The overall tone is reminiscent of the film Drive, which is no accident. Dennis Wedin of developer Dennaton Games tells me he loves the movie and that it was one of the inspirations for Hotline Miami. Apart from the music and visual style, Hotline Miami has one other element in common with Drive: horrific, unflinching violence. Even with the pixelated presentation and overhead point of view, Hotline Miami is intensely graphic. It was hard to grasp the story in my very short play session, but the main character seems to be a hitman of sorts. Regardless of his profession, his primary mode of interaction is pretty clear: killing.
Asked to retrieve a briefcase (presumably from people who shouldn't have it), I hopped in my car and drove. Upon arrival, I donned a rubber wolf mask and made my way through the corridors of a building. Encountering my first enemy, I ran directly toward him ready to attack ... and was summarily struck down with a bat to the skull. Hotline Miami is unforgiving, and a single mistake means death. Thankfully, it also means an instant respawn. The second time, I made sure my blow landed before his. After knocking him to the ground, I slammed the goon's head into the floor to finish him off.
Movement is controlled with the keyboard, while aim is handled by the mouse. The scheme takes a bit of getting used to, especially if you been weaned on twin-stick shooters like Geometry Wars. Before too long, it makes perfect sense. The action of Hotline Miami is deliberate and meticulous, and taking someone on without a plan is an invitation for a quick death, even more so if multiple threats are involved. A weapon – like the aforementioned bat – is essential, though it's still not a guarantee of safety. Enemies attack you on sight and can also be alerted by loud noises (like gunfire), so you have to be careful if you don't want to be outnumbered.
All of this is a very technical explanation of what will soon become second nature. Within a minute I was painting bloody scenes of my own, the thumping music driving me forward. I crushed the skull of one enemy with a bat, then whirled around to toss the bat at a second. The blow knocked him down and his knife flew from his hand. I used the knife to cut down a third assailant before returning to the second and finishing him off.
The scene is grisly and, somewhat paradoxically, made more violent by the retro visuals. Wedin tells me that the game received a 12 from Germany's USK rating board, a fact he seems to find as baffling as I do.
All in all, I might have spent ten minutes with Hotline Miami, though I suspect it was actually closer to five. Again, picture an action film. The hero stands at the ready, takes a breath and kicks down the door. Once the killing starts, it ignites a destructive chain of events that doesn't end until the last body hits the floor. Only then can the hero stop, survey his work and, finally, exhale. The whole scene plays out in two minutes, but the intensity of the action has a way of elongating time, making the audience appreciate each moment. The difference is that Hotline Miami's audience is also the hero.
How do you say no to that?