Hotline Miami Review
Indie games on PC have had a big boost in the last year, and it seems like that's happening for multiple reasons: people are getting sick of $60 AAA blockbusters, Steam is making it easier to bring indie games to their service, and these Humble Bundle-type deals are bringing indie gaming to a new audience of players that are realizing that no, gamers don't have to spend a day's pay just to be entertained. The latest game that I hope takes advantage of this craze is Hotline Miami, a fast-paced, top-down affair with such an insane and unique theme that it's hard not to be intrigued. But what starts out as a wild first impression turns into genuine enjoyment, as Miami successfully connects the drug-fueled, neon-lit world of Miami in the 1980s with hard-hitting combat that reminds you of those days in more than way.
You play as some guy who's crazy or on drugs - or both - that works as an enforcer for what seems like some kind of crime syndicate. Before every mission, you choose a rubber animal mask to put on, presumably to hide your identity, but mostly just to be really friggin' weird, and throughout the game you unlock new masks, each with one special property that mildly affects the gameplay. One mask allows you to move faster, another causes more guns to spawn in a level, and another will change your abilities, like allowing you to do a faster melee execution or kill a guy (rather than just stunning him) when you slam a door into his face.
The game is laid out in a top-down fashion, but there's no fog of war here; just hold the Shift key and you can plan out your approach pretty well. You'll need to plan, too, because your enemies in this game have split-second reaction times, and if your plan is to charge all the way across the room to swing a crowbar at a guy that's holding a gun, don't expect to get to him before he pulls the trigger. Instead, you'll need to find a gun elsewhere or enter the room from a different side if you want to succeed.
But "going loud" in Hotline Miami brings its own challenges, too; melee attacks won't alert thugs in another room, but any gunshot you fire will usually bring at least a couple of guys - later in the game, half a dozen or more - into the room. You can use this knowledge to lay a trap and wipe out half a level's enemies all in one doorway, or you can fumble things entirely and wind up dead on the floor. The slightly random nature of weapon spawns and enemy movements will contribute to this, too, as characters will do sometimes unexpected things if you've been doing multiple retries on a level when trying to get through it. Sometimes this randomness will help you, and other times it just gets you killed.
Not to worry, though, as Hotline Miami follows in the style of Super Meat Boy in that it's quite a difficult game, but you never lose much progress if you eat a bullet. Most levels have multiple floors of a building you have to clear, and each floor serves as a checkpoint. This way, you've only lost seconds' worth of gameplay at most upon death, and next time around, you can try something new or just hone your execution. And by execution, I mean actually executing people. Well, and actually enacting your plan, too, but mostly the killing.
The game grades your path through each chapter based on your speed, flexibility, resourcefulness, and brutality, giving you both a letter grade and a final score in each level. Generally, you're rewarded for using a wide range of weapons and tactics, and comboing multiple kills together always nets you big points. What is there to do with these points? Nothing, really, except for maybe bragging rights with your friends. It's a high score, and you will have to share those scores with your friends the old-fashioned way, as there are no leaderboards. Frankly, I kind of like it that way.
Hotline Miami brings us SNES-style pixel art from the top-down perspective, but it also loads up on colored lighting - and if there's one era that needs colored lighting in a video game adaptation, it's the neon-soaked motel rooms of 1980s Miami - and other effects to deliver a wild fever dream of a game. It's intensely violent, too, with plenty of nasty kills and tons of blood. You can turn nearly any level in this game into a scene from Scarface or really any violent gangster flick, and while the art style and perspective require just a little bit of imagination to do that, this game does properly evoke those times and that style. The trippy soundtrack from a range of artists just reinforces the game's overall atmosphere, and there are some great songs here along with some weirder ones that do more to strengthen the strange, almost indescribable feeling you get playing this game than they do getting you pumped up for combat.
As a PC game, Hotline Miami isn't exactly the most advanced out there. It's got WASD controls for movement and a mouse for aiming and shooting, but you can't reconfigure controls in any way, 360 controllers are currently broken as of this writing and awaiting a fix, and there aren't really any options to play with in settings. If you want to play with a gamepad, I'd definitely suggest you wait for developer Dennaton to get that support working before you buy - pay attention to the game's Twitter feed to see when that fix goes live.
Another issue is that Hotline Miami induces a lot of screen tearing, without any control of VSync available to the player - even forcing it on in the nVidia control panel didn't fix the issue for me on either of two PCs. There's no way to choose screen resolutions, window modes or the like, and while this is an indie/budget game, that's not really not an acceptable state for today's PC games to be in here in 2012. Additionally, the game doesn't really keep a dedicated save point for your session; instead, it relies on chapter and mask unlocks that are saved separately. This means that if you have to quit out of the game and come back later, you might lose a screen or two worth of progress, as you'll have to restart a chapter, but it's really not a big deal; just, if that kind of thing bothers you, make sure you complete a chapter before you quit out of the game.
Hotline Miami is difficult and violent, but it's not aggravating when you lose, and it's very rewarding when you win. The art style and crazy theme are like almost nothing you've seen in games before, and the simple but frantic action will keep you coming back for more. Sure, developer Dennaton Games could have added to this concept in many ways, but this is their first retail game together, and it's already jam-packed with brutal combat - and the $10 price tag on Steam sure doesn't hurt, either. Just be aware of the technical issues, and maybe wait until you hear of fixes if you're concerned about them. If you're a fan of neo-retro games that push the boundaries of good taste and challenge the idea of what "sane" means, then Hotline Miami is a must-have. If you don't like any of those things, that's cool. I hear another couple of guys made a really fun game about spaceships about a month ago. Check that out instead.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a Steam copy provided by the publisher.