(Follow the link at the bottom of the page for the version with screenshots)
Underwhelmed. That's how I feel. That's how I've felt since the very beginning... since Hotline Miami was announced. Underwhelmed, and a bit confused by everyone else's giddy excitement. And here I am, still underwhelmed. No, I don't think it's a bad game. In fact I can't dispute most of the praise it's had heaped on it. The lightning fast strategic gameplay is unique and often fun. The bizarre story is interesting. The queasy hallucinogenic style is very well-realized. Objectively speaking, it's a pretty good game. But it didn't click with me, ever. I didn't get to the point where I actually looked forward to starting it up. By the half way point, I was no longer playing for fun... I was playing to finish it so I could write my review with a clear conscience. So I could move on to something less abrasive.
Ok, I guess I have to explain what Hotline Miami is, for the 4 or 5 of you that haven't heard of it by now. It's a game of nightmarish hallucinations and queasy neon. It's 1980s ultraviolence that invites some obvious comparisons with the movie Drive. But where Drive was a vaguely ethereal (if violent) dream, Hotline Miami is a fevered nightmare. Its violence is gratuitous, its difficulty curve is brutal, its colors are assaulting, its story is surreal and more than a little dark, and its music is of the "you will submit thyself to my funk" variety. The whole style is, as I already mentioned, very well-realized. I've never done LSD, but I expect this is what it's like. From the very beginning, you feel like you're trapped in an unnaturally rotten world. A sort of manic paradise gone very, very wrong.
And what does this all mean from a gameplay perspective? It means that you'll be killing a lot of people for no particular reason, with a variety of weapons ranging from hammers to assault rifles. It's a top-down action game with a twist--enemies die easily, but it only takes one hammer swing or assault rifle bullet to kill you as well. So no running and gunning. You have to carefully plan every assault. You have to think like you're playing a stealth game. The experience requires a lot of trial and error as well as lightning fast reflexes and precision aiming, and the feeling of incredibly brittle power combined with the graphic violence on display can be rather enjoyable. It's thrilling to burst into a room and turn it into a mess of corpses, debris, shattered glass, and blood in a matter of seconds. It can also be fairly satisfying to unravel the best way to approach every kill. Throw your gun to knock that guy over, punch his companion, finish him with a few brutal head bashes, grab his knife and slit the other guy's throat, then turn around just in time to dispose of a third man running at you with a machete. That's one room. Only a few dozen more to go. Maybe the next one is where you'll finally open fire with your shotgun and abandon stealth entirely. Maybe you can still keep quiet. That's Hotline Miami in a nutshell. Short moments of planning followed by even shorter bursts of graphic violence.
But there are some things that are simply annoying. For instance, it's really easy to lose track of your crosshair. I mean, to the point where it's hard to find the damn thing while you're just walking around, let alone in the middle of combat. It blends in far, far too easily with the rest of the environment, and makes it very difficult to be as precise as the game wants you to be. A related annoyance has to do with how the camera works. By default you can't see beyond the edges of the screen, but can hold shift to move the camera around and look further (i.e, actually see the same distance that your enemies do). Constantly holding down shift starts to feel uncomfortable, but otherwise you feel half-blind. It's a clunky mechanic, and it seems like an artificial handicap. Why couldn't the game have simply used the good old "center the camera midway between your character and the mouse" method? In general, looking around and aiming in Hotline Miami feel really off, which keeps the gameplay from quite living up to its potential.
Honestly, none of these issues are really gamebreaking. Hotline Miami still works, and playing it can still be pretty fun. It's got lots of annoying elements, but then some of my favorite games have lots of annoying elements too. Annoying elements can be looked past. It's just that I find the game as a whole to be repulsive, and its mechanical irritations are just lemon juice in the eye. Why do I find it repulsive? Well, let's start with the visuals. Sure, on the one hand they really do make you feel like you're seeing the world through a drug-induced haze. Like confetti cupcakes that have been vomited back up, Hotline Miami is full of jubilant color... but the color is garish and putrid. So as far as artistic vision goes, the visuals are great. On the other hand, they can be really hard to look at. Not just aesthetically, but sometimes even physically (particularly in the disco level). I respect that the visuals contribute to a greater sense of style, but at the same time I don't really like immersing myself in the sort of world they create, and I don't like how they make my eyeballs feel. The same goes for the music. Yes, yes... I know everyone loooooves the music. I don't think it's bad, it just comes off as abrasive. Driving electronic funk with lots of wah wahs, picky little treble motifs, and deep bassy farts. Again, it fits the game's whole style very well, but I still find it unattractive. Just like the rest of the presentation.
So... guess what the story is like?? Yup. Surreal insanity and dark humor, as expected. And it does a very good job with the whole hallucination thing. It can be intriguing to try and figure out what's going on, especially when things start to get really unhinged. Oh, and naturally it's quite ambiguous. The sort of thing people love picking over and philosophizing about. I think I've established before that I'm not a fan of that sort of thing, so I won't really comment on it. What I will comment on is the game's treatment of violence. From what I gather, Hotline Miami is supposed to be something of a critique of gaming's culture of mass murder, similar to Spec Ops: The Line. The problem is that its method of critique is hypocritical at best. See, in Hotline Miami you either kill everyone or you don't progress. Pure and simple. There are situations where it wouldn't actually be necessary to kill everyone, but all the invisible barriers won't disappear unless you do so. There are even a few situations where a helpless victim is pleading for mercy, and there's no reason to harm them, and yet you're still forced to gouge out their eyes or bash in their brains to continue. See, this sort of audience critique doesn't work if you're blaming the audience for decisions that you've made for them. You have to let people actually make the choices that you're condemning them for. You have to give them the rope and let them hang themselves. Otherwise, you're just criticizing them for playing your game in the first place. And that can still work, but it has to work purely as an artistic statement, and not as entertainment. See, making depravity fun and then criticizing people for enjoying it is self-refuting hypocrisy. It's a double standard. But that's exactly what Hotline Miami does. It forces you to kill people, makes the killing fun, then turns around and chastises you for having fun killing people. That's not deep moral introspection, that's self-righteous finger waggling. If you're going to ask why gamers enjoy violence, it's best not to be the answer to your own question.
Basically, I don't like Hotline Miami. It's not that I think it's a bad game, it's just that I don't like it. I don't like it because I find it obnoxious. A jacked-up pickup truck with no muffler and a Confederate flag painted on the rear window. A very in-your-face sort of thing that alienates with its loud demands for attention. An experience that I got some enjoyment out of, but mostly just wanted to get over and done with. And that's probably more a matter of me not being the target audience than anything else. I knew I probably wasn't going to love it, and I probably shouldn't have bought it in the first place. But now I don't have to touch it again until I replay it a few years later and invariably decide that I was completely wrong and it's actually one of my favorite games of all time. For now, I'd say get it if the concepts sound good to you, and steer clear if they don't. What you see is basically what you get.