A few weeks ago I made a post about the first Hotline Miami game and how much I love it and the way the story structure can be interpreted using various story models. I briefly mentioned Hotline Miami 2, but didn’t go into detail about it. There’s a reason for that.
Back when Hotline Miami premiered at its first showcasing in 2012, it was ranked alongside titles with $500 million dollar budgets as the most promising upcoming title of that year. It more than delivered, becoming a cult classic among indie gamers and scoring well with critics; and while I do believe reviewing a game on its own merits without resting on the laurels of a previous installment is important, knowing this about Hotline Miami 2 is crucial, because on the surface the two games don’t seem all that different.
Hotline Miami 1 was a game about responding to mysterious phone calls on your answering machine instructing you to bash through endless mobs of Russian gangsters in late 1980’s Miami. The story was complex but not required reading, so-to-speak. The responsive mechanics, dark synth music, and neon pixel aesthetic of the game were strong enough that understanding the lore was not required to enjoy the fun and bloody romp through each level. This was one of the strongest points of the first game. It had style but still had substance under the surface, if you knew where to look.
Hotline 2 takes that stylish, almost cinematic approach from the first game and ratchets it up to the next level. The game opens with a level featuring a strange man in a pig mask brutally killing a group of mooks and then cornering and attempting to assault a young woman. Already, the violence and shock factor that made the first game infamous rears its head. We discover, as the level ends, that the man in the pig mask is an actor in a slasher flick, and the director of the scene instructs him to handle his co-star more roughly to make it seem more “real”. The screen fades to black and then the “real” story begins in the next level.
It’s an odd scene, and one that feels especially strange next to the open authenticity of the first game’s main character, a man with no spoken dialogue known to players simply as “Jacket”. Jacket, and Hotline 1 in general, kept very few secrets from the player. The player knew as much as Jacket did at any given moment, and the only real mystery was who was leaving the messages on his answering machine, a mystery that the game encouraged the player to solve and presented them with the tools to do so with a small but still visible puzzle piece hidden somewhere on every level.
Hotline 2 not only does away with this puzzle mechanic entirely, it actively tries to ‘pull one over’ on the player in the very first level. This reads as a subtle message from the game. Despite its visual and mechanical similarities to the first game, Hotline 2 is not the same and the player shouldn’t expect it to be.
It’s a warning to be well-heeded, as the first level opens and we are faced with a very different animal than the first game. In Hotline 1, the main objective, and the thing that netted you the most points was speed. Bolting from room to room, while it was more likely to get you killed, would earn you high combo scores and lots of achievements. This was possible and a viable strategy because each level was compact, and divided into many smaller rooms which could each be tackled individually for the most part. The small levels also allowed the player to see the whole board and think ahead about how they wanted to approach each room.
Hotline 2 does away with all of that. The levels are wide and spacious, leaving a lot of room for the player to be shot and killed by enemies they can’t even see, or ambushed from a place they hadn’t even had the chance to scope out. Deaths in Hotline 1 were frustrating, but felt justified because often it was the player’s own fault. They were avoidable. Dying in Hotline 2 feels like an unfair punishment, a cheap way to make the game more difficult than it needs to be.
I devoured Hotline 1 in less than a week, because each death made me want to try harder, to get better at the game. Hotline 2 took me longer than four months to finish, because dying was discouraging rather than motivating. I felt cheated every time I died because an enemy I couldn’t see shot me from a place I didn’t even have the chance to explore, or because a dog enemy glitched and clipped through a wall to attack me. This is sadly one of the most common ways to die on any stage that has dogs.
The warning about Hotline 2 being its own game remains relevant to the story as well. As the story begins in earnest in Chapter 2, we learn that the events of Hotline 1 are over, and Jacket is on trial for the crimes he committed in the first game. Instead of following one, mute character, we are introduced to no fewer than six in the first 15 minutes, and ten altogether by the end of the game.
Four of the playable characters are The Fans. Appropriately named, they are fans of Jacket and his murder spree, and attempt to replicate it by going out and choosing random strangers to kill and brutalize as copycat killers. Each of The Fans has their own unique play style that makes replaying the game worth it just to try out the pair of chainsaw-wielding twins, but on the first playthrough, the player is limited in which characters they can choose to use on each level.
The next playable character is The Writer, who is trying to write the definitive book on Jacket and his murders. The Writer’s mechanic is easily the most interesting. In a game filled with horrific, bloody violence, he is a non-lethal character, refusing to outright kill any of his victims. This would be more interesting if he had to stealth around levels and not even engage in combat with enemies, but instead he simply hits and incapacitates them, making it killing in all but name.
The Writer’s best friend, a detective named Manny Pardo fills our sixth character slot. On the surface, Pardo is investigating a serial killer and his trail of victims, but, like the first level, not all is as it seems. His special ability is unique gun execution animations, but otherwise his play style is no different from the others. Were it not for his extensive involvement in the story later on, he would be completely unremarkable.
Our last four characters are The Son, a Russian mob boss with abilities that almost exactly mirror those of The Fans, The Henchman, a character that is used for only one level and is then promptly killed, Richter, an escaped convict who magically fires shotguns more slowly after each subsequent pellet, and The Soldier, a flashback character from the first game whose special ability is that he can only carry a limited amount of ammo at a time and cannot switch weapons like every other character in the game.
If explaining each of the characters sounded confusing, imagine trying to play them and piece together a cohesive story with ten unique individuals and how their lives were impacted by one man from a previous game.
This is ultimately the weakest point of Hotline 2. Setting aside the too-large levels, the poor layout of the stages, the glitches, the artificial difficulty, Hotline 2 requires the player to get involved in a story that many people simply won’t be able to follow and consequently won’t care about. By the time the nuke destroys all of Florida at the end of the game, I was simply glad it was over. This is exactly the opposite of the tone at the end of Hotline 1, when Jacket stood on the balcony contemplatively smoking a cigarette as the police sirens got louder and louder.
At the end of Hotline 1, the player is left with the weight of Jacket’s decisions, but ultimately still feels sympathy for him because of the journey he made and his drive to discover the truth, which at that point remains elusive. Hotline 2’s cluttered, jumbled mess of a story leaves no questions and subsequently no emotional attachment to any of the characters. Like its levels, Hotline 2 is a too-expansive, overcrowded mess.