The story sees you as a contract killer-for-hire in 1980s Miami. From the offset, everything seems a little weird, with odd moments where you have to check your answerphone or collect a pizza bookending the carnage of each of the game’s 15 chapters. These scenes get more abstract and surreal as the game progresses, which provides a entertaining break from the devastation. Each of the chapters has some objective, although they ultimately boil down to killing everyone and everything.
The entire game is shown from a top-down perspective, which seems unusual at first, but proves to be thoroughly effective for the purposes of the gameplay as well as to showcase the brutality. You can move, pick up weapons, throw whatever your holding and attack. That’s it (supposedly there’s a way to use a human shield, but I never discovered how). In terms of weapons you get melee weapons and guns, though the melee weapons are surprisingly effective, not least because they’re silent and thus don’t attract every enemy nearby. You can also hit enemies with doors and thrown weapons to knock them out. Unconscious enemies will get back up again after a short time, unless you finish them off in their downed state.
What makes the game what it is though, are the enemies. They’re particularly stupid, will walk in predetermined patterns, and will come straight for you if they spot you, but they don’t make mistakes. If they see you and they have a gun, you’re dead. If they see you and they don’t have a gun, they’ll ruthlessly close the distance, and you’re still dead. Although the levels are small (with checkpoints at the start of each stage), death means having to start over, systematically taking down every enemy again. Every so often there’s a boss fight, and these are pretty well designed, with particular solution that you’ll find through observation and trial and error.
Fortunately restarting (“R to restart” will become something of a mantra after a while) is effortless, which is what will keep you playing. Often you’ll die through getting stuck on scenery, or something equally frustrating, but the good thing is you’ll immediately be able to vent that frustration by crushing a goon’s eyes into their sockets or shooting someone’s torso in half. Don’t let the retro stylings fool you, there is a lot of gore both implied and visualised in Hotline.
There are other trappings to make the game more replayable. For starters, you’ll unlock different masks as you play through, one of which can be chosen at the start of each level to give some passive ability to the gameplay. Similarly, there are also weapons to unlock, which will then be available randomly throughout the level. Then there’s the scoring system; upon completion of a level you’ll be graded in terms of things like stealthiness and combo kills. There’s also a puzzle minigame that requires collecting puzzle pieces throughout the levels (that can be easily missed unless you’re looking for them). Finally, on completion of the game, it becomes possible to replay some of it with an alternate storyline.
Having read so much critical acclaim for this game, I was very skeptical as to whether I’d enjoy it. Many reviews talk about the game requiring perfection, and I was afraid the game would require more in terms of twitch reflexes than I was able to muster. However, I’m pleased to report that this is not the case (although there is no dificulty setting, and some parts are very tough to coordinate), and in truth the game feels more like a puzzle game than anything else, as you try to plot a path of destruction through its acid-trip maze, and then attempt to execute through the right combination of hitting with doors, collecting, throwing, shooting and stabbing.
If not for the problems with the Mac port, it would be easy to recommend Hotline Miami, provided you can stomach its gruesome visage. It will take you to some dark and disturbing places, unapologetic and stone-faced the while time, but what a trip.
Performance & quality
Sadly the Mac port is just not very good (at least on our Nvidia-based system, reportedly ATI-based systems fare better), to put it mildly. During our playthrough, the Mac version hung completely twice, and there was a permanent flicker throughout. The controls feel a bit soft compared to the Windows version. The game is pillarboxed to 4:3 on widescreen monitors (an issue which exists even in the Windows version). The Windows version of the game has controller support, which this version is sadly lacking. Also missing is the Steam overlay in the Mac version.
The music is wonderful (so good in fact that I’ve been listening to it whenever I can), assuming you like the dark house/trip-hop genre. Also worth mentioning is the sound, not because it’s anything special, but because the developers made the right decision in not having deaths being audible. You’ll hear the blast of a shotgun or the swipe of a knife, but you won’t have to listen to any death-throes, which would have been too much in light of the already visceral visuals.