Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
2012’s Hotline Miami was such a singular title in its narrative, style and gameplay that the response to news of a sequel was as much a cause for concern as it was celebration. Having delivered a ‘fuck you’ send-off to critics of video game violence via an in-game cameo, developers Jonaton Soderstrom and Dennis Wedin seemed to have effectively painted themselves into a corner with regards to any future for the series.
The answer, in terms of narrative at least, is to get even more surreal and dive into the first game itself, like David Lynch directing a concoction of Drive and Back to the Future Part II. In fact, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, actually kicks off on a movie set based on the events from the first game just before the director starts to get a bit twitchy himself.
This is, of course, all in keeping with the tone of Hotline Miami, where the comfort blanket of reality is quickly whisked away and replaced with the uncertainty of nightmares and hallucinations. However, HM2 ramps things up considerably, telling its twisting, non-chronological tale not from two perspectives like the first game, but from a whopping thirteen different characters.
If that sounds like overkill then it’s probably because, inevitably, it is. Keeping track of the plot is its own nightmare, not least because it can be difficult to invest in many of the new characters. Self-styled four piece ‘The Fans’, who are out to copycat the killing spree of ‘Jacket’, the anti-hero at the centre of the first game, are entertaining enough, but many other characters are burned through in one or two levels, casually dispatched just as you grow accustomed to their styles.
Which leads into another issue this sequel throws up. From a pure gameplay standpoint, the original title thrilled mainly due to the choice it allowed players to have. Hotline Miami, may have looked like a crude arcade twin-stick shooter from 1987, but underneath its warts-and-all graphical façade was an incredibly deep tactical puzzler. Within this framework the player’s own narrative shaped the game immensely. Faced with a room of, say, three Russian mafia goons, HM’s greatest asset was in affording you a myriad of ways to ‘solve’ this puzzle. Stealthy door slams, knockout punches and the odd garrotting versus an all-guns-blazing twitch murder spree, the choice was yours.
Whilst many levels of HM2 still adhere to this, there’s been a creeping element of developer-forced narrative in the interim. Amongst the slew of characters there’s the investigative journalist who won’t pick up a weapon, the war veteran who refuses anything other than his trusty rifle and the mask-wearing ‘Fan’ who relies solely on his fists of steal. All of which are nice little ideas but ultimately they feel a little gimmicky and, more importantly, as if your playing style is being dictated by the game rather than vice versa.
Some developments fare better though, particularly the improved lock-on system and the durability of your protagonist (a single gunshot from fifty metres will no longer necessarily mean game over anymore) whilst the dirty electro soundtrack is not only better than the original, it’s one of the best game scores in recent memory. It’s also hard to over-state just how integral it is to the enjoyment of the game itself. In something approaching hypnosis, you’ll find yourself driven by the thumping tunes; a hundred grisly deaths on a single level becomes just part of the beat, a necessary device before hitting the euphoric crescendo.
At these moments, Hotline Miami 2 will win you back and then some. When given overall control with one of the more regular characters you can set about dolling out your meticulously planned death and destruction in an adrenalin-pumping, fist-clenching way that few other games can match. Emergent gameplay moments flow as fast as the hair-trigger reactions of your foes and you’ll (eventually) walk away with tales of over-turned plans saved by quick reflexes and quicker trigger pulls.
Yet these moments are just that little sparser than the original, exacerbated by larger level environments and a brutal difficulty curve even by the first games’ standards. Underneath it all, HM2 is still a great game but it’s in spite of the differences to the first game rather than because of them. With more characters, larger levels and a sprawling story, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number has much to appreciate yet by comparison, the original game was perhaps a textbook example that, sometimes, less really is more.