21 March 2015

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number review

Hotline Miami 2 is the sequel and apparent conclusion to one of the biggest indie hits of the past few years. Its distinct visuals and thumping soundtrack, mixed with brutal top down based gameplay, made it stand out and earned much commercial and critical praise. Myself included; the first Hotline Miami was something fresh, short and very entertaining. It's fast pace and difficult gameplay balanced out with its quick respawns and the satisfaction of a perfectly executed plan, even if it did take 50+ deaths.

So some time later and we have Hotline Miami 2, which has been in development for a surprisingly long amount of time (the original came out in 2012). I've had the chance to play this game two times before at a couple of local game shows and it definitely gave me the impression that they were heading down the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' approach. 

It retains the much of original's style: The over the top pixelated violence, the top down view, the exact same tight controls, an awesome soundtrack and satisfying gameplay. Even the (sometimes annoying) auto lock makes a return as well. This should be unsurprising as this sequel started out as DLC for the original.

As anyone could tell you who has played the first one, Hotline Miami 2 is an extremely fast paced game, following a kill, die and quickly re-spawn pattern.  The goal of each level is not just to complete it, but to master it and do it in the fastest time with the best combo. The best moments of the game happen when you are totally absorbed in the game and music and execute a perfect run of a level. 

What makes the game hard, and quite unique, is that most enemies will die in one hit or shot. The twist is that you're just as vulnerable. One wrong move or mistake will result in death, with your blood covering the floor and walls. This creates gameplay where it demands the player play to perfection, which may be off putting to some, but overcoming that challenge results in gameplay that is thrilling, fun and addictive. 

Every expletive will be used during the numerous deaths, but for the most part the difficulty rests just on the side of being difficult but not too annoying to make the player want to quit. However, as the game progresses the level designs grow larger to multiple levels featuring long hallways that result in some cheap deaths from getting shot from an off screen enemy.

Games like Super Meat Boy excel due to the fact that every death in the game was completely down to the player. Unfair deaths in a game where perfection is demanded just make for a frustrating experience. Dying in a situation that wasn't you fault at the end of long and hard stage is the literal worst.

The long levels wouldn't be as much of an issue if when replaying or continuing a level you could select which section you wanted to play. If you turn off the game, rage quit, or if the game crashes and you have to restart the game, which happened to me 3 times, you have to start the level from the beginning.

To deal with this new focus on larger levels, guns have to be more heavily relied on than melee weapons, which, while fun, don't make the player feel as powerful or as skilled. The main problem with this happens when the game forces you to use certain characters with certain abilities for some levels.

This is where the main differences from the original start to take place.

You play as a cast of rotating characters throughout the game, each with their own quirks and abilities. You can play as a masked group of fanatics, where gameplay can change from being able to control two people to using twin-Uzi's that you are able to point in opposite directions, to the non-lethal reporter who refuses to use guns. While some levels you can choose who to use, for some stages you are forced to use who the game has chosen. 

Exploring and testing out how these different abilities work into the gameplay can be really fun and change how you have to think to complete the level. Unfortunately this is a double edged sword as this leads to less creative freedom in how you can complete the level, and focuses more on how to figure out the intended path this character is able to take. While this introduces some much needed variety into the gameplay to make the sequel stand out from the first, it highlights the some of its negative elements.

For example, while you want to be able to run in guns blazing with the twin-Uzi character, spraying bullets everywhere, the game essentially punishes you for trying to do so. Because of the amount of long range enemies, for some situations, you eventually have to resort to luring them around a corner and taking them out one by one. Especially if you're stuck to using a single weapon because the character you're using cannot pick up other items.

The multiple characters also incorporates into how the story is shown. It tells a fragmented, non linear story that jumps from characters in different locations and time periods. It's told at a decent enough speed with enough moments where you start to understand how the characters and story start to come together that make it enjoyable enough. It provides a mix of surrealism with standard storytelling, resulting in the game cutting in and out of a movie setting where the director yells "cut" at the end of a level. Characters in the game experience moments that break the fourth wall where the game mocks its own ultra violence. The whole menu system and level transitions are made to look like a VHS boxset, reflecting the late 80's/early 90's setting the game takes place in.

While it doesn't give a satisfying conclusion and creates more bewilderment than satisfaction, I found the story and placing it all together one of the better aspects of the game. It follows on the story of the original game and because of the non-linear story order, it fills out the origins of some of the characters in the original. Although, I can see how this disjointed and at times bizarre story may turn some people off. However, as any cut scenes can be skipped and be selected to not be shown altogether when replaying levels this may not be too much of an issue for some people.

I guess my biggest problem with Hotline Miami 2 is how scared it is to take any chances on doing anything too different from the original. While the new characters, story and music give it just enough of an identity to make it stand out from the original, the gameplay is essentially the same but with more restrictions. With its extended length I would have expected the developers to be always trying something new to keep the players interested. The annoying part is the game does start to have some new ideas towards the later parts of the game. It introduces new enemy types, tries new visual tricks and uses more set pieces. If these had been spread across the entire game better and expanded upon, it would have made for a much more involving experience.

Another thing I must mention are the amount of bugs and glitches in the game, which is surprising considering how long the game has been in development. Key items spawning outside of the map, certain actions not being triggered or being stuck outside of the map have all happened to either me or people I know within a few days of playing. And of course these bugs require you to start the level all over again.

I know it sounds like I'm being very harsh on the game, but overall I had a very fun time with Hotline Miami 2. It's more of Hotline Miami, which is a very good thing in my book. I just wish that it would have been a bit more daring when it came to trying something new and didn't have quite so many cheap deaths. The controller support for both Xbox and Playstation controllers is great and the length of the game is satisfying especially considering the price and replayablilty factor. Unfortunately, there just isn't a lot that this does that Hotline Miami didn't do better. Well, except for the soundtrack (Seriously, listen to this).

To end on a more positive note, the upcoming level editor, to be released as an update in spring, could change everything. The ability the create and share your own levels, using the variety of characters, enemies and weapons already in the game, could lead to levels that fix any gameplay issues I had with the main story and create hundreds of other quality levels to play. Watch the trailer for it here. 

Give it a go if:
You liked the original Hotline Miami and want more
Your up for some fast paced difficult gameplay
If you think that soundtrack is too good (which it is)
You can shrug off the occasional cheap death

Skip it if:
The extreme violence isn't your thing
The music and visual style don't appeal to you (You monster)
You want a relaxing and stress free time
You want a straightforward and simple story

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