You kick down a door, knocking the goon behind it unconscious. Grabbing his gun, you take out the next man you see, then shoot the first goon in the head just as he scrambles to his feet.
Most videogames sound more nasty and excessive once their events are written down. When rendered into black and white words on a page, the exchanges of gunfire and close-up killings in, say, Black Ops seem more disturbing than the events look as they’re folding on screen; like a 12A Hollywood action blockbuster, the violence in most games occurs in a flash, and is snatched away. It’s sanitised, prepackaged, meaningless.
In Hotline Miami, the reverse is true. Its top-down, chunky, 16-bit-like graphics serve not to temper its bloodshed, but intensify it. Waves of identical bad guys, decked out in white suits and pale blue shirts, are variously stabbed, gunned down, beaten with blunt instruments, or pummelled headfirst into hard stone floors. As the protagonist cuts a swathe through each chapter – composed almost entirely of claustrophobic interiors, usually seedy nightclubs or gangster hang-outs – the corridors and rooms fill up with corpses, discarded weapons and gore.
If Hotline Miami were a mainstream title, with the production values of something like Rockstar’s infamous Manhunt, it would probably be the subject of hand-wringing columns in certain UK newspapers by now. This is a game that is not only violent from a visual standpoint, but in terms of pace – unremittingly aggressive, each stage unfolding like a John Woo movie on fast-forward.
Bad guys will turn and fire on you the split second you enter a room. Often, you’ll be dead before you’re entirely sure what it was that killed you. No matter – with a jab of the R key, you’re back in the fray. Like fellow indies Super Meat Boy or Trackmania, there’s a compulsive rhythm to Hotline Miami, with the frustration of one abrupt death feeding a determination to get back onto the killing floor and try again.
Although the emphasis appears to be on murder, Hotline Miami is really a puzzle game. Each chapter offers up a new area full of bad guys, and each of them must be despatched before the next is unlocked. But with ammo in short supply and the protagonist hopelessly outnumbered, each stage has to be tackled differently; stealth is a reliable tactic, but there are times when only repeated blasts from a shotgun will do.
Masks add an extra layer of strategy. Unlocked as missions are completed, and selected before the next begins, they provide a range of useful power-ups – one renders dogs harmless, another arms the player with a knife from the start of the level. Another turns doors into deadly weapons, while still another dampens the racket from a gunshot.
A variety of destructible and bullet-proof scenery (including those glass bricks you often see in posh apartments) turns each level into an obstacle course – in this respect, Hotline Miami bears a vague similarity to the 1990 platform shooter Bonanza Bros, which offered up a less graphic mixture of slapstick, problem solving and violence.
Controlled with a keyboard and mouse, the process of sprinting and murdering feels slick and instinctive, let down only slightly by a secondary attack (mapped to the space bar) which doesn’t appear to be 100 per cent reliable – get the position of your assassin slightly wrong, and the expected close-quarters killer blow won’t occur. It’s a minor gripe, but one that can sometimes lead to frustrating and avoidable deaths.
It’s fair to say, too, that Hotline Miami has all the rough edges and quirks you might expect from a low-budget indie game – particularly one put together with Game Maker. Enemies will walk through apparently solid walls on some occasions, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether a floored goon is actually dead or merely unconscious among a sea of carnage. Only when they stand up and murder you with the nearest weapon will you know for sure, leaving the player with little choice but to pause in front of a stack of dead bodies and wait to see if one of them moves. It’s such a comical situation, it’s possibly an intentional inclusion on the part of the game’s creators.
It could be argued, though, that such quirks are all part of the game’s grungy, sleazy appeal. Its creators have successfully imbued every moment of Hotline Miami with the unsavoury atmosphere of a video nasty era exploitation movie, right down to its weird and apparently incidental backstory.
The anonymous anti-hero visits video rental shops, bars and pizza joints between missions, engaging in brief conversations with the proprietors, who may or may not be who they seem. And what are we to make of the masked characters who berate you for enjoying your deathly line of work?
A cloying sense of paranoia builds as the game progresses. A shifty-eyed cleaner begins loitering outside your apartment. A masked madman kills an entire building full of people, and has to be defeated in a bizarre, frenzied knife fight. There’s even the suggestion that everything that’s happening is some sort of hallucination. What can it all mean?
Hotline Miami is a febrile work of madness, and it’s difficult to think of another game that fuses gaudy graphics, pounding sound and speed of play to such a compelling, faintly horrifying effect. Pink numbers flash up bonuses as you slaughter gangsters to a deafening disco beat. Brains ooze out of battered heads. Windows shatter as shotgun blasts tear the protagonist apart.
There’s only one moment in Hotline Miami where the music falls away, and the mood shifts. Once an area’s cleared of enemies, the imperative ‘Get to the car!’ flashes up, leaving the player to walk back through the devastation they’ve caused. Even through the filter of its wilfully retro graphics, there’s something horrific about the mess left behind.
It’s a rare moment of calm in an insane, even monstrous fusion of shooter, puzzler and fever dream that has to be played to be truly appreciated.
Hotline Miami is available for PC now from Steam and GOG.
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