There were times when I felt like one of those grinches that was always complaining about how games these days just can't match up to games from the days of yore and that there's no innovation and all that. You know the type. I'm glad to say I was rarely like that, but I sometimes felt that way. Well, no more. Hotline Miami took that part of me out, dragged it into an alleyway, and destroyed it in a bloody mess so like the ones present in the game itself. It will be several more years before I can say "there are no good new games anymore." And before you say anything, no, I don't like this game just because it's retro. It's quite the opposite, in fact. Hotline Miami is anything but old; the visuals are pixelly, but get past that and everything about the experience this game provides is totally new and unique. This is through and through a new game and a new experience, the kind we haven't seen before, and it's that experience that I want to talk about in this review. Let me go ahead and use the game's announcement trailer as a jumping board (it's only a minute long, please watch it).
The reason I show this is because I think it does a great job of showcasing all the things that make Hotline Miami such a good game. The stylish, surrealist story. The brutal, fast-paced gameplay. The self-questioning. The MUSIC. See, one of the reasons I love this game is all the reasons it gives you to play it. This is a game you can unironically say you play for the story, a game you can play for the high scores (if you're into that), a game you can play for the amazing vibe, or even a game you can play for the - get this - gameplay. It gives you a lot of reasons to play and enjoy it, far on the opposite side of the spectrum of a certain other game that will remain unmentioned.
I guess I'll begin with the gameplay so you have a better context. The controls are dead simple: mouse to look around, WASD to move, left-click to attack, right click to throw/pickup weapons, and R to restart when you die. More interestingly, though, everything in Hotline Miami is one-hit kill, and that holds true for both you and the enemies (except for the bosses, which makes them stand out even more). There aren't any special moves or tricky controls to confuse things, so there isn't a whole lot else to the mechanics of the game. It's when these things are combined with the level design that the game reveals what makes it so fun.
If the game just took place in straight corridors and wide open spaces it would be an utter failure. The mechanics don't support that kind of game at all. Instead, Hotline Miami takes place almost exclusively in cramped, cluttered buildings, and that makes all the difference. I once saw this game described as a "predatory stealth game," and that's. . .fairly accurate. Perhaps describing it as a stealth game would be generous, but the predatory part is certainly an excellent description. See, this game isn't so much about beating people up as it is the process behind it. You die. You die so easily. Every map is essentially a fight to overcome that fate in the most efficient manner possible (because efficiency usually results in survival). The first few seconds of every level are always (and if not, they quickly will be) devoted to assessing what you can see about the enemies, their positions, their weapons, where they're clustered, where they're patrolling. The game forces you take in the level design and study it. Based on that you make your plan of attack, and then it becomes a "reflex" game (and a very tense one, at that) in which you test your ability to execute said plan. The more you play, die, and explore (you can almost never see the entire map at once), the more refined and deadly your plan becomes, until you at last succeed and overcome that part of the level.
Now, please don't think even for a second that any of this is boring. Between the music, the tension, and constant flow of new information (new parts of the map, enemy movement, etc.), there's never a dull moment. Furthermore, there's a real sense of urgency in Hotline Miami. For one thing, it's frightening. And I don't mean that in a "scary horror" kind of way, but in an "Oh lord, oh lord, they're going to kill me so quickly, oh lord" kind of way. Believe me; when everybody can kill you in one hit, you learn to develop a healthy fear of them. With each level you just kind of want to get through and dispatch your enemies as quickly as possible so that they no longer pose a threat to you. Adding to that overall theme is the horrific violence your character commits. You know, the game knows, your character himself knows. Obviously, this varies from player to player, but I very much just wanted to get in and out so I - or rather, my character - wouldn't have to brutally murder anyone else (despite being so enthralled by the mechanics of it) and could go back to his normal life. Also adding to the urgency is something that happens at the end of the very first level (and unspecified other levels), which I won't spoil for you. Suffice to say, it makes sure that you don't want to take too long and that you don't stand there and do nothing after beating a level. And finally, you lose your combos if you wait too long, so if you care about the points that's another element that brings haste to the game.
Put those two things together and you have what is not just an archaic, point-driven reflexive shooter, but a truly exciting, visceral experience that requires you to think and plan. That's not what I like best about the gameplay, however. The more you play a game, the better you get at it. That's obvious. However, Hotline Miami is very much a game that forces you to become better at playing it if you want to win. What's cool is that it's also game that encourages and supports your growth as a player. Every level forces you to become better at both itself and the game as a whole, and it teaches you that in very simple ways. You start to learn - by matter of experience - your character's capabilities. Okay, so I can't make it down the hallway before that enemy shoots me. Well, I can't take out both these guys at once, but if I throw my weapon as I approach them I can take out the other one in time. Oh I see, sometimes it's best to wait until the patrolling enemy walks in front of a door so I can just knock him out by opening it. It's little things like these. The game is teaching you how to get better at playing it even as it requires you increase your skill. Because of that, the game remains fresh, challenging, and fun throughout.
So that's the game. Slap on some amazing wave music, make the pixellated backgrounds flash neon, and you have a very fun product. But this alone wouldn't make Hotline Miami really special, at least not in my mind. No, the gameplay is a part of it, but what really makes the game stand out is its story, or rather the way it's told.
The basic premise of the game is that your phone (or rather, an anonymous caller) is giving you thinly veiled orders to go out and kill Russian mafia members, which you do in a spectacular fashion while wearing a rubber animal mask. Set in Miami between Spring and Summer in 1989, you execute your massacres everywhere from drug dens to discos. Now, the story is almost entirely optional. You can go through nearly the entire game ignoring it if you want, though that would be a mistake. What makes this particular narrative so great, though, is the presentation. Each mission starts off with an intro in your apartment. You start in your room, have to go to the phone to get your orders, and then walk down to your car. It's a very brief sequence that takes maybe 30 seconds, but it tells so much. The newspaper clippings that sometimes litter the counters, the little scenery changes like the trash piling up, and especially the way the apartment very gradually changes after a certain event all tell you things about your silent, unnamed in-game avatar. Almost every level is roughly a week apart, and these things are a great touch that really make you think. What's this guy's normal, day-to-day life like? How does he feel about these calls? What makes him keep doing these things, especially after that event that I won't mention for sake of spoilers? What kind of a person is he? Maybe this all sounds a little crazy, but it's made others (and certainly me!) at the very least curious about the things beyond what we're shown in the game, so I know I'm not totally insane.
The other aspect of the story that I feel is worth mentioning is the surrealism. The main character is slowly going crazy, until he finally breaks and distinguishing between which of these in-between level elements are real and which are not becomes difficult, if not impossible. What makes it cool is the gradiation; since you can't really pinpoint exactly when he starting going crazy, or when he became more crazy than not, you are forced to retroactively question how much of what you've seen actually happened. The levels are the strong links, you always know that they happen. Everything else, however. . .I suppose this kind of thing isn't for everyone, but the way in which it actively engages the player makes it extremely worth mentioning.
Now, I've been referencing the music in passing throughout the review now, so I suppose I should discuss that at least briefly. Put most succinctly, the music in Hotline Miami is amazing. Made up primarily of synth wave music, the soundtrack adds incredibly the the 80's vibe. Beyond that, though, every track is appropriate for its use. The apartment track is a slow heavy song, almost grungy, full of despair and hope at once, depending on how you look at it. The large variety of tracks used in the levels themselves range from hypnotic to. . .even peppy in nature. Most have an expedient, steady, and loud backing beat that keeps your adrenaline and urge for speed up, while a few others are almost cathartic in nature, keeping you calm as they continue to guide you through the level. The boss battle soundtracks are usually a blast to listen to, and I also noticed that certain songs have a "revving up" progression to them. So essentially, the music is pumping you up for the big fights. Wherever it's used, the music in Hotline Miami is some of the best integrated I've ever seen, and beyond that it's fantastic to just listen to (at least if you're a wave music fan like me).
I think I've said my piece, so I'll just wrap up with one final area to explore, one I'd be remiss not to; the violence. I'll be blunt. Hotline Miami is really, really violent. It's brutal, it's horrible, and that's the point. There's such a massive discord between the psychotic actions of your character on missions and what a normal person (which we can assume he is when he's not a mask-wearing killer) would do that you have to stop and ask questions. And it's the questions, I feel, that make the game so engaging. It's probably safe to say that your character has a split personality, if not multiple ones. That helps explain a lot of the surrealism, and without the excessive violence you'd never be tipped off to it as well. There's also the matter of how you personally react to it - indeed, as the trailer asked: "Do you like hurting people?" - which I feel adds a lot of depth and personal re-assessment to the experience. This certainly isn't major, but I felt it was important to note. I've seen this game characterized as "violence porn" and I noticed certain stores using the number of different death animations as a selling point, so I wanted to clarify that's not really what it's about. Though if those are selling points for you (for whatever reason), then power to you, I guess.
Hotline Miami is the best game I've played in years. That may not mean much coming from me, but even so you'll definitely be able to enjoy it for the breakneck gameplay, the pulsating, perfectly-utilized soundtrack, the retro vibe, and/or the way it just oozes style. If I still had large amounts of faith and investment in game awards, then I'd be heartbroken and crushed if this game didn't win Game of the Year.
Plot/Narrative: Surreal, stylish, and engaging, the story in Hotline Miami is one of the best and certainly the best incorporated that I've seen in a long time. It's elegantly weaved into the background, allowing you to ignore it, but offering you so much should you choose take notice. Perhaps the story itself isn't groundbreaking, but the presentation and the way it limits what you see is excellent.
Gameplay: It's surprising even to me that I say this, but I think Hotline Miami is the most perfected this particular genre (unexplored though it may be) will ever get. Fast paced, wonderfully designed, balanced to provide you a challenge and help you overcome it at once, and totally in sync with the narrative. You really can't do much better than this.
Visuals: The visuals in Hotline Miami are. . .certainly decent. Despite being pixellated, there's an excellent clarity to the visuals. The main reason I hold the visuals in such high regard, however, is because of how they add to the style. Between the neon lights, the pastel colors, the white dress clothes look all your enemies sport, the strangely ugly people, and the retro look, the visual style in Hotline Miami makes itself very unique. On its own, this would be an accomplishment, but when put into synthesis with the rest of the game, it becomes truly outstanding.
Sound: Despite being made by a large variety of artists, the music in Hotline Miami tends towards a single atmosphere. While that's impressive enough on its own, every track is used nigh perfectly, and the neo-synth/Wave aspects further enforce the 80's vibe. The effect noises are all wonderful as well, most of them making you wince and the rest feeling just right. All in all one of the more impressive audial experiences I've had with a game.
Overall: There's a very exclusive list of games I have where every member is my favorite video game of all time depending on whether or not it's the one I played most recently. Hotline Miami is the fourth and newest addition to that list, and I doubt it's leaving anytime soon. If you like action games, games with stories, or games with great soundtracks (or if you just like seeing good game design in action), then I cannot encourage you enough to give this game a try. Perhaps avoid if you have a strong aversion to pixellated blood or violence, though I would personally consider this a reason to overcome those aversions.