Seldom has the term ‘Videogame violence’ been so appropriate. Hotline Miami is a game about the kind of stylized neon hyper-aggression that you can only get in videogames. A clean and orderly building becomes a canvas, and in a frenzied burst of activity, you paint it with redder-than-red blood and slightly-too-purple brains layered over turquoise shirts and sharp white suits, all while flashing score indicators leap out of the bodies of your fallen foes, and a score multiplier creeps higher and higher with each brutal, successive murder.
Hotline Miami is the first commercial outing by prolific punk game developer Cactus. Teamed up with graphic artist Dennis Wedin and published under the surprisingly indie banner of Devolver Digital, it’s probably safest to describe the game as a tactical shooter after an all-night cocaine binge. We won’t spoil anything about the rather mysterious storyline, but you can look forward to stepping into the shoes of a very dangerous man with a collection of rubber animal masks, who travels around Miami by night, massacring whole buildings full of heavily armed thugs.
The controls are tight – mouse to aim, WSAD to move and the space bar is all you need – and the gameplay is laser-focused. The current preview build only contains about half the levels and presumably not all of the gameplay elements that’ll feature in the full game, but it’s plenty to get a handle on how it works. Your goal is to kill absolutely everything and everyone that moves across a series of buildings – many with multiple floors – using whatever weapons you can scrounge up on the premises. The big twist is that unlike most action games, you’re just as fragile as the enemies. One good hit and you’re dead, and the enemies are just as fast and twitchy as you are, too.
Your only two advantages are that the enemies move in predictable fashion (each of the handfull of enemy types – white-suited grunts, attack dogs, heavier soldiers, etc – sharing the same AI), and that you’ve got an omniscient overhead view of the level. You’re unarmed, and you know that behind that next door is a medium-sized room with two enemies in. One has a baseball bat, standing in the center of the room, and the other guy is patrolling with a shotgun. If that gun goes off, everyone in the area will hear it and – as there’s three guys with rifles just across the hall – almost certainly kill you, so you time your attack just right.
You wait for the perfect moment and kick the door open, smacking the shotgunner full in the face as he passes by. He falls over and drops his gun, but he’ll be up in a moment. The guy with the baseball bat pauses for a fraction of a second as you charge in, long enough for you to get in a punch. He falls too. You grab the bat, straddle him and smash his skull open. The shotgunner has picked himself up, though, and grabbed his gun. Not having the time to cover the distance, you throw the bat, knocking the shotgunner down again, slumped against the wall. This time, you finish him with a boot to the face.
That’s three seconds of gameplay, spanning just one, simple room, and you’ve got another six ahead of you on this stage alone. Any pause, mistake or hesitation would have meant instant death, and put you back at the start of that floor. It’s hard to be frustrated even when you can die so easily, though – the game drops you back into the action as fast as Super Meat Boy or Trials – and there’s fun to be had in experimenting with different approaches, different playstyles and different routes through each area. There’s very rarely just one ‘correct’ solution.
There’s a complex scoring system, unlockable masks (each with a small but useful character perk attached) for hitting certain point quotas, and some clever variety in the levels themselves. The whole thing is incredibly tightly designed, and held together by an aesthetic that not only works in the games’ favour, but accentuates each kill and death by depicting it in the most garish, lurid palette possible. The music is rather brilliant too, as you can hear from the gameplay trailers.
There’s been a lot of hype surrounding Hotline Miami, with it already winning ‘best of show’ and ‘audience favourite’ awards at trade-shows. Now that I’ve had a chance to play it, I can see why people are so excited. Keep your eye on IGM for a full review once we get our hands on the final build.