Hotline: Miami Preview
The first big video game to really dig into the seedy underground of 1980s Miami was Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a brilliant sequel by Rockstar that was released nearly ten years ago. (Yes, it's really been that long) Since then, a couple games have tried to recapture the neon lights and drug-addled minds of that era, and shows like Dexter and Burn Notice take on modern-day approaches to glorifying Miami's unique culture. But it's been a long time since we've seen a game try to hit on the more psychotic, drug-fueled side of Miami-based pop culture, and while independent game Hotline: Miami from developer Dennaton and publisher Devolver Digital is a bit limited in its approach, its wacky, retro art style, bumping soundtrack, and extremely fast and hyper-violent action make it something unlike any game you've seen before.
First things first: you're playing as some kind of crazy man who wears animal and insect masks as he butchers Miami's seedy underside of thugs and creeps. The way the colors flare and the whole top-down perspective - complete with 16-bit-era sprites - kind of twists and rolls, it becomes pretty obvious that this game was as much of a love letter to Scarface's more gory scenes as it is to Grand Theft Auto's bright colors or classic TV show Miami Vice's sensibilities. The game is split up into chapters with some rather short missions in each, and this is one of those games that, once you know what you're doing in each level, could conceivably be completed very fast. Of course, at first, you won't have any idea what each level's challenges are, and so you'll die a lot - by way of knives, metal pipes, dobermans, shotguns, assault rifles, and more. Of course, you'll also be killing plenty of people in overly violent ways with plenty of blood streaming, spewing, and pooling, and most of the weapons used against you can be turned on enemies. The deaths and retries happen instantly, so it becomes almost like a Super Meat Boy-style exercise of trial and error, along with a bit of planning, for players that want to make it through the tougher areas of the game.
The controls are simple, as the WASD keys move you, and an on-screen cursor is your aiming reticle. The top-down perspective makes this just a little awkward at first, but you'll quickly get the hang of it, and then very shortly after that you'll start getting killed repeatedly. Walking into a room, you'll have maybe half a second at most to do something before enemies react, and if that enemy happens to be holding a firearm, you're almost certainly dead, as they can also spin around instantly and will usually fire with pinpoint accuracy. So it's up to you to use your knowledge of what's going on in the level - your top-down view bestows an unencumbered view of everything on a level with no "fog of war" of any kind. Pop into the first room with the guy using the bathroom, punch him in the face, slam his head on the floor, and grab his assault rifle. Wait for the guy in the next room to walk by the door before you slam that door open, sprawling him out on the floor - and shoot the other guy that's sitting on the couch before he can pull his weapon. Then, enemies that hear your gunfire start streaming in, and you can calmly and accurately put holes in each one as they come into the room through another door.
Of course, this is when the plan goes how you want. An element of randomness in each level can throw off your game, and even then, a narrow miss with one bullet from a rifle or split-second hesitation can mean your death before you even get the next bullet out of the chamber. What's helpful is that the game considers every new "floor" - most levels consist of more than one - a checkpoint, so you never lose much progress. As you die repeatedly on a floor, you'll be honing your strategy for who to take out first, how to get your hands on a particular weapon, and when to "go loud" with guns, knowing that that's when everyone within earshot will come running. Then you've got to figure out where to position yourself to deal with incoming threats. Replay value will come by way of unlocking new animal masks to wear - each of which includes a different hidden effect - and in setting up big combos and high scores on each of the game's chapters.
Hotline: Miami is not the best looking game around, but its very unique and pixelated art style still has room for nice touches here and there. Blood will spew and pool, heads bounce and sometimes roll, and glass or drywall shatters when bullets impact around a room - all in glorious retro detail. For someone looking for a funky, irreverent kind of independent game, this is a perfect fit, and the surprisingly good electronic soundtrack fits well, too. On top of that, since the action is extremely fast and you never lose more than a few seconds' worth of progress, failing repeatedly becomes a learning experience rather than a punishment - although those later levels are very difficult.
The PC preview copy of the game I played is missing a few basic features, like enabling Vsync (the screen can tear somewhat badly on some PCs), setting even the most rudimentary of options, or configuring controls in any way at all. What I found a little bizarre is that there really isn't way to pause the game, as tapping the ESC key will drop you back to the main menu and erase your progress inside the chapter you're playing, leading to a loss of progress for us gamers that are programmed to tap ESC to pause a game. The game's already a blast to play and from a technical standpoint it works pretty much flawlessly, but I do hope they can work out these few kinks before the eventual release.
Hotline: Miami won't be taking the crown for the most complete depiction of 1980s Miami ever seen in a video game, but it's one of the weirdest and most original renditions of this crazy era you'll have ever seen. The action is extremely fast and while it could have easily become rage-inducing, the speed at which you can get back into the action and the way most attempts at a level end at least somewhat differently make it interesting and fun rather than frustrating and tedious. Hotline: Miami is set for release on PC, Mac, and consoles this fall.