Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
Posted at 23:47 on 14th April 2015 - permalink

How do you follow up a game like Hotline Miami?

Hotline Miami challenged whole chapters of conventional PC game dogma. It was an indie game that didn’t slavishly pay homage to one of the handful of games the developers grew up with. There were no fantasy, sci-fi or military trappings. The player had agency in the world without it being a one-sided power fantasy.

It threw off the yoke of needing to justify player actions in a brittle world fiction, an obsession that has led mainstream game development to ever-narrower fields of subject matter, and ever more absurd incongruity between the extreme, violent and repetitive actions encountered in gameplay and the hokey TV-movie-quality drama of cut-scenes. Dennaton were able to go around knocking the hats off fusty old establishment figures because underneath the brash trappings the game was rock solid.

For the sequel, the element of surprise has been replaced with extremely high player expectations. Instead of picking one answer to the question of how to approach a sequel, it feels like Dennaton have methodically explored as many avenues as they practically could, like a slightly erratic fractal algorithm. Some paths are dead ends. Some loop back on others. Some wind into ever-fussier spirals. The goal this time is not to leave players wanting more, but to exhaust the entire Hotline Miami possibility space so they can move on to fresh pastures. It’s probably no coincidence that so many levels in Wrong Number feature a character somewhere in the background chain-smoking or vomiting.

Hotline Miami 2 is messy. Instead of disorientating the player with lurches of horror and surrealism while following a (mostly) straight story, it instead caroms between some dozen characters. And there are actual characters now – mostly unmasked and provided with lines of dialogue and discernable motivations, and as such the player is often given less scope to put their own interpretation on what they’re shown.

Before I dive any further into dissecting what works and what doesn’t, I should make it clear that I think that Dennaton have made a worthy follow-up to the original here. The best moments are as memorable as (and, crucially, distinct from) anything the first game had to offer. Anyone who enjoyed the original and who is at least curious about how a pairing as imaginative and unorthodox as Dennaton would do next should surely be playing it by default anyway.

I see both Hotline games (like Doom as well as the canon of classic arcade games) as being antagonistic to the idea that enjoyable gameplay actions need any external justification for their existence. (The first game had a creator cameo mocking the player for seeking a pat explanation for the events of the game. It’s pretty on the nose.) The most unsympathetic reviews of Hotline Miami 2 that I’ve seen apparently ignored that message, or assumed that because the world is now more fleshed out (as a result of the developers having considerably more time and money to work on it), telling a deep story is now a relatively higher priority than it was in the first game.

The audience that a large number of narrative-driven PC games pander to – let’s call them “genre fiction fandom” dorks – like everything to be explained, labelled and resolved unambiguously. They love Batman because THEY know his secret identity, even if the villains don’t. You can see how cherished this pedantic mindset is in the sheer level of personal venom that they fire in the direction of things like Lost, that are interested in conjuring compelling characters instead of resolving their mysteries.

If you play Hotline Miami 2 for a story, or expect for whatever message or moral the developers are trying to convey to be delivered via narrative means, you are going to be disappointed. There are people on Reddit swapping theories about the plot and trying to tease hints out of the developers, and that’s fine, but it’s a nice post-game bonus rather than the main attraction.

The ace up Hotline Miami 2’s story-sleeve is the character of Richard, the man in the chicken mask. He appears throughout the story in hallucinations, warning of imminent doom and teasing the characters that they will never see the full picture in spite of their efforts to unpick the motivations behind the ‘mask killings’. Like Death in The Seventh Seal, he indulges the characters but doesn’t let them forget their efforts are futile in the end.

His presence assures that even as the mysteries of the first game (Jacket, Beard and Richter’s backstories, the origins of 50 Blessings, the War) are explained and robbed of their power, there will always be another force at work behind them, unknowable to mortal man. Ridiculously, he manages to do all this on top of having become a PC gaming pop culture icon, subject of innumerable pieces of fan art and cosplay performances. (I’m looking forward to seeing which of London’s many fried chicken joints will be first to appropriate him for their sign.)

It occurred to me that as well as allowing the game to explore lots of different playing styles and moods, the multiple story threads might also be intended to be a sort of Rorschach test, to see which characters elicited feelings of sympathy or revulsion.

Because there are so many characters, and the writing is for the most part merely serviceable rather than nuanced, no single story thread comes to the fore. There is nothing as unsettling as the Richard/Rasmus/Don Juan scenes or Jacket’s hallucinations in the first game. Everything is a little more grounded in reality (or at least, a familiar design language) now.

Evan the writer’s story (in which he crosses paths with Pardo, Richter and the Soldier) probably comes closest to providing a narrative throughline, in trying to unravel the events of the first game. Evan’s levels include the neat gameplay gimmick of favouring non-lethal takedowns (using only melee weapons and unloading picked up guns), although bloodthirsty players can force him to kill. Ultimately Evan’s attempts to get to the bottom of the mysteries get him nowhere.

The Martin Brown (Midnight Animal) thread seems if anything to be commenting on the pointlessness of trying to outdo the shock value of the first game or to retread the ‘hallucination versus reality’ gimmick. Brown is (with the possible exception of Pardo) the only unambiguously unsympathetic character in the game.

Players of the first game may remember the hospital level which tried to illustrate that seemingly small design decisions are critical to the player’s enjoyment. Similarly, Brown’s levels seem to show that by slightly reframing Jacket’s story in the first game it goes from being detached and quasi-noble (a la Drive) to mean-spirited and squalid. I realise that might sound like I’m making excuses for the developers (like saying a bad idea shows they had the “courage to fail”), but it’s what I took away from it. And of course, anyone who plays a Cactus game and baulks at being made to feel uncomfortable hasn’t been paying attention.

The connected stories of the Fans, the Henchman and the Son produce what I found to be the most unsettling scene of the game (the Henchman’s murder) as well as the most mesmeric (fairly obvious if you’ve played it). The game uses fairly clunky emotional manipulation to make the player think about why they sympathise with the Henchman (who, to follow his dreams to get away from the criminal life has committed lots of cold-blooded murder), but less so with the nihilistic but obviously naive Fans.

The implementation of the Swan twins (Alex and Ash – two characters, one armed with a gun and the other a chainsaw, controlled as one) is probably the most technically shonky element of the production, but even with its problems they’re still two of the most enjoyable characters to control. All of these levels are replayable in markedly different ways.

The killer cop Manny Pardo (who was a real guy) seems to have a lot of care and attention put into his arc, as well as one of the longest and most satisfying levels (Dead Ahead – a John Woo-like extended shoot-out/siege). They’ve taken a leaf from Streets of Rage II’s book – multi-section levels where each section usually mixes up the gameplay activity. While Pardo’s ‘fame-seeking killer’ concept is intriguing, as with Brown’s arc it feels a bit too self-contained and secondary.

The Hawaii levels (essentially, a massively over-elaborate explanation of who the bearded guy was that Jacket kept seeing in Hotline 1) are probably the biggest departure visually from the first game (the early screenshots suggested that the game was going to involve much more varied environments than the first, but in the end most levels, including the playable parts of the Hawaii ones, still mostly take place inside fairly standard orthoganal building layouts).

The goal here seems to be to see what changes when the Hotline gameplay is put in a military context. The result is the game looking and feeling a lot more like Jagged Alliance, which is no bad thing, although one can imagine that it would have lessened Hotline Miami’s impact if they’d originally defaulted to such a setting instead of the reality-warping crazed killer schtick.

Rounding out the cast, there are Richter and Jake’s stories, which delve into the lore behind the ’50 Blessings’ terrorist organisation that recruited Jacket and Biker in the first game. Jake is a nailgun-toting patriotic redneck, who wants to drive the invading Russians out of America (this game ruminates at length on the ‘alternate history’ angle hinted at in Hotline 1’s hidden ending), while Richter is an ex-con who just wants to help his sick mother. (Richter is also the character who kills Jacket’s girlfriend in the first game.)

From this carousel of moods, missions and playing styles, the ones that linger most in the memory are those that stray the furthest from the first game: Evan’s reluctant dirty fighting, the Swans’ glorious chainsaw, Beard’s guerrilla tactics, and the Henchman’s low rent Agent 47 act. A lot of the rest blends together, giving the player little reason to note which character they’re currently controlling.

The typical levels in Hotline Miami 2 put more of a focus on formulating a plan to survive in a hostile environment for an extended period, rather than improvising wildly or experimenting with different styles. Battles feel more like cat-and-mouse skirmishes than improvised Jackie Chan brawls. Killing often feels unfair to the enemies. It’s often not a battle of skill and technique, but of who can get the jump on the other guy first, like the world’s most effed-up installment of Spy vs. Spy. Unless the player knows a level inside out, needless risk-taking is punished severely.

There’s much greater reliance on firearms, and on blind firing to catch enemies over open ground or through gaps and windows. Things can get frustrating as guns are very slow and clumsy at close range. The size and length of some floors also puts a lot of temptation on players to exploit the AI to minimise risk, as they get down to the last few enemies. In very many cases it’s possible to alert enemies then back around a corner to ambush them with melee attacks. Even with this cheesy strategy at their disposal, players will still need to be aware of their surroundings and work out their route, when to conserve ammo, and where the weapons are. And of course, the scoring system takes a dim view of overly-squirrely tactics.

Because many levels are now designed for specific characters’ playing styles, this allows for some very tightly designed areas that require the formulation and execution of roughly standard solutions, in a Super Monkey Ball fashion. The difficulty spikes when a player enters a new area and has to start formulating a new strategy from scratch can get quite daunting as the game progresses, and the level of frustration from cheap deaths or fussy movement in tight spaces can be aggravating.

The game’s campaign takes about fifteen hours to play through, and is followed by an optional hard mode (where the levels are inverted, the buildings glimpsed between stages are on fire, and everything seems to be going badly wrong). Very little feels like filler – everything is carefully considered, polished and additive to the whole.

The presentation is (as expected) extremely confident. While it’s true that most of the assets from the first game make an appearance (usually in a slightly embellished form – Richard has teeth now), there is a lot of new content besides. Every scene has tiny animated details to spot – working mechanisms from spinning coatracks to concertina doors, rain and lightning, blood diffusing in water, swaying trees, and lots of extras going about their business.

The game no longer uses the plain vanilla GameMaker engine (instead using a custom engine provided by Abstraction Games), which allows for some lovely post-processing style effects, such as the much loved “VHS tracking” on the pause menu. There is a slight trade-off in as much as the new engine doesn’t feel quite as blisteringly fast and sharp-edged as the overcranked, low-res, palette-frobbing GameMaker, but it’s really only noticeable if you go straight from one game to the other.

When I started writing this, I was going to say that the soundtrack wasn’t quite as good as the first game’s. Now that I’ve spent a few days listening to it on its own, I would revise that statement. Hotline 1’s soundtrack only had around twenty tracks and three or four of those were absolutely massive, so they have of course etched themselves in my memory in the intervening years. Hotline 2’s soundtrack has well over twice as many tracks, so it takes a little bit more digging to discover the insanely amazing ones. (Roller Mobster, Around, and She Swallowed Burning Coals are my current favourites.)

Hotline Miami (either one) is, ultimately, about entering into a specific mood – putting on a mask, operating on adrenaline, caring fixedly about being the only sprite still moving. Letting the music roll and crash as you walk up to the door of a pristine building, the anticipation of unleashing ultimatefuckdeath. Engage, attack, suffer, triumph, emptiness, seek another hit. (The two most extraordinary misreadings I’ve seen written about Hotline Miami are that it’s judging the player, and that it’s appealing to nostalgia.)

Telling a story is not the only way to share human experience. Evoking an atmosphere and provoking emotional or visceral responses have value as means of expression. When I read the handful of sniffy reviews (conspicuously tending to be from writers from a very specific demographic and print mag career background), I have to wonder if mid-30s guys who have to come up with a new way to sound excited about steampunk and zombies every month are really Hotline Miami’s intended audience. Bright colours, pulsing music, grungy visuals and twitch gameplay aren’t keyed to appeal to frightfully nice chaps who thrill to board games and fitness apps. (Alright, I’m laying it on a bit thick, but come on guys, try to approach the work in the spirit it was intended.)

PC Gamer (bravely soldiering on in spite of RPS having superceded it years ago) gave the game a particularly rough ride, harrumphing about supposedly catastrophic bugs that hardly anyone else noticed, and casting around for enough ways it isn’t exactly like the first to be disappointed about. They’re starting to sound more and more like the baby boomer ‘rock press’ of the 1980s who so myopically dismissed hip-hop as an uncreative fad. (I suppose by using tools like GameMaker, Dennaton should be sneered at for not even playing their own instruments?)

Anyway, nobody* cares about PC Gamer. I suspect that posterity will cast Hotline Miami as a series in a favourable light. We need bold, exuberant (slightly broken) hardcore arcade games as much as we need expensively staged epics. Not enough people still care about that branch of craftsmanship, in a market where polished writing (or even a few good catchphrases) can elevate mechanically uninspired games. I really hope that the (soon to be released) level editor is flexible enough for people to make interesting things with. It might provide the little nudge that some unknown talent needs to realise that making games is open to them.

*Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations. Well okay not really.

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