A phone rings. A voice on the other end gives you a cryptic message with an address, and you head on over in your DeLorean. You pull a mask over your face, enter the building, and kill everyone in it. It’s not a clean or easy job. You use whatever weapons you can get your hands on- pipes, bottles, shotguns, pistols- even getting your hands dirty by executing a few dazed survivors via strangulation or head-stomping. You leave no survivors.
Why...? Why not? Don’t you like hurting other people?
Hotline Miami is a deeply disturbed game. If it had come out around the time the chunky sprites suggests it did, it, not Mortal Kombat, would have been unjustly lambasted by parents and senators. If the graphics were more realistic it might be unplayable, because it’s just that horrifically violent. It's not just the stupefying amounts of violence on display- the protagonist gradually losing touch with reality is just as dark. But hey, you have to kill these people because you don't, they will kill you. They will kill you anyway, hundreds if not thousands of times.
Anyone who’s played Super Meat Boy understands persevering through constant instantaneous death, but Hotline Miami will certainly test the hardest of us. Our hero can be killed instantly by a hit from any weapon, be it baseball bat or bullet, and the frantic speed of the game means that sometimes you’re dead before you know it, mashing that X button in order to reset the level and jump right back in. Since you can die so easily this means that navigating each level becomes something of a puzzle. You learn to be wary of enemies carrying guns, learn when to kick down a door and take down the guy behind it, when to be silent and just kill with your fists, executing them when you knock them down. Rooms full of enemies become a challenge- run in swinging a pipe and hope they don't draw on you in the time it takes to get to them, or pick up a gun and blast from the door?
The real danger of being killed at any moment makes for an tense and exciting experience unlike anything else, the kind you’ll get sucked into and lose whole hours to without knowing it happened. Each time you restart the game new weapons will be placed and enemies will follow different paths, making you change your tactics on the fly and keeping you constantly enthralled. There’s a temptation to stick with one weapon and cheese your way through a level but the only way to get a high score is to change up your methods of destruction, so you’ll likely be grabbing and throwing away weapons and killing as fast as you can in order to keep the combo going. High scores not only give you bragging rights on the new leaderboard but also unlock new weapons (which aren’t selected, they just appear randomly in levels) and masks. The masks are a big part of the game- you start with a chicken mask and move on to all sorts of animals, some of which give you powers that will change your playstyle completely. The Alligator gives you more gore (How?!?), the Panther lets you walk faster, the Grasshopper starts you off with a drill. There are 27 to collect.
PC gamers know what’s up. Hotline Miami splattered onto the PC late last year and rightly earned a huge number of awards and perfect scores. It somehow feels at home on a console, though. There’s something perfect about playing it with a controller on your couch, watching it on the big screen and hearing the amazing Drive-inspired soundtrack pumping through your system.
While the WASD and mouse controllers worked fine for PC as a dual-stick shooter it works terrifically. You’ll use the triggers used to grab weapons, attack, zoom the screen and lock-on to enemies, leaving your thumbs free for moving and aiming. I don’t have a Vita to test but expect the controls to be a little cumbersome, since you have to tap the touchscreen to lock onto enemies and swipe to scroll the screen. (If you’re one of the three people that own a Vita- the game comes with cross-buy and cross-save support. That means that if you buy the PS3 version you get the Vita version, and with cloud backup you can continue playing your same game no matter which one you pick up.)
As far as new features the only real one is Russell, a new mask dubbed “The Raging Bull”, which turns the visual style into one of those tacky wedding photographs. You know the type I mean- black and white punctuated with points of red. Of course, by the end of a level you'll have red seeping over nearly every inch of the screen from unattached limbs, splattered heads, and gouged eyes.
But you don't need new features- this game is perfect as is. It's the kind of thing that has to be experienced to be understood. So go on- hurt some people.
Hotline Miami is available right now on Playstation Network for $9.99. PC Gamers can jump in the action at GOG, where it's currently half-price. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is in the works and will pick up where the surreal, twisted story left off.