Hotline Miami is an extremely puzzling game.
Well, no, that’s not quite right. Hotline Miami is a fairly straightforward game; I’ve played it for just under three hours, finished it, and have a reasonably good hold on what the game is about now. It’s a top-down murder simulator with extreme psychotic/psychedelic tendencies, a bloody and warped window into yesteryear that would probably make me feel quite ill if the graphics weren’t intentionally primitive enough to make it clear you’re playing a video game. What I don’t understand about Hotline Miami is the amount of critical buzz it’s getting. It’s one of those games which crops up every now and again; one of the ones which makes certain stylistic choices that cause games journalists to perceive it as something rather more arty than your average game, and consequently abandon their critical faculties in favour of writing the most godawful adulatory purple prose you ever did see, which is why most Hotline Miami reviews read something like this:
You slam the door into a guard walking by it. He falls to the floor, stunned briefly, at which point you jump onto his chest and beat him to death. You grab the crowbar he dropped, sprint to a wall to remain out of sight. You watch and wait as two more guards patrol up ahead. One has a gun, the other a bat. When the latter has his back to you, you sprint fowards, throwing the crowbar as you go to stun the one with the gun. You punch the second one to the ground, grab the crowbar then beat them both to death with it when they stand up again.
You move through colourful buildings full of angry little guys, and each room is like that bit at the end of a Mexican standoff when someone pulls the trigger and everyone dies in a split second: you crash through a door, which knocks a guy to the ground, then sprint six feet to cut a guy’s throat before he can raise his weapon, quickly throw the knife backwards as someone bursts through the doorway to investigate the commotion, and then straddle the guy you knocked out and smash his head to mush on the concrete floor. There is no time to think. There is no ‘think’.
I punched open the front door, knocked down the first guard, stole his knife and threw it into his colleague’s neck. Before the second wave of guards could step out of the patrol room, I’d sliced them in half with a samurai sword stored in the maintenance closet. I ran into a bathroom, grabbed a man from the urinal mid-stream and tossed him to the floor, printing his face in the decorative tiles. Three guards approached the room, but they didn’t know I’d trained a shotgun on the doorknob, just waiting for them to enter. And when they did…
And this is interesting to me, because all of these reviewers appear to have been playing a different game to the one I bought. One in which the controls are tight enough and the enemies predictable enough to pull off these little sequences of murderous ballet. I have never had an experience in the game like the ones mentioned above; in fact, if I were writing a review of Hotline Miami (well, I am writing a review of Hotline Miami, but you know what I mean) the above passages would read something like this:
I punched open the front door, knocked down the first guard, stole his knife and threw it two inches to the left of his colleague’s neck because the game can’t make its mind up whether it wants to do directional or point and click aiming, and was immediately reduced to a bloody smear on the ground because you don’t get the latitude to make even one mistake in Hotline Miami.
You crash through a door, which knocks a guy to the ground, then sprint six feet to cut a guy’s throat before he can raise his weapon, and then straddle the guy you knocked out and attempt to smash his head to mush on the concrete floor. Except because there is no option to “dismount”, as it were, another goon had all the time in the world to walk up behind you and stove your brains in because you were dumb enough to actually try to make the finicky execution mechanic work. You’ll never be doing that again; it makes you too vulnerable.
When the latter has his back to you, you sprint fowards, throwing the crowbar as you go to stun the one with the gun. You punch the second one to the ground, grab the crowbar then beat them both to death with it when they stand up again. And then you’re shot from off-screen by a baddie you didn’t even know existed through a window you had assumed was a wall, because even though it’s a nice stylistic choice the 8-bit top-down graphics do have their limitations
Hotline Miami is a conflicted game. It’s couched in this wonderfully surreal and hallucinatory visual style where the screen continually shifts around and is tinged with ever-changing shades of brown, green and yellow, and I think that managing to pull this rather sick and diseased effect off without making the person playing it want to physically retch is quite an accomplishment. The plot – in as much as the game has a plot – is also very Lynchian, although to be honest that’s true of most videogame plots and it’s only because it’s placed in an environment where logical non-sequiturs seem appropriate that this one fits. Still, it works, and the game should be applauded for that. But this stuff is the equivalent of set-dressing, and in the part of Hotline Miami that matters – the part where you actually play it – the game can’t quite seem to decide what it wants to be.
Does it want to be Super Meat Boy with more murder? SMB shares lots of mechanical similarities with Hotline Miami: an unforgiving difficulty level, a lot of dying and instant restarts. At first it seems like you’re supposed to learn the levels and complete them incrementally, getting a little bit further with each run. But Super Meat Boy, much as I hated it, was an entirely predictable game. You knew how the world would react to your inept fumbling and it was only your tragic lack of skill at running and jumping that kept you from completing the levels. Super Meat Boy was also a precise game, with your little meat mannequin responding exactly to your commands even if those commands were “Run into this whirling sawblade.”
By contrast Hotline Miami is neither predictable nor precise. The enemy AI has a sizeable random element to it, and not in a good way. On one run you’ll be able to walk up behind somebody and hit him with a baseball bat. On the next he’ll psychically sense you coming, whirl around and shoot you right in the face before you can react. On one run you’ll go crazy with an assault rifle and draw every single guard in the area to you, eventually being killed through sheer weight of numbers. On the next you’ll successfully clear out this small army of assailants only to be capped by a guard who inexplicably didn’t hear the mass-murder of his co-workers in the next room; you see him coming but you just weren’t expecting him to be there after every other guard dropped what they were doing to try to turn your head into bloody mush, and this blunts your reaction time enough for him to shoot you right in the face. On one run you’ll successfully knock a guard over with a door. On the next the door will inexplicably phase right through him (presumably because you didn’t get the positioning quite right) and he’ll shoot you right in the face. On one run a guard will drop an iron bar. On the next run the same guard will drop an assault rifle, letting you shoot guards right in the face. Sometimes guards will react to seeing the mutilated corpses of their friends and come looking for you. Sometimes they’ll ignore it and carry on patrolling on their merry way. Sometimes they’ll hear your supposedly silent melee kills from the next room over. Sometimes they won’t.
Death comes quickly in Hotline Miami. One bullet – one punch – will end your rampage before it’s even begun, and when this lethality is combined with the game’s inherent unpredictably it results in a lot of deaths I would term as “bullshit”. Because they’re not predictable enemies will often appear where they shouldn’t be; because your field of view is limited it’s next to impossible to see them coming 1; because they’re so accurate once they catch sight of you they will shoot you; and because one bullet kills you you will die. There’s nothing wrong with Hotline Miami shooting for a high baseline level of difficulty, but there is very definitely something wrong with a game where death all-too-often comes out of nowhere and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it.
This is exacerbated by Hotline Miami’s controls being absolutely godawful. Your little psychopathic killer moves like a tank, meaning WSAD moves his body while the mouse rotates his stick/gun/whatever to point at various threats. Left click uses his weapon, right click either throws it or picks up a new one, and the space bar is used to leap on top of stunned enemies and smash their heads in. That’s it. That’s like, two buttons beyond the most basic level of control possible in this sort of game, and Hotline Miami still manages to produce a system so finicky and imprecise that a lot of the time I felt like I was fighting the controls more than I was the dozens of goons populating each of the game’s levels.
Many of my problems are down to the game not being able to make its mind up whether it wants to do directional aiming or point and click aiming. Directional aiming would demand a small amount of auto-aim (or at least larger hitboxes on the guards) that isn’t actually present, so I guess it’s supposed to be point and click. Except of course the cursor moves with the screen which is moving with your character and the person you’re aiming at is also moving and there’s often multiple targets and if you’re even a hair off of the person you’re shooting at you’ll miss and draw return fire that kills you. Pointing and clicking simply doesn’t work because using it properly is just too slow, and so most of the time I was trying to use the system to do a bastardised sort of directional aiming, except this led to its own problems. The aiming cursor is outlined in white. The guards are all dressed in white, and sometimes inhabit rooms that have white floors. It’s very easy to lose track of where the cursor is during a brawl, and this is a problem because unless you are facing in exactly the right direction to land a hit – melee weapons have very small arcs – you won’t, and the guards will kill you2. You end up doing the shoot ‘em up thing of constantly backing off so that your opponents form a trailing line more-or-less in front of you, but of course this will only work if they don’t have guns. If they do have guns you likely died before you even made it through the first sentence of this paragraph.
This leads to the optimal play style for Hotline Miami being one that is a very long way removed from the ejaculatory stories related in the review snippets above. What you do is, you find a door. Doors are your friend in Hotline Miami. You hide on one side of the door – not in front of the door, because it has an unpleasant habit of blocking all of your shots while letting the guards through – and make some noise. Wait for the guards to blindly rush through the door and into your sights. Shoot them. Make sure there are no more guards coming. Advance to the next set of guards. Find another door.
I don’t find any particular pleasure in completing a level in this way. I’d love to do it the way those reviewers described. I’d love to play a game in which the controls were precise enough and I could react fast enough to do that. A game that is smooth, fluid and predictable, with fights that involved skill and planning instead of being a series of chaotic, messy brawls where you frantically mash the fire button until everyone dies. Hotline Miami is not that game, though. It makes some pretence at being that game by giving you a score every time you kill a man and combo multipliers for killing lots of mans and a level rating based on a bunch of poorly-defined factors such as “Exposure” and “Flexibility”, but ultimately this is just a sham. Every time I tried to play Hotline Miami the way it seemed I was supposed to I died, and it was rarely through my own ineptitude or poor forward planning. I’ve been told that the game’s chaotic nature is supposed to be the point and that you’re meant to react, not plan, but it simply doesn’t control well enough or provide you with enough information to play it that way.
So what is Hotline Miami, then? It’s a series of ultra-violent melees where success is based on trial and error and a large quantity of luck. You kill men until there are no more left to kill, and then when you exit the level you have to walk back past their smashed and bloody remains. This is probably supposed to be a neat reminder of what you’ve just accomplished, but since most of my levels were pristine except for one huge pile of corpses in front of a door it merely rammed home just how shallow the gameplay is. And these are actually the best bits of the game, believe it or not; it’s riddled with absurd boss battles and a single, inexplicable and utterly infuriating stealth section. It’s also riddled with bugs.
Hotline Miami did not work when I downloaded it on the evening of release. It brought up an error and then crashed to desktop. This was not an uncommon problem. People who tried to use controllers with the game found that the controllers simply didn’t work, and that simply attempting to do so meant the game would accept no other input from any other device. This was also not an uncommon problem. The developer patched it inside of 24 hours by disabling Steamworks (ha) and controllers (double ha), but many other bugs remain, and those bugs led to the finale of my experience with Hotline Miami being rather farcicial.
In the opening paragraph of this review I mentioned that I’d finished the game. That’s not quite true. I made it to the end boss, and put up with having to endure his scripted dialogue every time I died while I figured out what I had to do by trial and error. Eventually I got him down to the final stage where he whipped out a pair of Uzis and started shooting at me, and in my attempt to avoid the double stream of bullets I accidentally opened a door that wasn’t supposed to be opened and glitched into the limbo outside the confines of the level. I then dashed back inside, grabbed a knife and made to stab him… and then the game brought up an error message and crashed to desktop. This was the point where I decided I was done with Hotline Miami. Its bloody violence can be mesmerising at times and its three hour length means that it doesn’t hang around long enough to really get on your nerves, but it’s got way too many issues with bugs, controls and baddie AI for me to recommend it.
- Ludicrously your vision range is shorter than the vision range of the enemies unless you stop and hold down the Shift key to look ahead, which makes no sense when this game is played from the top down perspective. That’s not just a stylistic choice, it’s one that has logical consequences for your gameplay, and arbitrarily limiting the player’s field of vision like this inhibits their play and actually discourages the fluid murderous rampages that most games reviewers went to great pains to describe in detail. ↩
- The odd exception to this is the protagonist’s default fist attack which is perfectly capable of laying out multiple assailants with a single blow ↩