“Use a knife” reads a message crudely scribbled in permanent marker on the wall of the Hotline Miami booth at this year’s Eurogamer Expo. Good call: one well-placed shot kills both you and foes but this being part-stealth, part-murderous rampage means a blast of a shotgun will draw fire your way.
Had I the time, “practice makes perfect” would have been my Dark Souls-esque tip left for the many who gravitated towards the booth and waged war with a dark horse contender for best indie game of 2012. Dennaton Games (part this guy) were absent but their masterpiece was laid bare for people to gleefully infuriate themselves with. Smiles all round, worn with gritted teeth as the game got the best of each person over and over. Routine seeps in; in a sinister move on the developer’s part, unpredictability from the first moment you lay eyes on the game to the gazillionth time you attempt to master a chapter is a noticeable quality.
Hotline Miami’s beauty lays in the eye of its beholders. On the surface there’s the antiquated, NES-era aesthetic and a glorious pulsating soundtrack; beneath there’s a top-down ode to Drive and the old GTAs with gratuitous violence aplenty and a fluidness that invokes a true feeling of furious enjoyment. Everything happens fast, several attempts flashing by an instant. It’s the distinct feeling of urgency, this compulsion to do things quickly with ugly finesse that turns Hotline Miami from a frantic curio in to a manic treasure trove of barbaric entertainment.
Short of research I’m not sure what the premise for the game is. That urgency is made apparent from the very beginning, an introduction sequence featuring a grizzly mentor-style man passing you through a tutorial with fast-food efficiency; Hotline Miami doesn’t fool around and quickly asserts itself as a game that expects you to go swimming in the deep end first but at least does the courtesy of showing you where the pool is.
From what I experienced, the premise for each chapter is that you’re ‘hired’ to go to somewhere in 80’s neon-blessed Miami and murder a bunch of people. You have the ability to choose an animal mask out of many that each offer their own individual perk beforehand: one will improve your accuracy, another will start you off with a shotgun. The idea here’s that the person hiring you for some reasons wants to wear an animal mask as you go about your grisly business, but you at least get to choose which silly one you sport.
Step into each building and be on your merry way, but prepare to accept that you’ll probably die in the first minute and it’s going to take you plenty of attempts to stay alive long enough to actually get the job done. Blood flies everywhere and a lot’s your own: the enemies you face are as good as you are and they can be scarily efficient in a flash, especially if you let your guard down. Ammo doesn’t appear to be a major issue in the early days but melee weaponry seems to be the better choice if enemy density isn’t a huge issue. That said, the first mission does at one point see you enter a floor of a building with four enemies in one room who’ll attack you within a second of appearing on-screen if you don’t scout. Accept death, and plan.
Get the kills you so desperately want after a few minutes of playing and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most disturbingly entertaining experiences videogames can offer. The WASD control scheme coupled with high sensitivity aiming means that you almost glide through environments, and timing your kills to perfection – be they heavy blasts with a shotgun or stealthy knife kills with a swift follow-up finish for instance – is more gratifying than many will care to admit. Between the guilty laughter and cursing you’ll find yourself quite animated; if the game’s for you though you’ll persevere through the more frustrating moments with a huge grin on your face.
Whether or not Hotline Miami could be regarded as subtle commentary on the casual desensitisation of violence in games and the acceptance that action-oriented videogames have an inherent violence within them is up for debate. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a riot and an immensely enjoyable surprise of a game, even if as a guilty pleasure. It’s the next Super Meat Boy, instant continuous reward with a welcome challenge, yet as an added bonus there’s just a touch of moral ambiguity to make you think… if you can tear yourself away from the game long enough to think about the twisted insanity you’ve just exposed yourself to.
Hotline Miami can be pre-ordered for £6.29.