The original Hotline Miami is one of my favourite PC games of all time. The gameplay, story and music made it one of the most complete games I have ever played. An ugly and discomforting one, but one I was hooked on for its brutality and tight, fast gameplay. I would not have said a sequel was necessary, but nonetheless I was thrilled to hear that one was to be made; it is in fact the only game I have actively looked forward to this year.
Enter Wrong Number, a game of similar length, but with far more flesh and context to answer the questions Hotline Miami asked. It would have been a safe and tedious move to copy the original game’s single protagonist storyline, so instead we have about ten characters with several overlapping narratives, set before, after and during the events of the first game. To fit with the game’s philosophy of messing with your head, these are not presented in order, and can sometimes be representations or hallucinations of what really happened, so you will need to pay attention or play through both games again if you want everything clear.
Tonally, the game has moved away from being trippy and towards disturbing. The controversial opening scene, which depicts what seems to be sexual assault before revealing it is a scene within a slasher film, sets the darker tone, which continues with the wanton destruction that the player inflicts on both the enemies and their characters. Aside from this opening, there is no other sexual content in the game, but the developers have included an option which alters the scene to remove the inferences of rape. The expression of such topics in the media should not be shied away from, but allowing the player to censor the game to their own wishes, as has been the case for a long time with options available for levels of bloodiness, is a courteous move by Dennaton, and I hope those who are sensitive about sexual assault and those who want their experience uncensored are satisfied with this compromise.
Playing a Hotline Miami game for the first time, or again after a long break, is a learning experience unlike any other. Instant death gives no leeway for mistakes, so as the difficulty begins to ramp up, so does your frustration, one level set at the harbour being my personal apex of rage. There were so many enemies, I couldn’t see how I could engage them without being mobbed to death. This is when you have to start thinking about the game as a puzzle, with your playstyle as one of several solutions. Fortunately, practice will make perfect, and I was soon stringing together enormous combos and getting high scores on the game’s leaderboards. If it was Dennaton’s intention to make the player see their acts of mass murder as only a series of obstacles over a number of repetitive attempts, thus sympathising with the mindsets of the disturbed individuals who you play, then this was a masterful piece of design.
Mechanically, the game feels good. Sadly, the original’s controls felt fantastic. Playing the two back to back, I noticed the original Hotline Miami’s controls were more responsive and quicker, which perhaps explained some of my initial failings in Wrong Number. It seems more beginner friendly, since you are less likely to charge in accidentally, but I miss some of the finesse I used to be able to exercise with Jacket. The enemies still have the same predictable AI, sometimes frustratingly blind, but at least it is consistent. But another unwelcome change from the original is the problem the enemies now have with doors, sometimes getting caught in the threshold and spinning helplessly, except they can be immune to weaponry in this state, which can break a good runthrough in a flash of dodgy coding.
The mask based ability system has been reduced, as each character now has their own individual power or fighting style. The majority of these are new, such as a dodge roll, or starting the level dual wielding SMGs. The most interesting are the twins Ash and Alex, who go into battle together, one with a chainsaw, the other with a pistol to provide cover fire. Sadly, they are nearly impossible to control, because the poor AI pathing means the gunner gets caught on the walls and furniture. The innovation I can appreciate, but I question how this made it through testing in this state.
There is one area where Wrong Number does improve on Hotline Miami, and that is musically. The soundtrack has been greatly expanded, and each level is now scored individually with licensed tracks from electronica and trance artists. The game cycles between aggressive loops to crush your enemies to, and slow tempo chill outs to wind the player down, and ties itself to the narrative very closely. I happen to really like this genre, so a game full of it is perfect for me, but even for those of you who are not so into the heavy use of synths and drum machines, it cannot be denied that Wrong Number would be so much less without them.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is an amazing attempt to recreate the disconcerting brilliance of the original, and while it is my favourite game of the year so far, it has failed to reach the bar by a hair. The mechanical changes are the main snag for me. An intentional slowing and simplification of abilities can be forgiven, although I am still confused as to how the door problem and the issue with Ash and Alex got through QA. The story needs the original for comprehension, but together Dennaton have made a compellingly visceral world between the games, and one that remains a thrill to experience. Wrong Number is short, only six to eight hours or so, but I am convinced that this is more than value for the £12 it costs. It has been confirmed that this is the end of the series, but Dennaton Games are going out on a high, and I urge anyone with the stomach for pixel ultra violence and a desire to experience the quality and innovation that the indie game scene can produce, to don the mask, and succumb to your animal instincts.