Game Pile: Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

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Before we go any further though, Hotline Miami 2 is a game which has scenes of implied sexual violence, and scenes very much of not implied nonsexual violence. There is an excess of the latter. There is an option to skip the implied sexual violence, and no I do not necessarily think that makes it okay that it’s in there at all. Either way, it is best to know about such things ahead of time so you can make decisions.

Raw, Brutal, Meaningless

We return to the Hotline Miami play space, a place of deep, brooding electronic music and the miserably intense violence it underscores. Gameplay is – broadly – unchanged, with an arcade focus on high-intensity violence, hit-or-die mechanics, an engine made out of plasterboard that pretty much works well enough most of the time, and a game where failure is so part of the experience it’s just sort of assumed.

While Hotline Miami framed its movements as wild, distinct delusions, pretending to follow a single character in some sort of terms of narrative with deliberate ambiguity and a somewhat incoherent world, Hotline Miami 2 instead chooses to frame itself as a series of movie-style narratives crashing into each other.

The gameplay is mostly unchanged in an in-situ way. That is, once you’ve started a level, you have the same weapon behaviour, the same melee behaviour, executions, goofy-ass enemy AI and so on. In fact in pure gameplay terms I can almost boil the changes down to two simple things that are half of what transforms the gameplay style at large: One, knives are slower (as are most melee weapons), and two, when enemies are drawn to sound, they have a distinct animation that indicates when they reached the point they were moving to, and look around.

That sounds like not much, right?

As for the other half, levels in Hotline Miami 2 are enormous. Not just in their stages – though there are a number of levels which are three to five distinct parts you have to complete in sequence, but the levels are also larger than your visual range, even the visual range you can push for. The levels are large and this means guns are even more of a threat than they were in the first game – you can’t rush the small space to a shooter and drop them, for example, the way you could back in the first game.

This means your own guns are more valuable.

This means that ammo conservation is also valuable.

And that means that using sound to draw enemies into specific spaces is even more valuable.

These changes – to level design and enemy response to sound – transform Hotline Miami 2 into a tactical stealth game where the original was best described as simply ‘a top-down fuck-em-up.’ You could possible point to the natural sequel urge of making the game ‘bigger’ creating this change – and the game sure is bigger, with multiple plotlines and cutscenes and special mechanics from level to level. It might have happened unconsciously, or, given the low prominence guns had – it might be deliberate.

There’s a ton more gameplay here, too. Hotline Miami only really had one gameplay mode. The failure state was ‘did you die? so retry’ and the successes are only degrees of success. You could alter the gameplay in a small way with your masks, but the general thrust of how the levels played was still very similar.

Not so in Hotline Miami 2.

In Hotline Miami 2, the story is framed as a series of scenes each one meant to be, as it were, a movie, part of a greater whole or series, and to separate out the levels in tone the game changes up the gameplay pretty consistently, with characters who start at the baseline of Jacket, from Hotline Miami, but get steadily more and more weird as they explore different options. You have a group of people who wear different masks, functionally like Jacket’s masks but much more mechanically diverse. You have a soldier who can change from a single gun to a knife at any point in time. There’s a lot more focus to make it so each ‘choice’ you get is mechanically distinct, and this means there’s a lot of mechanically distinct stuff that I found really fun to get to grips with.

Do not get me wrong: These characters and their diversity is super fucking frustrating to learn, and maybe I’ll write some more about that later.

Deliberately Incoherent

One thing I made a point of in Hotline Miami was how much the ambiguity and lack of information created a concept space that I really liked to think about. I talked about how the absence of information, the lack of definition improved the game, and allowed a lot of room for interpretation. Sure, there’s an official explanation but it isn’t really all that good or even all that important.

When Hotline Miami 2 was first out my reaction was to worry that the last thing Hotline Miami really needed was coherence. It didn’t need a new story that explained everything and tied the components of the first game together. Still, I was cautiously optimistic.

Turns out the developers had agreed with me.

If Hotline Miami was Drive, then Hotline Miami 2 is Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. Rather than a single narrow plot focusing on the emotional reactions of a single person to intense violence, Hotline Miami 2 is instead a supercut of the best 80s exploitation gorefest movies that were never made. And I’m not making that movie comparison lightly. You can basically break this game into movies – it’s a Rambo knock-off, a Jason knockoff, a schlock gangster movie, a prison break story, a Chuck Norris racist-against-the-worse-people movie, a journalist on the trail of a Big Scoop, and a Charles Bronson serial killer drama. And then, woven into that you also have a student film, a terrible mess of a a thing with a dramatic but pointless end.

And pointless is important.

The Brilliant Idiot

Still, despite these colliding stories, there’s still a recurrent theme of incoherence. Oh there’s a story, in a Pulp-Fiction by way of Splatterhouse kind of way, but there are plot holes and narrative errors that come from every single character not being a reliable narrator. Drugs weren’t a guaranteed part of Hotline Miami but howdy are they here and in the forefront in Hotline Miami 2.

Nobody’s right. Everyone is wrong, by some degree, based on what they heard from the other people. There’s something wrong, there’s a story that may have happened, but by definition you aren’t seeing all of it and you probably can’t. The story that ties it all together only exists in your head.

And then you get, as a little hat-tip, to talk to Hotline Miami and find out that… yeah. Its story is probably just as incoherent.

The backgrounds of the game are amazing too – there’s a breathtaking amount of information conveyed in small objects and details, things you can interact with and things that are recognisably, identifiably meaningful. Unique weapons, objects you can knock over, all rendered in amazing, detailed pixelly glory, all sorts of just plain stuff.

Between the colliding stories and the gloriously rendered background details, Hotline Miami 2 is something like that old probably-not-true line about Native Americans: These game devs are using every part of the game. This game is vital story beats pared down to the bone, and the violence and ludic experience can take centre stage where the player can have the most impact on what the story tells you fundamentally matters.

Look I guess what I’m saying is: There’s definitely, definitely stuff to write about here in Hotline Miami 2. But whereas I could write thousands of words about Hotline Miami about how its deliberate opacity spoke to my soul and let me impose a story and values I could perceive as meaningful to me, Hotline Miami 2 is a very different exercise.

Hotline Miami is a ludic poem which unlocks a narrative as bonus content. Hotline Miami 2 is a loving tribute to exploitation theatre trash, the movies you’d wind up with if you were told to try and make a single robust narrative out of Hotline Miami. It’s garbage but it’s loving garbage. It’s tropey but it’s enthusiastically so – and if you give it the benefit of the doubt, and assume that it is at least a little bit cleverer than it seems, this game is damn smart.

Verdict

Given these dualities, while I do think Hotline Miami 2 is not as excellent a game as Hotline Miami, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, the more I think on it, the more sure I am that Hotline Miami 2 could well be a slightly superior place to start on the series. Experiencing this game without trying to compare it to Hotline Miami in any but the broadest way may be a better way to slip into this canon and mechanical headspace.

Ultimately, Hotline Miami 2 is the Flashback to Hotline Miami‘s Another World. It is not a bad game by comparison, but where Hotline Miami was a tight, singular experience refined to a narrow point, Hotline Miami 2 is a broader exploration of some of the same technology to a different end. Not a bad game, but definitely a less-excellent one.

You can get… it…

uh

okay so this is awkward.

I understand you can get Hotline Miami 2 on Steam, or on GoG, or a number of other websites. But I, being an Australian, can’t actually go to those webpages to buy them and link them to you. Still, odds are good, if you’re here, you already know where you want to buy it, so…

Verdict

Buy it if:

  • You want more and more varied Hotline Miami
  • You liked old schlocky 80s extreme-violence movies
  • You want to see some of these interestingly distinct gameplay styles

Avoid it if:

  • Frustration-driven gameplay angers you
  • You’re focused on perfectionism
  • You dislike the themes presented above

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