Shotguns and Shag Carpets
Hotline Miami is a top-down action-adventure game set in the dark criminal underbelly of 1980s Miami. In it you play as an unnamed individual, travelling to specified locations and systemically slaughtering the armed thugs inside at the order of a succession of mysterious phone calls. It’s a game that fascinates me because it utilises a very punishing level of difficulty and strong elements of stealth games, both features that have never been quite my cup of tea, and yet from the moment I click that “Play” button I can’t tear myself away.
The basics of Hotline Miami are easy to grasp; you can move, you can look around, you can lock onto enemies, and you can use the weapon you're currently holding, these are almost all of your abilities. They come together with the level and enemy design to create gameplay that consists almost entirely of two kinds of moments; those where you’re scoping out the rooms ahead, working out how you’re going to take down the enemies based on their weaponry and placement, and those where you’re rushing in and trying to cleanly and efficiently dispatch your targets. Enemy AI is deliberately simplistic, standing in place or following obvious paths until engaged, but once they catch sight of you they’re very quick off the mark, often meaning there’s a split-second between successfully putting down your foe and receiving an unwelcome chest full of crowbar.
Good reflexes are essential, as taking a single hit will mean you have to restart the current floor from the beginning, however, careful planning is just as important. Your tools of the trade come in the form of both melee weapons and guns, but weapons can only be obtained from fallen enemies, and only one can be carried at a time. Guns allow you to take out enemies faster and more safely than melee weapons, but have limited ammunition and attract other nearby foes. Throwing weapons at enemies can be used to knock them to the floor, as can opening doors onto them as they pass, but finishing them off leaves you momentarily open to attack.
The back and forth between simple but satisfying strategy and flashes of impacting action is what makes Hotline Miami's gameplay what it is. In another game constantly having to replay relatively small sections might be frustrating, but the simplicity of the game means it lends itself to repetition, and the moment-to-moment thrill of skilfully taking out rooms full of people and feeling every blow as your weapons connect with your targets are a large part of what keeps the game so consistently compelling. However, the game’s soundtrack no doubt helps in this department too.
A series of measured but catchy electronic tunes provide Hotline Miami with what has to be one of the best soundtracks to appear in an indie game. Not only is the music enjoyable to listen to within itself, but it complements the levels perfectly and helps keep you focused. The game’s graphics also act as an integral part of the experience, coming in the form of pixel art soaked in the colour and style of 80s Florida. Levels are given real personality by their detail, from their garishly-coloured bathtubs to their old-school disco floors, and beyond the walls of each building neon colours can be seen pulsing rhythmically and flashing brightly with each kill. Every one of your successful hits is depicted in a brutal and bloody fashion. The mix of hyper-violence, surreal surroundings, the relatively low detail of the pixel art, and the top-down perspective give the kills a sense of slightly eerie detachment. While it’s often fun just to paint the carpets red and litter the floors with corpses, occasionally you can see the elements of the game coming together as a whole to create an almost disturbing atmosphere around the bizarre and merciless job you’re tasked with.
Hotline Miami is not the longest game in the world, but each mission is topped off by your score being totalled up and you being graded on your performance. Combos, speed, how riskily you played, and other factors are all taken into account in your assessment, so there's plenty of replayability in trying to score ever-higher on each level. In between the systematic slaughter of the hit jobs, the game is punctuated with the protagonist’s short visits to bars, video shops, and other locations. They may not seem very worthwhile at first, but they add a surprising amount of character to the game, and without going into too much detail the story manages to make its way down a genuinely interesting path. It’s very cryptic, it requires some thinking about to really get, but there’s something of real substance there for those who want it.
Of course, the game isn’t without its flaws. Most of its problems feel like a moderate number of small things that add up, and you get the sense that they could have been purged from the game if it had spent just a little more time in testing. Probably the biggest hole in the design is that it’s possible for enemies to run into you and end up under your character sprite in such a way you can’t attack them. You can be literally on top of them, but if they’re behind your gun barrel or can’t be caught in your melee weapon swing, your attacks just won’t hit them. Another common problem seems to be that in pausing and unpausing the game, the floor and scenery of the levels can vanish entirely.
Other issues I encountered included not being able to complete a level because it wouldn’t let me interact with the object I needed to, not being able to finish off enemies because it wanted me to be centred rather specifically on them, and seeing AI become stuck on corners. Fortunately none of these problems put a major wrench in the game's systems, but these annoyances are rather undesirable to encounter, especially when they indirectly cause you to die.
A small handful of bugs and technical weaknesses aside, every one of Hotline Miami’s ideas feels skilfully executed on. Dull moments or areas which lack imagination just don’t exist in this game, and with every machine gun fired, every brick thrown, and every room cleared, Hotline Miami is an exciting and addicting journey through an unusual yet expertly-styled experience.