtrack at some point. It's really good, and the kind of relatively ambient thing could enter my "music to listen to while writing/studying" rotation (though I worry about the effect it might have on a dry research paper written under its influence).

#10 Edited by ArbitraryWater (11471 posts) -

The idea of playing Hotline Miami with something that is not a keyboard and mouse sort of scares me, actually, so I can see why you didn't enjoy it.

I did like it quite a bit, since it really nails the idea of a coke-fueled murder rampage. How many other games do that kind of thing? But let's be honest, it's mostly the soundtrack.

#11 Posted by c_rakestraw (823 posts) -

I always saw Hotline Miami's choice of art style deliberate based on the '80s setting (that's basically what games looked like back then, not to mention how correlates with the general gritty, ugly tone of the story and atmosphere), just like how the soundtrack is heavy on the synthesizers. Thought it was a nice touch.

I played some of the Vita version at E3 and, yeah -- the game doesn't play quite as well on a gamepad set-up. Felt really awkward and sluggish. Couldn't get into the same rhythm I can while playing on PC. I hope they improve on that with Hotline Miami 2, but... I don't know. So much of those problems stem from core design choices. Unless they manage to rebuild the mechanics, I don't foresee it fixing those issues on console.

#12 Posted by RonGalaxy (2868 posts) -

Just replayed it on pc with a 360 controller (originally played it on m+k). One of my favorite games of the gen. And not just for the 'style', but also because I love how fucking hectic playing that game feels. Felt badasss

#13 Posted by Opus (148 posts) -

I actually think it controls far better on consoles for only one reason; Having a stick assigned to movement in this style of game was far more precise than using WASD. I found it so much better that I was able to achieve the top score in every leaderboard, before everyone discovered how to glitch insane scores in most levels, I still hold the top scores in the stages that can't be abused. So there's my flexing; I've put a ton of time into all three platforms. I'd rate the Playstation version as the best, and Vita as the worst in terms of control in a game that's all about precision.

#14 Posted by GrantHeaslip (1518 posts) -

I always saw Hotline Miami's choice of art style deliberate based on the '80s setting (that's basically what games looked like back then, not to mention how correlates with the general gritty, ugly tone of the story and atmosphere), just like how the soundtrack is heavy on the synthesizers. Thought it was a nice touch.

That's a fair point -- there is at least a certain thematic consistency to the art style. But at the same time, I don't think chunky pixel art was a necessary aspect of the game's overall vibe, and I don't think it's even particularly well-executed pixel art. It's fine for what it is, but the music is what makes Hotline Miami's style noteworthy.

My issue here isn't really with Hotline Miami in isolation, its with indie darlings so often coming back to the same played-out (S)NES nostalgia well, and with very few people being willing to address the obvious reality that relatively good-looking chunky pixel art is relatively easy to create. At what point is this same pandering, low-budget art style no longer going to cut it?

@opus said:

I actually think it controls far better on consoles for only one reason; Having a stick assigned to movement in this style of game was far more precise than using WASD. I found it so much better that I was able to achieve the top score in every leaderboard, before everyone discovered how to glitch insane scores in most levels, I still hold the top scores in the stages that can't be abused. So there's my flexing; I've put a ton of time into all three platforms. I'd rate the Playstation version as the best, and Vita as the worst in terms of control in a game that's all about precision.

That's crazy impressive! I was happy making it through levels at all.

#15 Posted by Coafi (1481 posts) -

I can't play this game at all, I'm terrible with the mouse and keyboard. I tried it with a controller and I am equally as bad, I could only get through the tutorial. I wanna love this game because of the great things I've heard about it but, the game doesn't wanna love me.

#16 Posted by c_rakestraw (823 posts) -

That's a fair point -- there is at least a certain thematic consistency to the art style. But at the same time, I don't think chunky pixel art was a necessary aspect of the game's overall vibe, and I don't think it's even particularly well-executed pixel art. It's fine for what it is, but the music is what makes Hotline Miami's style noteworthy.

My issue here isn't really with Hotline Miami in isolation, its with indie darlings so often coming back to the same played-out (S)NES nostalgia well, and with very few people being willing to address the obvious reality that relatively good-looking chunky pixel art is relatively easy to create. At what point is this same pandering, low-budget art style no longer going to cut it?

Don't know. I assume most resort to pixel art because its easy to produce on the cheap. Maybe as more indie developers receive bigger budgets we'll start seeing pixel art become less dominant.

#17 Posted by chilipeppersman (1145 posts) -
#18 Posted by pyromagnestir (4240 posts) -
#19 Posted by Slag (3995 posts) -

@grantheaslip:

resurrecting this, Not sure why but I had a hankering to give this another go. Maybe it's because I've been playing Saints Row of late and just in a mood for simulated mayhem. But this time it really hooked me, I just finished the game about an hour ago.

Not sure what it was, I think in may case it might have been using an Xbox 360 controller with my PC. I started playing this last night and almost couldn't stop.

On the Steam version the controller lockon is mapped to R2/RT, which is much much better than R3. And at least for me I found the hit boxes to be more forgiving than I remembered. I ended up rarely using lockon since when using melee weapons and the shotgun I found I could aim faster and more effectively using the right stick, but when I needed to it was snappy. Fwiw I think you stopped at the toughest chapter or second toughest chapter in the game imo.

But I also got to really like the incessant failure, maybe it's just my background playing Baseball (where failing 7 times out 10 is considered very good) but I suspect it's how fast and seamlessly you restart from checkpoints after dieing. It made dieing feel relatively pain free.

when I stopped caring about beating a level and went with a Vinny Open World Quick Look mindset of just seeing what mayhem I could do I had a lot more fun and surprisingly this game seems to really reward recklessness. When I went through levels nearly full tilt I seemed to do much much better not to mention the levels started to play out more dynamically which helped the game feel more varied even though I was reattempting the same level dozens of times. That's a completely different style from how typically I play games, but man once I did that was when the game clicked with me.

The violence is what it is, but I'll excuse it in this case given the story and amazing atmosphere the game accomplishes (from the pulsing colors in time with the thumpin music to the swingin camera). And man does that story get next level nuts a little further in than where you stopped.

#20 Edited by GrantHeaslip (1518 posts) -

@slag: Weird -- you wrote this right as I was posting a new blog! I guess I never got around to writing it anywhere, but shortly after writing this, I got the PC version in a Steam sale and tore through it. I didn't come to love it, but I found playing it with a mouse much less frustrating. At the very least, I do think I get what's cool about Hotline Miami, but I don't think it's for me.

You're absolutely right about how satisfying it could get to play super recklessly, especially when it often worked better than I expected. It's the kind of twitch game that you get really get "in the zone" with.

And yeah, the secret ending (I watched it on YouTube) in particular went in a direction I didn't anticipate.

#21 Posted by Addriano (2 posts) -

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#22 Posted by Slag (3995 posts) -

@slag: Weird -- you wrote this right as I was posting a new blog! I guess I never got around to writing it anywhere, but shortly after writing this, I got the PC version in a Steam sale and tore through it. I didn't come to love it, but I found playing it with a mouse much less frustrating. At the very least, I do think I get what's cool about Hotline Miami, but I don't think it's for me.

You're absolutely right about how satisfying it could get to play super recklessly, especially when it often worked better than I expected. It's the kind of twitch game that you get really get "in the zone" with.

And yeah, the secret ending (I watched it on YouTube) in particular went in a direction I didn't anticipate.

heh funny how that happens sometimes.

oh cool. I'm glad you got to play it through since your original blog had you stopping right when thing started to get interesting in a way I figured you might appreciate , the story imo I think is a critical element in making this a noteworthy game. Maybe just as much so as the soundtrack.

I must have got it off the same steam sale you did as I've been sitting on this for months now and boy am I glad I bought it. I don't think I gave this game a fair chance my first go around with it. Without that Steam Sale I would have just written it off. Kinda funny how controls can make or break an experience like Hotline Miami.

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