Hotline Miami: Questionable Enjoyment Dec05

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Hotline Miami: Questionable Enjoyment

On rare occasion, I watch Good Game on the ABC. This is rare because my time is rare. And if I’m watching it, this probably means I more than likely have the living room to myself, in which case, “Why would I watch people talk about games when I could be playing them?”. Especially when out of the two hosts, I generally dislike one (Bajo) and am ambivalent on the other (Hex). Occasionally though, they have comedic champion Dave Callan and every week ‘Goose’ has a segment. I like Goose. I would prefer to watch Good Game once a month, but it just be his segments strung together… but before I have even started, I’m off topic.

Goose reviewed Hotline Miami in the most recent episode I watched. It’s an indie title for the PC. You can find the transcript and a link to the video of the segment here. Seeing as I just said Goose was really good, perhaps you should watch it. It doesn’t go for very long. I’ll wait right here.

Welcome back! So they give it quite a good score, and it sounds like something I’d be in to. People compare its difficulty to Super Meat Boy frequently; a game I am very fond of. But here’s my general feeling of Hotline Miami so far:

“Am I having fun?”

“Am I supposed to not be having fun? Is the game trying to make me feel bad about being a ruthless killer? Is that the point?”

“Is there a point?”

“Why has nobody in any of the reviews I’ve read mentioned how sometimes bad guys run at you, don’t manage to hit you and somehow stand in the same spot as you, and no matter what direction you aim your attack for, you can’t hit them and as soon as you move, you’ll die?”

First up, Super Meat Boy, comparison: dumb. The games couldn’t really be much more different. Aside from both having good soundtracks and a pixel-art style. To me, it’s kind of like saying two video games are alike because they are both video games. I think the main reason for the comparison is how often you’ll die. It’s a lot.

And for the record, I prefer SMB’s soundtrack and visuals – pixel art, but high-def. As opposed to Hotline Miami’s entirely classic pixel art, where the game appears to be entirely in 320×200. That’s not to say that Hotline Miami is unattractive, because it surely is not. It even employees a few tricks to modernise the style like, having the display tilt, as if you were standing in front of an arcade cabinet and tilting your head as you moved the character in that direction. Sometimes I swear they use that tilt to make you feel sick though, and I’m not sure I’m a fan of that either, but we’ll get to that soon.

The game encourages you to perform combos, and also discourages you from using firearms. However, the best way I’ve found to get combos, is to use a firearm, alert everyone to your presence, and then when the all come through the door one after another: kerblamo. And because weapon drops are mainly random, each attempt at a level is not identical. So it’s not like you can work out your path through the level with melee weapons and get a great combo reliably.

Hotline Miami is hyper-violent. And by hyper I mean ultra-extreme-insanely-hyper-violent. If this game wasn’t a retro-pixel-art style, I’m confident it would be getting considerable media attention. I could write a paragraph about the gruesome and grissly ways your character kills, or gets killed, but basically if you can think it, or it’s happened in any movie: it’s in here. Maybe I’m sheltered, but I think this is fairly well evidenced by the images above and below.

There are 14 levels that are grouped in to narrative chapters. Each level can consist of multiple stages (normally floors of a building), the start of each stage is a checkpoint. Each level is started by your character waking up in their home, checking the answering machine and receiving a weird message, that basically just contains an address you have to go to an kill everyone.

Once you’ve cleared a level, your character goes to a bar or a video store or a restaurant and gets talked to by the attendant. Aside from Chapter starts, this is where most of the story progression is communicated. I should also mention that once you’ve cleared every stage of a level, you must walk back to your car through the cleared stages, through the bloody trail of destruction you’ve created. I’m not sure if they’re trying to make you feel bad about what you’ve done, or they’re simply letting you revel in how successful you’ve been in the face of such difficulty. I swear though, that in this ‘walk back to the car’ section, that the play area’s tilt-right/tilt-left movement is increased to make you feel a little queasy. Again, maybe I’m just imagining it, or maybe it just seems that way because your walk back to the car is unimpeded by the need to be tactical and hence the rocking motion goes uninterrupted.

Scores and commendations also seem to be the name of the game at the end of a level as well, where you find out well the game things you did, unlock new weapons and unlock new masks.

The mask you pick at the start of the level gives you some sort of perk, like starting with a weapon or being able to survive a bullet or two.

So, what do I like about the game? Well, sometimes levels are very much like puzzles. You may have to work out what order to try and take the enemies down and the timing based on their patrol patterns. I also like the story it tries to tell, it’s very surrealist, but it definitely keeps you wanting to complete the next chapter to see what will happen next with the narrative. It has an interesting control scheme and combat mechanic, and the soundtrack really is great.

I’d also like to say that the art style reminds me a lot of a 1994 game called Dreamweb (now Freeware as of a couple of months ago). Which I really, really hated post-completion. There seem to be a few narrative similarities also.

I guess the reasons for my title are multiple. The enjoyment is questionable from a moral standpoint in what I like my player character to do (eg. am I happy that he might Blade Runner people’s eyes back in to their sockets?). But it’s mainly around how the game makes me feel. It’s hard for me to convey other than, I think I enjoy it, or perhaps I’m simply compelled to play more to further the story, but at the end of a play session I feel a little bit sick. That said, if you’re interested, then I recommend it. It’s definitely worth the price of entry, and is a very polished and unique indie title.