At the behest of a mysterious trio of men in animal masks, the nameless protagonist travels to numerous seedy locations – clubs, drug dens, crime lairs – and proceeds to extinguish every living soul on the premises. The abilities at your disposal are limited to the bare essentials: Melee weapons and guns can be swung, shot or thrown, and enemies can be executed. On top of all this, you can only hold one weapon at a time. It's a limited tool box, but it allows for a surprisingly broad variety of possibilities.
The reason for that is twofold. First, each enemy that wanders the levels presents both a threat and an opportunity. Play your cards right, and an incapacitated goon's weapon can be yours. Second, there are numerous weapons littered about each level, some random and some predetermined. As a result, each encounter is a careful study of a given map's layout, followed by a horrific, escalating daisy chain of violence.
Spot someone patrolling the halls with a hefty lead pipe? Catch him unawares, deck him, snatch the pipe and beat his brains in. Pipe in hand, burst through a nearby door, knocking one thug to the ground as you rush the second, smashing him over the head. The blow handily loosens his grip on his shotgun, which you can grab to dispatch the other henchman, who's just now picking himself up from the floor.
Making a plan is much easier than executing it though, and death is nearly as frequent for the player as it is for the scads of lowly criminals. You'll encounter plenty of situations like the one described above, some planned and others completely off the cuff. In the same situation, for example, the shotgun blast could attract nearby guards you hadn't accounted for. Soon you find yourself tossing an empty shotgun into the intruder's gut and then finishing him off with his own knife. When all is said and done, you're the only one left standing, surrounded by corpses.
Plenty of games try to convey the feeling of being a ruthless, efficient killer, though most do so by pulling control out of the player's hands. A high-flying assassination, the balletic, simultaneous disposal of six terrorists – these are actions that most games assign to a single button press. The distinction here is that Hotline Miami puts every kill directly under your control, leaving every nuance to you, including the possibility of failure and death. And you will die, though thankfully restarting a mission is instant, and Hotline Miami's scoring system rewards speed and boldness.
In many ways, Hotline Miami's presentation is much more effective at examining the nature of violence than its story. Ironically, the simple, pixelated visuals actually seem to amplify the effect of the bloodshed. Suffice it to say that the contrast between the NES-era graphics and extremely graphic violence is pretty jarring. The levels rock back and forth as you walk. Everything flickers, the music thrums and buzzes, as if the whole world were made of neon. The way in which Hotline Miami is presented – creepy animal masks included – makes you question the sanity of its main character. It's appropriate, given his apparent occupation, and the effect becomes more pronounced as he moves deeper into the criminal underworld, culminating in a sort of frantic desperation.
Meanwhile, the narrative is minimal. The motivations of our hero (if you can call him that) are never very clear. He seeks answers from the masked men, despite their assurances that he won't find any. Hotline Miami takes a few stabs at making the player question his actions, though ultimately the attempt falls flat, perhaps because the first ending I got seemed to suggest it was all meaningless anyway. Another ending offers a few answers, though they aren't terribly satisfying.
The answers, however, are beside the point. The point is well-executed action, resulting in well-executed bad guys and the high scores that come with them. Those looking for a challenge in planning, reflexes and dexterity – and those with the intestinal fortitude to witness the scads of gruesome deaths that result – will be well served by Hotline Miami.
This review is based on a PC download of Hotline Miami, provided by Devolver Digital.
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