Hotline Miami review
Tear out a man’s throat and steal his bat. Knock a man down with a door and pound his skull into the tiles. Hurl the bat at a third man, climb on top, and pour scalding water on his face to watch him squirm. Take his machinegun and run, dancing, up the stairs towards more killing. Immediately get shot, die, and start again.
It only takes one bullet, stab or punch to kill you in Hotline Miami, but your fragility isn’t designed to encourage caution. Instant and frequent restarts instead lead you towards frantic repetition: it wants you to play recklessly, failingly fast and then urgently try again.
By the time you’ve completed your first mission, you’ll discover two things: first, your movements no longer look reckless. Practice has made your steps purposeful, and your every killing blow is part of a choreographed movie fight scene in which brutal murder is performed to a soundtrack of heavy beats.
The second is that Hotline Miami has indoctrinated you into its way of thinking. Without realising it, you’ve been bolted to the brain of the protagonist: a silent, crummy man performing senseless acts of violence in a neon 1980s acid trip.
Once you’re hooked, it’s easy to get carried away. This game is designed to inspire a fever, and a certain kind of gamer is going to love it. It’s confident, brash and conceptually complete in a way that makes it hard to imagine what its designers might have done differently.
But shake off the bloodthirsty mania and you’ll find a tight, efficient game, content with providing cheap thrills. Slice a man’s intestines out with a samurai sword, then kick his friend’s head against a wall until it bursts. Press your thumbs into a man’s eyeballs until he stops struggling, then shoot his dog. If you die, you’ll do it again. If you succeed, you’ll do it again on another mission. All Hotline Miami wants from you is that you kill, or be killed, and enjoy doing it.
There are hints of something more, but just hints. After each successfully completed mission, it tallies a score based on the method and manner of your killing. Get enough points and you’ll unlock new weapons – ninja stars and samurai swords and beer cans and dozens of others. You’ll also unlock masks that give your character a special power. Dress like Lassie and dogs won’t attack. Slip on a monkey mask and a close-up kill will end with the enemy’s weapon in your hands.
There are also hints at a deeper mystery. Each mission is bookended by brief moments in the protagonist’s life, including a romance conveyed wordlessly via the changing state of your apartment. There are bizarre conversations with three men in animal masks. And there are the phonecalls, their sources unknown, that request your services.
But don’t expect answers to these mysteries. Hotline Miami may well just be about the world’s worst temp, mistaking his assignments for a euphemistic incitement to murder.
This turns out to be a relief. Too often videogames flail around in an attempt to justify the player’s actions. Your wife and young child were killed, which justifies Max Payne’s rampant bloodlust. You’re Skyrim’s chosen one and the dragons are attacking, so it’s probably fine that you kill and steal indiscriminately.
At best, these justifications are nothing more than clichés, at worst they’re intellectually dishonest: a mask we wear in front of the world to hide what we aren’t yet able to explain. In Hotline Miami, you’re compelled to murder by nothing more than a phonecall and a propulsive disco beat.
Expect to pay: £7/$10
Release Out: now
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Transgressive like Grand Theft Auto hasn’t been for years, Hotline is violent, quick and compulsive but lacking in depth.