Monday, March 23, 2015

\\ Dial 2 For More: Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number //

This article contains spoilers of gameplay scenarios and plot points in the game, “Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number,” by Dennaton Games, published by Devolver Digital. Played on PlayStation 4.

It’s often easy to forget that video games are a relatively new medium of expression. Looking back at our earlier days, we see a plentitude of experiments, some of which stuck and would later become popular franchises, and others which were forgotten to all but a niche few. Having not been around during the 70’s and 80’s, and having never owned a Commodore 64, a Nintendo Entertainment System, a Sega Genesis, etc. makes it hard for me to say, but it’s easy to imagine that for game designers, it had to have been a beautiful time, a vast expanse of possibility, ripe for exploration. Programming was difficult, and access to the tools and knowledge necessary to produce games were subject to only an elite few.

Things are different now. The independent games scene of the last eight or so years has finally been able to find an in with the “big boys”, and their productions became more noticeable. Nearly half of Paste Magazine’s top 30 games of 2012 alone were developed by very small teams. Some, indeed, with the financial and developing assistance of publisher support, but none faltering in their independent creative spirit. Games like Journey, Dyad, Spelunky planted new seeds upon well-worn territories with which to reinvigorate and rebuild outward in new directions.

Hotline Miami stood tall amongst that crowd of releases. Tight and brutally difficult yet satisfying gameplay, a ferociously-pulsating soundtrack which made legends out of unknown beatmakers, primitive yet eerily-effective pixel art, and a simple and relatively unpretentious premise with some faintly thought-provoking philosophical posturings all combined to form an extremely satisfying experience. By the time I had completed it, I felt as if I had arisen from something which at once felt a comforting fever dream yet also a nightmare. Hotline Miami was a self-contained, lean experience; you didn’t need more. Even if you didn’t understand its plot, it didn’t matter much; the game wanted to simply let itself wash over you with its gunshots, cyberpunk tunes, vigorously-vibrating gradient backgrounds, and, uh, masks. And that was that, or so it seemed.

Oh, the possibilities...
Oh, the possibilities... (Image credits: Giant Bomb)

Not too long after the original’s release, a bundle of downloadable content which was being developed for the original game spiraled into its own sequel, which took a surprisingly long amount of time to release. I was cautious, but optimistic that Dennaton’s sequel would contain enough new gameplay ideas to feel like more than simply a timid retread of old stomping grounds, but I’m left a bit slighted, confounded, yet even somewhat indifferent with the results.

The core gameplay loop and control scheme of the original is left intact here. Hotline Miami 2 is still at its core a top-down twin-stick action game, with weapons with which to shoot, slash, swing, and throw, doors to kick open, knocking down your enemies, and takedowns with which to finish them off with. The player still has next to no health to survive on, so death is plentiful. We even still encounter the same legions of AI foes (guys with melee weapons, guys with guns, dogs, fat dudes who can only be killed by bleeding out from bullet wounds, as well as a new melee weapon-only equivalent), with next to no new ideas for our adversaries.

The original game’s levels all begun with the player choosing a mask for the character, named Jacket (a pretty overt reference to Nicolas Winding-Refn’s film Drive). Not only were they eerie and representative of the game’s tone, they also allowed the player freedom with which to craft a playstyle tailored to their tastes. As well, the levels were made up of several floors of tightly-knit corridors, small rooms, rife with potential for strategic and quick kills, which was necessary when one takes into consideration how quickly they die.
Doing it all over again
Doing it all over again (Image credits: All Games Beta)
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number does things differently in both of these departments. Instead of playing Jacket from the original, the game passes us back and forth between different characters. A couple of these characters allow for different options for play, some of which are similar to choices offered in the first game (punches that kill, for example), or a character who can only choose one gun for the entirety of the level we play him as, needing ammo replenished as we run dry, or a character who can equip dual-wielded uzis to fire from his sides until they run out. Yet many have only one available playstyle, such as a character who actually removes all the ammo out of weapons you pick up, rendering them useless to both the player and their enemies.

Another stark difference to be found in Hotline Miami 2 is the inclusion of several larger, wide-open floors, many of which are rife with windows from which to get shot from. These levels encourage a widely different style of play than the options which were available in the original; whereas then players could run from room to room, surgically taking down enemy after enemy with precision, now they need to play extremely conservatively so as to not get shot from offscreen. I often found myself attempting to lure enemies to my death trap by popping out from around corners for a quick second, all while frantically searching for windows from which I could potentially be open for attack.

While I commend the game for trying something new here, in general I consider this new level design philosophy to be a poor decision, as it serves only to create more annoying difficulty spikes, inciting frustration in players. Hotline Miami 2 is harder than its predecessor, but for the wrong reasons. Whereas the first game punished you for making mistakes in clearly communicated situations, Hotline Miami 2 is willing to knock you down to your knees from the rear. I found myself ultimately playing the game to completion simply for the sake of optimal critical analysis, since the game can be frustrating to the level of mundanity.

It doesn’t help that this sequel is much longer than the first game, all in service of the plot rather than any sort of evolution in its gameplay arc. I would have liked to see more twists on the established mechanical trends then are present here, or even just new, more experimental weapons to toy around with. The flamethrower is a cool, if overpowered example of what I’d like to see more of, but the player doesn’t even get to equip the Hawaii character with it until they’ve already completed all of his levels.

The plot itself is difficult to follow, not only because it jumps around in time periods and from character to character, but also because I would find myself simply forgetting what the narrative explanation for my excursions were due to lengthy amounts of time spent in a level dying over and over again. Hotline Miami 2 is a game that very much wants to convey a message, but its obtuseness seems only to betray its simple mechanical conceits, its main pleasures. In the original, I didn’t have too deep a grasp of what happened at the end of it all, but I didn’t much care, as Hotline Miami was satisfied to simply let its aesthetic vulgarities wash over you, leaving one wondering, did that all really happen or was it merely some fever dream?

More of this...
More of this... (image credits: Alex Navarro's excellent review on Giant Bomb)

Hotline Miami 2 has way more characters, but only one seemed to resonate at all with me in any meaningful capacity, that of the tale of a man who watches over his sick mother while at home, meanwhile also committing heinous murder sprees for work behind her back. I appreciated the contrast between his very egregious choice of a career and these very human moments, with soft visuals and a laidback song complementing his visits to his poor mom, almost as if Dennaton were subtly acknowledging the, *sigh*, ludonarrative dissonance of the matter. The other characters and their respective plotlines on display here didn’t do much for me. As well, there were just too many storylines occurring all at once, making the plot seem as if it were spreading itself thin. If the game at least had had a small amount of coherent narrative through-lines to engage with over the course of this game’s twelve-or-so hour runtime, it would have made so much of the rest of playing this game more bearable, but its confusing nature left me unengaged. The game does resolve with an amazing visual sequence that will stand out in my head for a long time to come, but it would have been more effective if that section of gameplay had come about as a result of rising tension beforehand and not just because the developers needed a cool way to finish off the game. The introduction to the game is worth mentioning, as it features a scene where the player must kill off a selection of enemies and then sexually assault a woman, only to be revealed that the player is controlling an actor on the set of a film reenacting the events of the original game (though this never happened in the first, in case you are worried about the first game's nature). This scene is excessive; it adds nothing to the plot, and seems only to exist as mere shock value. The player can choose to turn off sexually explicit content if they wish, but that doesn't outright erase the nature of the scene itself. 

It’s worth mentioning that the soundtrack and visual splendor found permeating through this game is still on-point, but that should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who played the first. If anything, I’m happy that the existence of Hotline Miami 2 brought with it a new and spectacularly-curated bunch of tracks to jam to while I work, but then again, a simple YouTube playlist might have sufficed in this area.

Unfortunately, there really just isn’t much more to say about Hotline Miami 2. It’s the sequel as more, not as invention. Hotline Miami 2 goes against the spirit of the original, a game which appeared seemingly out of nowhere, was novel, experimental in nature, sounded and looked great, and was a fucking blast to play. I’m not fundamentally opposed to sequels, but I personally value them more as works when they attempt to subvert your expectations of what a sequel could be than what it should be.

I also can’t help but feel a bit slighted at the idea of a sequel arriving at all from an independent developer; it feels like wasted potential and time, time which had already been spent developing the fundamentals of the original. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number feels like an admission of defeat, as if Dennaton acknowledged they simply had no better ideas to develop a game around. One can imagine all the crazy gameplay scenarios Dennaton are capable of conjuring up if they were let loose, not constrained by typical “franchise” boundaries.

I even might have been able to excuse the sequel’s overbearing sense of familiarity if it at least had been as good as the original, but it’s not, and the first game’s problems still haven’t been ameliorated; if anything, they’ve been made worse. More off-screen deaths, an AI which is still poor, and the game is even glitchier than the first. Add poor level design allowing the player with a narrower amount of approaches to combat scenarios and fewer gameplay modifier options, if at all, and what you’re left with is a game that never needed to happen. Enjoyable in spurts, sure, but excessive. If you’ve yet to play the original and you’re looking to start with the sequel, I’m afraid you’ve picked the wrong number.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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