Caller Disconnected – ‘Hotline Miami 2’ Review

“Press ‘R’ To Restart” – Hotline Miami is back for more, and it’s more brutal than ever. 

As I enter the building unarmed, a swarm of Russians donning white suits swarm me carrying an assortment of bats, knives and pipes. My index finger is ready to spam the left mouse button rapidly just as they rush me. One-by-one the men get within arms reach and I knock them to the floor. Not a second to spare, I quickly jab the right mouse button to retrieve one of Russian’s weapons. As they stand, I offer a second blow to each until the room is splattered in pixelated blood. Twenty minutes of repeated attempts have finally granted me through the entryway. I look ahead to see what appears to be only one enemy left on the floor. I approach slowly waiting for the right time to strike. Just as I am about to ambush, a shotgun blast from behind scatters my innards down the hall. A neon prompt appears: Press ‘R’ to reset. Such is life in Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.

Many things haven’t changed since Dennaton’s original Hotline Miami romp from 2012, but that doesn’t mean things are stale the second time through. A few characters are reintroduced with fleshed-out backstories, masks play a more significant role in gameplay and the story seems to be more developed.

The story is probably a wise place to start because it is easily the best part of Hotline Miami 2 while simultaneously being the part of the game I have the most gripes with. Of course, the plot line is distinctly Hotline, but the way the timeline weaves in and out of the late 80s and 90s at random to create a sort of patchwork series of events feels like something straight out of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Unlike the cinema classic, however, I completed Hotline Miami 2 feeling like I missed a lot of the connecting dots that should have tied all the characters together. The individual characters were all interesting and offered unique twists on well-established gameplay, but justification for the patchwork storytelling feel somewhat nonexistent. When you play a game that has a heavy emphasis on violence for story progression and character development, you would expect a conclusion that would act as a crescendo for the series’ hallmark. Instead, though, what you can expect is a conclusion that feels a little more like Dennaton ran out of time when the deadline got close.

Another distinct feature of the original Hotline Miami was its strong soundtrack, and Dennaton continues that trend with another haunting electronic track list. Each track feels as though it was specially crafted to fit the tone and action that each individual level offers resulting in what has to be one of the most satisfying soundscapes I have ever experienced in gaming. Simply put, the songs in Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number are stellar. 

The zebra mask grants the player the ability roll away from oncoming enemy attacks
The zebra mask grants the player the ability roll away from oncoming enemy attacks

The gameplay of Hotline Miami 2 doesn’t feel all that fresh compared to its predecessor but it doesn’t need to. I would rarely say this in relation to gaming, but I am of the opinion that the gameplay of Hotline Miami falls under the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adage. The first game’s combat needed a bit of refinement and tweaking, but there was no fundamental broken or cheap aspects of gameplay. Like a Dark Souls title, death has always felt brutal and frustrating but never unfair. Small adjustments and refinements have been made for the sequel, but no big changes to have been made. Yes, there are new gimmicky additions to the gameplay like Ash & Alex characters who operate as two-in-one. There’s even a dual-weilding bear character that offers some excitement, but truthfully there’s nothing here that breaks new ground for the series.

Bigger isn’t always better. That point became abundantly clear in some sections of the Hotline Miami 2 campaign. In the original Hotline Miami, levels would have several small floors where you would clear them out one-by-one until the “Get To The Car” message would flash on the screen. In Hotline Miami 2, however, I found that levels generally had less floors or sections per level. Instead of the original’s format, Dennaton opted to have two or three massive sections per level. This feels like a minute change to the formula, but it actually changed how I went about combat on the levels that featured such a floor plan. When levels are as large as the are in Hotline Miami 2, the punishment for dying feels much greater. Instead of going for a risk-for-reward combo building kill streak, I found myself peaking out of corners only to draw one or two enemies towards me so that I wouldn’t die. While still thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, I felt this broke the flow of gameplay that many come to expect from the series. And in this case, that’s not a good thing.

On top of some level design gripes, I am happy to report that some of the annoying problems with the original have been removed. Hotline Miami had a lot going for it when it came out in 2012, but one of the most common complaints amongst gamers was the way the map would sway as you fought through the levels. This choice by the developers was distracting and made focusing on the game for extended periods of time downright nauseating. This time around, Dennaton has reduced the sway greatly and it feels more like an artistic decision that you only notice when you stand still rather than another layer to an already difficult game.

A small but worth mentioning complaint are the few and far between bugs that I experienced in my roughly 10 hours spent beating the game. The Alex & Ash characters I mentioned above have a nasty bug that occasionally causes the character that carries the ranged weapon to get stuck on walls. This results in playing through a level while only using melee attacks until you are inevitably slaughter by shotgun toting thugs. Additionally, while I am not entirely convinced it’s a bug more than just a small flaw, I noticed at certain points in the game, retreating caused my character to slip out of the gameplay space. This allowed me to effectively fall out of the combat area. I couldn’t hit enemies and they couldn’t hit me, but the annoying flaw had me resetting the level or wasting time trying to find the small whole in the invisible wall from which I came. At one point, I slipped out of the play space in the third area and I had to replay a solid forty minutes of the level. I was not a happy slasher.

Just a small example of my issues with the Alex & Ash mask
Just a small example of my issues with the Alex & Ash mask

This review might sound like I finished Hotline Miami 2 with a lot of critical thoughts but, in complete and utter honesty, I don’t. It was a fun title and while it wasn’t a breath of fresh air that distinguished itself from the original, it brought polish to what was arguably one of the better indie titles of the past five years. Masks feel like they make more than an aesthetic difference this time around and weapon variety feels like a subtle but welcome addition (pistols with silencers, yes please)! While the story took on a bold direction, it didn’t quite succeed at creating the masterpiece it wanted to be. At the end of the day, though, it felt fun being on a convoluted adventure that I could only take with a developer like Dennaton.

With a modest asking price, interesting storying-telling, and even more of the awesome high-octane violence the original gave us years ago, you have no excuse to keep Hotline Miami 2 off your Steam Library.

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