Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

Hotline Miami was an action game disguised as an art game disguised as an action game. It was about mood as much as hair-trigger score chasing, and it made the two work together in a way that few games manage. For the adept, able to clear each stage with a half-ingrained, half-improvised run of deadly plays, it was about the fragile thrill of raw power. For those who struggled through each stage over the course of a thousand deaths often the same person, just at an earlier stage of their development it was about punishment: the catharsis of violence being met with sudden violence. To the extent that it stumbled, it stumbled when it tried to pin a specific point to that general feeling. On the whole, it was a powerful success.

Hotline Miami 2 lacks that power and falls a long way short of the same success. It has nothing else to say. The action game part of the equation is present and largely unchanged, although the tweaks Dennaton does make are to the detriment of the whole, while the art game is substantially weaker. An appropriate successor to the original would share its urgent disregard for whatever came before it, but Hotline Miami 2 is utterly rooted in the past. This is the type of sequel that we traditionally associate with the lumbering mainstream: the by-the-numbers expansion on the same ideas, the bolting on of more that makes the whole weaker.

Much is the same. There’s the same hazy neon, the same sunset over the same score screen, the same parallax-scrolling skyline fading from orange to purple. On paper, the game itself is the same. You enter a level with a mandate to incapacitate every person in a given building. Your toolset begins with punches that send foes sprawling, opening them up for brutal finishing moves. You can take the fallen’s weapons and use them, and the toolset is familiar: pipes, knives, shotguns, machine guns, and so on. Anything can be thrown to knock down or sometimes kill, while guns run out of ammo and are discarded. When you load a stage, the position and gear of enemies is subtly randomised, requiring you to improvise a deadly solution using the tools to hand. Any damage from any source kills you instantly. You tap R, you restart, you try it all again.

Although this formula remains unchanged, here it is undermined by weak level design and a problematic overall structure. Good Hotline Miami levels provided you with lateral freedom if one approach wasn’t working, you could try something else. You could attempt something dramatically different or something more cautious, or you could select a different mask, which placed one of several modifiers on your character, and use that to open up new options. Here, that freedom is stifled. While a number of levels offer multiple routes, the majority are fairly linear, more like puzzles than stages for improvisation. Static snipers, durable roaming enemies that more or less mandate the use of guns, and other blockades all act as funnels.
The mood, the music and the scoring system should step in to fill in the cracks. Only one of these is successful
It’s a far more gun-heavy game than its predecessor as a result. It feels less fluid, with comparatively few instances of knife-fight dexterity or brutal melee combat. Then there are the weaknesses in Hotline Miami ’s AI, which become apparent at long range. There’s a little of the stealth game in  Hotline ’s DNA, but here there are enemies that might snipe you from half a map away in one encounter and totally ignore you in the next. Distant enemies get stuck in doors. Dogs can be found spinning on the spot in the area where they spawned. Legacy collision issues have not been resolved, either doors and bullets will still pass through enemies they should harm, and so on.

It is here that the mood, the music and the scoring system should step in to fill in the cracks. Only one of these is successful. The first game experimented with divergent narratives in its second half the moment you shifted from one character to another was striking, carefully premeditated, and played an important role in bringing the game to a close. In Hotline Miami 2, you switch characters, playstyles, eras and even realities on a mission-by-mission basis. The plot jumps between 1985, 1989 and 1991, between dreamscapes, movies that might be dreamscapes, reality, and reality that might be a movie and might be a dreamscape. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s not opaque in the way the original was. It’s not enigmatic, just all over the place.

This lack of focus wounds the game itself. Only a subset of the characters use masks at all, and these are akin to functionally different characters. Your moveset is substantially limited by who you are controlling, then: one character has access to a gun and a knife and can’t pick up items at all; one begins every level with two guns and has to use them before he can pick up anything else; one character is, in fact, two, a killer with a chainsaw and a killer with a gun. One of the characters refuses to kill and will throw away any lethal weapon you attempt to pick up. Some of these ideas are novel, but they work against the way Hotline Miami plays because they limit the room for improvisation.

Hotline Miami 2’s singular, standout success is its soundtrack. Dennaton has assembled a phenomenal collection of atmospheric ’80s electronica by artists such as Carpenter Brut, Jasper Byrne, and Perturbator. Where the spirit of the original remains, it remains in the music, in the moments when the synths, the action and the pulsing neon all click together. Hotline Miami 2 contains these elements, as its predecessor did, and it is capable of generating an analogous degree of success from time to time. But the formula is off many of the new additions do not work and so the odds of that success have decreased. You’ll gain faster access to that feeling if you just play the original again.

Crowd Control
Hotline Miami 2 includes a level editor, accessed from the main menu but marked as ‘alpha’ at the time of writing. This allows players to build their own stages from any of the component parts available to the main campaign and, as such, it’s an open-ended solution to the weaknesses of that campaign. Eventually, it’s feasible that Hotline Miami 2 could become a hub for much better Hotline Miami stages than it offers today. Given that Dennaton has already confirmed that there won’t be a Hotline Miami 3, this is a hopeful note to end on. From this point on, Hotline Miami more or less belongs to its community. The value proposition that this sequel represents stands to increase substantially should it take advantage of the tools provided.

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