If there’s one type of game that hasn’t seen much of a revival thanks to the indie development explosion of the last couple years its the top down style of games that was made popular by the Grand Theft Auto series. It should be no surprise really as these kinds of games tend to be quite limiting in what they can do thanks to the fixed perspective, often limiting them to puzzle type games like To The Moon or the aforementioned predecessor of one of today’s most successful third person shooters. Hotline Miami then is the first game in this style that I’ve played in quite a long time and it does not fail to disappoint.
Hotline Miami winds back the clock to 1989, dropping you (funnily enough) in the tropical megalopolis that is Miami. You play as an unnamed man who’s a contract killer, receiving all sorts of weird coded messages on your answering machine that are the location of your next target. At every scene the ritual is the same, you go to your car, don a mask to conceal your identity and then proceed to unleash all sorts of hell upon the people contained within that building. However as the game goes on your world begins to slowly unravel and you start to question what’s real and what isn’t.
As I alluded to earlier Hotline Miami does feel a lot like the original Grand Theft Auto did back in the day with the top down perspective and pixelart graphics being the main factors behind this. However unlike Grand Theft Auto you’re not limited to simple up/down/left/right movement and thus the game plays a hell of a lot more smoothly than it or any other top down game I’ve played in recent times. This is also probably due to the fact that it uses the GameMaker engine underneath which supports DirectX which ensures that no matter how much action is on screen you won’t experience an ounce of slow down.
The developers behind Hotline Miami have described it as a “top-down fuck ‘em up” and that description could not be more appropriate. The aim of any level is to clear out all the enemies out of a particular section and there are several ways to go about it. You almost always start off with nothing so your first victim will likely be taken down by the liberal use of your fists applied directly to their face. After that you’ve likely got your hands on some form of weapon which you can then use to dispatch enemies at a much faster rate. Of course there’s also a myriad of guns available should you be able to pry them away from their current owners but the use of them has a price.
Hotline Miami also incorporates stealth as a game mechanic which, depending on the level, you will almost certainly have to make use of from time to time. This also means that the use of guns will attract all enemies within a certain radius to you which can be both a good and a bad thing depending on the situation you’re in. It’s actually quite a neat little mechanic as there are many levels that can be easily breezed through with a knife but will be hell if you try to use any kind of gun, something which I found out after repeating a single section dozens of times.
There’s also a rudimentary levelling system in Hotline Miami which is based off of your score given to you at the end of each level. Now I couldn’t quite figure out how the scoring system worked (as the above screenshot shows I always seemed to score above the total points, unless that isn’t it) but it did appear to be directly related to when I’d unlock something. There are 2 kinds of unlockables in Hotline Miami: masks and weapons. Whilst the latter is somewhat out of your control (weapons are all randomly generated) the former can put quite an interesting twist on how levels play out and can be crucial to certain play styles.
The masks will confer some small benefit to you which is loosely based around the animal/thing they’re based off of. Most of them are simple things like extra ammunition or faster executions but others can be nigh on game breaking in terms of the benefits they bestow. My favourite by far was Don Juan as that one turns doors that you open onto enemies lethal which usually allowed me to fire off a single shot, run behind a door and then proceed to eliminate the entire room with several doors to the face. Playing that way might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it was pretty damn fun racking up massive combos in that fashion.
What really lets Hotline Miami down though is the bugs and crashes. I noticed at the start that it asked me if I wanted to disable SteamWorks as a few people were having trouble with it and at the time I thought I’d keep it on just to see how it played out. After about an hour or so I got a (handled) exception and the background sprite failed to render which wasn’t game breaking as I had just finished the level at that point. However after that I started getting unhanded exceptions on a particular level (I think it was “Clean Hit”) and they persisted even after multiple restarts and disabling SteamWorks.
The only way I was able to progress was opening up the saves.dat file which was thankfully not binary and had a pretty easy to decipher structure. Essentially I unlocked a couple levels ahead of myself so I could skip over the level that was causing it to crash and whilst this let me play the next two levels the crashing started happening again much to my disappointment. I’m not the only one experiencing this either and thankfully it looks like the developers are onto it. If I’m honest it would probably be worth waiting for the update before playing it again as it can be extremely frustrating losing your progress in a level, even if it might not take that long to get back there.
The story of Hotline Miami is a surreal experience with the initial encounters being relatively normal (save for the talking to the masked men section) but they slowly morph into what seems like a fever dream that your character is experiencing. It’s intriguing mostly because of all the little clues scattered throughout the game that seem to hint that your character is coming unhinged and you start to question what’s real and what’s not. I haven’t had the chance to finish the game fully due to the extensive crashing (I’m up to the last level, however) so I can’t comment on whether it concludes well or not but suffice to say the story is much more than something tacked on at the end to keep you playing.
Hotline Miami is a brutal, psychedelic beat ‘em up that excels in making over the top violence extremely fun, to the point of you worrying about what kind of person enjoying this game makes you. Whilst it might be plagued with crashes that will frustrate many Hotline Miami really is good enough to make you want to keep playing, something which surprised me as I’m not usually that tolerant. If you’ve been pining for the days of the original Grand Theft Auto then Hotline Miami is right up your alley and I dare say that you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more.
Hotline Miami is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was approximately 2 hours with 9% of the achievements unlocked (probably more due to the lack of SteamWorks and plethora of crashes).