Reappraising Hotline Miami 2

How do you follow up one of the most influential cult games of the 2010s?

The original Hotline Miami practically established a genre unto itself, using the form of the top-down indie shooter for relentless, unapologetically ugly murder sprees—whether the victims deserved it or not. Restarts are instant, because death is only a single enemy bullet away. So, you die. A lot. You learn where enemies are placed, and what direction they’re facing. You discover the difference between someone holding a baseball bat and a semiautomatic pistol the hard way. And then, you use this knowledge to kill every last person standing in the most brutal, gratuitous manner possible. In the wake of the false heroism of Spec Ops: The Line, Hotline Miami captivated players with a simple question: do you enjoy hurting people? Within Hotline Miami’s tightly designed, neon-bathed confines, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.

The fact that the original Hotline Miami introduced moral questions about the experience you’re enjoying (hurting people) isn't, in itself, revolutionary. What truly sold its particular brand of delightful darkness was an overwhelmingly satisfying presentation, expressed through its art style and killer soundtrack. Synth beats combine with a rapid live-die-learn-repeat loop to drive you forward, encouraging you to hammer the R key after every death, late into the night. 

A brisk three-hour run time for a single playthrough doesn’t leave you with enough time to question what the hell is going on until the game is already over. In hindsight, the '80s stylings and surreal, psychedelic encounters with masked beings obscure the underlying weaknesses of the game as a whole. Weaknesses like an unsatisfying conspiracy storyline drawing attention away from the central, personal conflicts of the game, an inconsistent combat model that results in unfair deaths and a frustratingly obtuse final boss.

Hotline Miami 2 addresses these weaknesses with the quiet craftsmanship of experience, and doesn’t receive credit for any of it.

Combat in Hotline Miami 2 is, if not entirely consistent, more tightly controlled. With proper preparation, I found myself dying from offscreen threats far less often despite the sequel's larger levels, and diverse play styles outside of my comfort zone became mandatory as the game went on. The storytelling is boldly idiosyncratic, tying the lives of soldiers sent on suicidal missions in a deniable warzone to a group of fame-hungry serial killers with a mind-bending convolution and unexpected empathy only a series like Hotline Miami could achieve. 

Delivered over six chapters and roughly ten hours, I had more than enough time to question where the hell the story was going and why the game didn't end after the bastard-hard third act, only to find myself stunned as the scattered threads came together in its final two chapters. Long after I felt that the game should have been over, I suddenly didn't want it to end—and what an ending it is.

The playable cast of Hotline Miami 2 stars over seven horribly broken people, each dramatically changing the way the game is played due to their unique abilities and personalities. Character is communicated through gameplay, and your choice (or lack thereof) as a player. Having a pacifist journalist pick up a gun only causes him to unload it, disabling its use and giving you a grand 1000-point bonus. Forcing him to act against his nature and execute an enemy will send him into an uncontrollable rage, tinting the screen a lurid, overwhelming red and leaving your character vulnerable for an extended period of time. You won’t get any points, either. Where Hotline Miami asks if you enjoy hurting people, Hotline Miami 2 knows that you do—and places you in situations where indulging this desire will lead you to ruin.

Instead of a silent cipher slaughtering his way through an unprepared city (as in the first game), the characters in Hotline Miami 2 have voices, and visible lives outside of the scope of the game. One takes care of his ill mother full-time in between doing jobs for the local crime boss—the son of a man the main character of the first game murdered. Another is a journalist whose family is falling apart as a result of his investigation into the murderous happenings in his city (including the massacres of the first game). His wife and son have left. The journalist, in turn, has left the abandoned toys in his son’s room untouched. Scattered on the floor, just as his son placed them.

This is the dilemma facing Hotline Miami 2. Its events are inextricably connected to the consequences of your actions in the original game—consequences you, as a player, never expected to face outside of a cutscene, let alone see have a tangible effect upon the wider world. By tying itself so closely to its fantastic if flawed foundation, all of the issues carried over from the original game became glaringly apparent to returning players, and instead attached themselves to the sequel. 

The odds were stacked against Hotline Miami 2, and a controversial sexual assault scene ('justified' as a fake-out occurring on the set of a movie based on the events of the first game) didn’t help. It only seemed to establish Hotline Miami 2 as trying too hard to be controversial in a world the original had already shocked. What was once unique had become familiar, and so, contemptuous. As perhaps the definition of an underappreciated sequel, Hotline Miami 2 advances the features of its predecessor in every appreciable way, and suffered in comparison because it didn’t come first. If there’s anything this sequel deserves to be recognized for, though, it's the ending.

Many have harped on the brutality and intentional ugliness of the Hotline Miami series. The cathartic-bordering-on-guilty action of the series is its trademark. However, of all moments, developer Dennaton Games chose to conclude its bloody saga with an image of startling beauty. I’m not going to be coy about what that moment is. Hotline Miami 2 ends with nuclear war, and every one of the petty concerns of the main cast—your concerns—being washed away in a flash of light. I know how that sounds. If this were any other game, I’d call it a cop out. A deus ex machina wrapping up a story that ultimately became too convoluted for its own good. However, in Hotline Miami 2, it somehow feels like the only piece that could fit.

Starting with the unsatisfying, apparently janitor-led conspiracy of the first game, you hear whispers of something larger happening. Something big. Your colonel is being promoted to a higher position, but something went wrong in his head, out there in the jungle. Something he's bringing back with him. Shadowy organizations are promoting nationalism across the United States, but to what end? Where's the threat? That's all these supposed harbingers of doom are, right? Whispers? Right until the very end. At the conclusion of one of the greatest power fantasies ever made, you’re left powerless.

It carries an air of biblical inevitability. Everyone caught up in the minutia of their little lives, until an event out of their control reveals those lives to be cosmically inconsequential. Helpless before a wave of burning, blinding beauty.

How do you follow up one of the most influential cult games of the 2010s?

You wash it away.