Sometimes when you finish a game, you think to yourself “Wow, I really loved that and can’t wait to jump into more of this game.” Hotline Miami was that game for me – in my opinion, it’s a perfect game. So, when Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number was announced, I was beside myself in anticipation. More of that brilliant twitch shooting? Yes please. More trance-like eighties synth beats? Oh yeah. More subversive commentary about gaming and violence? Ok?
Where Hotline Miami launched you into the role of Jacket – the brutal antagonist who could clear a room full of thugs armed only with a hammer and his masked wits – HM2 throws you into a world with multiple protagonists. This is Hotline Miami 2‘s first step into the “You want more?” territory that the game oozes. However, what existed in Hotline Miami that doesn’t exist here is a sense of clarity, which is lost because HM2 is all about excess. It’s excessive in its violence, it’s excessive in its length, it’s excessive in its plot. It’s just plain excessive.
Let’s start with the violence. Much has been said already about the refused classification for this game, thanks to the inclusion of “implied sexual violence.” One of the first options you’re given is to select whether these scenes will play out in the game or not. Think of the option to skip the ‘No Russian’ mission from Modern Warfare 2, and that’s what’s presented for the sexual violence scene. It’s great that the option is there, but the sexual violence in Hotline Miami 2 is exactly as the classification suggests – implied. The scene itself takes place right at the beginning of the game as you progress through a level following on-screen prompts outlining how to perform actions. The novel take on this is that this is in fact a scene from a film being made about the events of the first game.
The moment of hinted sexual violence is over so quickly that you could blink and miss it. How Hotline Miami 2 ended up being refused classification in Australia is something I’ll never understand, given the similar violence that exists in other games. By including a short scene like that, which immediately cuts to black, it’s as if the developers are taunting critics of Hotline Miami and saying, “You thought we went too far? Well, you haven’t seen anything yet.” The moment of “sexual violence” is the first of Hotline Miami 2’s many such moments that demonstrate that this is a game about people’s reactions to the first game, violence in videogames, and the effects of violence on society.
The regular, excessive 16-bit brutal violence of Hotline Miami is here in all its bloody glory. You can still bash people with doors, then smash their heads in with your foot. You can throw baseball bats across the room, knock a person out, and then rush over to finish off the job. A new set of characters and masks appear, one of which has a chainsaw. Needless to say, the violence for a chainsaw kill is as gory as you’d expect. It’s violence that is not exactly impactful, but reinforces the statement that the first game made, which was that players have become immune to this sort of violence.
Skipping around different timelines like a Tarantino rip-off, Hotline Miami 2 takes the player from directly after the events of Hotline Miami to years later, where a group of wannabes try to imitate the crimes of the first game. Violence is assessed through the eyes of many different unsavoury characters. There’s the actor who stars in brutal over-the-top violent films like “Midnight Animal” that are based on the events of the first game; the cop investigating the murders performed by Hotline Miami’s protagonist Jacket, Detective Manny, who slaughters thugs and then claims it as self defence; or his writer friend, Evan, who is writing a book about the events of Hotline Miami. Then there’s”The Fans,” who were inspired by the real (in game) events of Hotline Miami, and want to re-enact them in the most brutal ways possible.
All in all, there are twelve playable characters in Hotline Miami 2, all with their own very different commentary on violence and the way the world reacts to violence. Yet the common theme is in how the characters are forced to commit acts of violence in different ways. Whether it’s the worn down soldiers being forced to fight by their commanding officer, or by random voices over the telephone, all the characters are in some way forced to commit acts of violence.
The problem with having twelve playable characters is that the plot can easily get lost amongst all the mayhem. Where the first game had a coherent plot that revealed itself over time, Hotline Miami 2 is one where you’ll be reaching for the Wikipedia page at the end in order to get a grip on what the heck actually happened. At times the game tries too hard to be obtuse and confusing, when really all the game needed was some editing to create clarity.
What the Hotline Miami series has done best is question the player’s role in committing horrendous acts of violence. In one of the great sections of Hotline Miami 2, the seemingly harmless writer is forced to defend himself from thugs in the subway, and it’s up to you as the player to decide how far you take his acts of violence. The writer has the ability to knock an enemy out cold, but also to continue punching the enemy until his head caves in. It’s sly moments like this that help reinforce the notion that the only way to not commit these acts of violence is to simply not play the game.
Hotline Miami 2 displays the violence in such an over the top and excessive way that, just like the first game, you become desensitised to it – simply due to the amount of violence on display. There’s a point where the violence is nauseating, but by the fifth time that you machete a man in half you don’t even blink, and instead are left to focus on the one major aspect that makes Hotline Miami 2 a frustrating experience – the level design.
Where Hotline Miami had tight corridors and compact environments, Hotline Miami 2 introduces wide open spaces and long corridors. To achieve the illustrious A+ score at the end of each level, you need to chain together kills in a short period of time to build combos and increase the score multiplier. The problem arises when you’re presented with huge open areas and enemies who react quickly to your presence. Insta-death is made a little easier to deal with due to the quick reload time, but it’s still inexcusable that these are often caused by enemies that are able to shoot you from off screen. There is the option to look past the screen parameters by pressing L2, but that only provides a small amount of extra viewing space. In a game where the nauseating thrill should come from clearing a roomful of enemies before they even realise that their first pal is dead, it’s frustrating to have to wait behind closed doors because an enemy’s walk pattern hasn’t reached you yet. Unfortunately, because of the level design, Hotline Miami 2 boils down to memorising enemy patterns and timing your attacks, rather than turning into a renegade killer and destroying everything in sight.
The ability to throw your weapon to disable an enemy is still present, and the new ability to ‘lock on’ to an enemy makes this quite a useful device. The ‘lock on’ function becomes a frustrating function in itself, though, when it doesn’t disengage from downed enemies, making switching to an oncoming enemy tedious, which affects the quick-fire nature of the game. There is a huge variety weapons available, from baseball bats and shivs, to machine guns and sniper rifles. Yet there isn’t much difference between weapon groups. Most frustrating, though, is when a weapon like the sniper rifle doesn’t actually allow for any sniping at all, and acts much the same as the pistol. Each gun feels pretty much the same, and each melee weapon does as well – a baseball bat appears to do the same damage as a shiv.
One of the annoying aspects of the game is that enemies will react to your presence, but seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that they’re walking about on the dismembered body parts of their friends. I shouldn’t really complain with this aspect as it was present in the first Hotline Miami, but when you have enemies accidentally kicking about their decapitated friend’s heads, well, it breaks the immersion in the game and makes it unintentionally hilarious. I will say that I, too, spent far too long kicking around decapitated heads on disco dance floors simply because of the unintentional hilarity.
There certainly are a fair few moments of unintentional hilarity as the glitchy nature of HM2 shows its face in various ways. Everything from dogs that constantly rotate on the spot, to enemies who walk straight through walls. I didn’t experience any glitches in the first game, but here they were plenty and made for quite a frustrating time. There were moments where I thought I’d cleared a floor, only to find that an enemy had been trapped behind an invisible wall, which made them unavailable for me to kill and progress to the next level.
There is an interesting game here with some great mechanics, even if they are hampered by some amusing and frustrating glitches. At its core, Hotline Miami 2 takes the commentary of violence in video games from the first game and dials it up to eleven. Sometimes, though, dialling something up to eleven doesn’t always work, and that’s no more apparent that the presence of twelve different characters making for a bloated game that could have benefitted from some editing. In moments like the writer’s sections, Hotline Miami 2 really pushes its investigations into gaming violence to interesting places. It’s disappointing to see that Hotline Miami 2 doesn’t match the brilliance of the first game, but it does hit those points occasionally and it’s at these times that this game shines.