After about fifty consecutive attempts, I had finally succeeded. I was on the top floor of an apartment building as the camera panned toward my objective: a girl we were hoping to recruit to our ragtag gang of misfits. I exited the stairwell and two henchmen began rushing toward me with baseball bats at the ready. I shoot the first with a shotgun blast and whirl around to catch the second just before he entered lethal range. The armed guards in the next room hear the shots and I can see them begin to navigate the room toward my position in the same fashion they had done the past forty attempts. I have a few seconds and one shell left in my shotgun so I shoot through a nearby window in a desperate attempt to catch another henchman in order to prevent my murderous rhythm from ceasing. The majority of the blast completely misses the window in my haste, but a single stray bullet crashes through the window and by dumb luck connects with the flesh of a patrolling guard. My amazement can last no more than a fraction of a second as the two armed guards fling open the door and are just about to spot me. I throw my now empty shotgun at the first and slam the door into the second. I finish the first one off by crushing his head against the wall. I pick up his silenced pistol and use it to finish off the second as soon as he gets back on his feet. I have only made it this far a couple of times. I know there are about two armed guards left. I peek around the corner as three guards spot me and begin running toward my location. I retreat and begin unloading the rest of my silenced pistol in their general direction. As luck would have it I managed to mow down all three without receiving a scratch. Only one henchman remains in a small, isolated room. I burst open the door and catch him with one of the last rounds in my pistol. The prompt on the screen notifies me that all the enemies have been eliminated. The blaring music stops as I am left to take in the bloodbath I have just caused. I make my way across heaps of dead bodies and pools of blood toward the room housing the girl and talk to her. She pulls out a pistol and warns me to come no closer. I figure I must persist and take a single step forward. I hear a gunshot as I watch my bloodied character fall to the ground and see the prompt to press ‘R’ to restart. I groan as I begin to fear the worst. As I press ‘R’ my fear becomes a reality as I am brought back to the stairwell with each guard once again alive and on patrol. All of my work undone, but I still learned a valuable lesson… do not approach the girl.
This is how each stage of Hotline Miami 2 plays out. Just like the first, you are placed in a location with several enemies and are tasked with eliminating them all. Every single enemy poses a threat. They can kill you and revert all of your progress in a fraction of a second. It’s fast. It’s brutal. It’s punishing. It’s fun. It’s so hard to put down when every time you hit reset, you learn one more nuance to how the particular levels work, how the guards patrol, how they react to seeing or hearing you, and how to progress while amassing the largest possible score. Hotline Miami 2 will piss you off, there’s no doubt about that; but, most of the time, it’s more than worth it.
Being a sequel, Hotline Miami 2 takes what made the original so good and kicks it up a notch. Several aspects receive a welcomed improvement. The locations are much more varied this time around. The player is presented with several different environments to traverse, each one feeling distinct and highly detailed in their own right. The graphics, while in the same iconic style, have been polished to have higher amounts of pixels and detail on the screen with several amusing animations and inclusions. It is oddly satisfying to view how the developers make these characters perform simple actions such as taking a picture in this overhead, “pixely” point of view. The game is also longer; at least it seemed that way. It took me about seven hours to play through beginning to end, but let it be known that I do not consider myself particularly good or skilled at the game and I probably had a death count that I would rather not own up to. The length of the game will be variable depending on one’s skill, but it is most definitely worth the current $15 price of admission. There is even a “hard mode” that becomes available after you finish the story which mirrors the levels and removes your ability to lock on which makes an already difficult game even harder if you’re feeling particularly masochistic.
The story is a larger focus this time around with definitive characters and many more faces than there are masks which is very different from the first game. The scatterbrained story is intriguing to play through and piece together. It is about as far from straightforward as you can get, riddled with movie sets and hallucinations. Each tidbit of plot before and after each level, or “scene” as the game calls it, gives you an extra incentive to completing each level and gives you even more reason to get through the exceedingly difficult levels when you feel on the verge of giving up.
The soundtrack, in my opinion, is even better than the first, which was already superb. Each level gets its own track that does a strangely excellent job of matching the setting and sequences at hand. Not only this, but every song seems to be better than the last. The music plays a large role into how the game functions and plays, so it is a true triumph that they not only matched the last soundtrack, but managed to put together one that is even better.
There are some aspects of Hotline Miami 2 that are left untouched from the first game because they were already very good. The score system works exactly the same, where each kill awards you with a certain amount of points and your multiplier increases each time you score yourself another kill within a few seconds of the last. Points are banked into your overall score once you go the few seconds without a kill. It is an excellent system that remains a smart way of implementing risk and reward. You can completely ignore the score and slowly and methodically plan your way through every stage. The real frantic nature of the game, however, comes from killing as many enemies in a location as fast as possible. Each level almost becomes a puzzle in which you are given a variety of tools to use as you see fit in order to take out your next target as quickly as possible without dying. The gameplay is largely the same. One shot kills you, but one shot kills them. Frantically grabbing a gun and firing into a group pursuing enemies is still as satisfying as ever. The core of the game remains the same, and Hotline Miami 2 does not suffer because of it.
Unfortunately, there are some negatives that are hard to overlook. The masks tend to take a backseat in this game while they were a major and iconic aspect of the original. Several of Hotline Miami 2‘s levels put you in control of characters who don’t wear masks at all. Sometimes there are still masks or special abilities to choose from at the beginning of a level, but there are only about four or so different types while the original had twenty-five distinct masks that each would drastically change how you would play the next level. There was one mask in particular in this game that seemed almost broken to me. That mask would provide you with two player characters instead of one. The one you control commandeers a chainsaw and is vulnerable to attacks, while the other would pick up any firearms he came across, fires on your command, and cannot be harmed. While this seems like a smart idea, my other half would keep getting hung up on obstacles in the area which would completely prevent me from firing a weapon where I wanted to. Despite this, the biggest problem I had with this game was the larger levels. In the first, levels would be limited to being not much bigger than two screens. In this installment, levels tend to be much larger and more open. This means that you are going to die from enemies that you never even saw… a ton. There is a “look” function that allows your view to shift further in front of your character, but when you return to regular view, it becomes difficult to try and see where your targeting reticle went. This makes it very difficult to assess a situation that may arise if you are attempting to survey what lies in the areas ahead. It often leads to a little too much frustration and begins feeling a bit unfair, which works against the nature of the game. For this reason, I would recommend anyone considering picking up this title to first play the original because it offers a much more consistent point of entry and gets your feet wet to the mechanics, not to mention that it is cheaper and still a great game.
Hotline Miami 2 is a great game. If the first was the developers getting their foot in the door, this entry is them throwing the door open with everything cranked up to 11. If you liked the first, you will most likely love this one. Newcomers should be wary, but this is overall a great sequel that does not detract from the first game, but makes it more than worth the psychotic journey.
You know those video games that show up in movies and TV shows that aren’t really video games? Like somebody who had never actually played a video game had to design something that people would recognize as a video game so they didn’t have to pay to actually have a real video game show up? Those things were always fascinating to me. They never operate under the same rules that actual video games do. The component parts are familiar (high scores, guns, space invader noises) but the whole thing never operates according to actual video game logic.
In a way, that’s how Hotline Miami 2 feels to me. It’s everything we take to mean “video games,” but it operates under its own peculiar logic. It’s a game where you slaughter hundreds of people and have giant score tallies pop out of their dead bodies, only to then force contemplation of the motivations and driving forces behind that violence. It’s a game where each area is excruciatingly detailed and lovingly crafted, but represented by blocky pixel graphics. The different characters you play as are all cartoonish archetypes, but they’re also all disturbingly insane in ways that most games would shy away from. It’s a game that literally starts with a rape and ends with a rainbow. It’s a fascinating work of art.
For those uninitiated, the Hotline Miami series has you moving through different buildings and areas while murdering anything and everything you see. The only goals are to kill everything and not die. You have a variety of melee weapons and firearms at your disposal, but you can only carry one at a time. To swap out, you toss the weapon you’re holding at wherever you’re pointing at while standing over the weapon you want to pick up. This sets up the main action in the game; because both you and the enemies you face are so fragile, it boils down to moving through rooms and swapping weapons as quickly and efficiently as possible. A typical encounter might have you busting through a door, using that door swing to knock out the person guarding that door, shooting the next enemy with a pistol, then throwing your pistol at the third enemy while grabbing the 2nd enemy’s baseball bat in order to finish the job. When it’s all going according to plan, Hotline Miami’s core gameplay is incredibly energizing and addictive.
Unfortunately, Hotline Miami 2 suffers a great deal from a problem that popped up intermittently in the first game. Beyond just being very difficult at times, both games feature just enough randomness to cause frustration. In the case of Hotline Miami 2, that frustration kept me from enjoying the game on the same level as I enjoyed the first one. It could be as simple as “oh, this time the guy who’s usually standing behind that door decided to walk out for no reason and shoot me in the head.” Often times though, it combines with the much larger levels in the sequel to drive me up the wall. Enemies can shoot through windows, which means you will almost invariably get killed at some point by an enemy so far away that you can’t see them. They just happened to see you through three sets of windows and shoot you with point-blank precision before you even knew they existed. It’s maddening at times.
This leads to a lot more leading-out of enemies than in the first game, which is much less fun than frantically pushing through rooms and crushing skulls before enemies can respond. The core gameplay remains the same, but it’s flavored differently and less interestingly. For that reason alone, I much prefer the first game. Beyond that, the plot in this sequel is much more interesting, with more characters and more minor details that add up to a much more impressive overall picture. The soundtrack, which was a huge part of the appeal of the first game, is just as good here but so similar in tone that it loses much of the original novelty. The graphics are basically exactly the same, though a trip or two to Hawaii help shake up the samey environs from the first game.
Ultimately, I think everyone should play the first Hotline Miami. It’s a hell of a game. I don’t think the sequel carries that same must-play quality. It’s a fascinating dive back into a world worth revisiting, but the gameplay suffers in some serious ways. Still, if you’re already on board with the series, Hotline Miami 2 is definitely worth a playthrough. It’s by no means a bad game, just a disappointing and, often, infuriating one.