Published on March 16th, 2015 | by Tom May0
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number – Review
Reviewed on the PC.
Sequels are a tricky business, especially when you’re following up on an unmitigated success. “Bigger and better” is the mantra most of them typically adhere to: a hopeful undertaking of expanding and improving upon the original. So it is with Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, the follow-up to Dennaton Games’ sleeper hit Hotline Miami. But how do you improve upon the deceptive simplicity of the original game without losing the fan base you had won over with your first success? On paper it all sounds pretty great: larger levels, a greater focus on story, and added replayability via a (soon-to-be-released) level editor. Add to that an all new soundtrack, and being a longer, more difficult game overall and it sounds like Hotline Miami 2 has found its recipe for success. In a lot of ways, I suppose that it has. Fans of the previous game are going to at least be satisfied that HM2 is still at its core the disturbingly compelling game that they remember. But changes to an already proven formula are a risky proposal, and not everything Dennaton sets out to improve upon works out as well as I assume they had hoped.
Like the original Hotline Miami, it’s a top-down action game with a focus on brutal violence. It’s delivered through simple, 16-bit pixelated graphics made distinctive by a trippy, bright colour palette and the bloody gore that inevitably fills the screen before long. There’s no high-concept gameplay involved here; a level typically involves clearing several rooms of bad guys with as much savage efficiency as you can muster. And then you leave, occasionally having to carry out a macguffin as you survey the aftermath of your rampage. It’s incredibly straightforward. It’s also insanely hard because just like the baddies you’re terrorising, you happen to be made out of tissue paper. Meaning you will go down in one hit, whether from a baseball bat to the face or a stray pellet from the shotgun at the other side of the room. This is the core of the Hotline Miami experience, ignoring all the various quirks and frills that make it truly unique, and that has remained unchanged for the most part. It’s the various parts that have been tacked on or hacked off that turn Hotline Miami 2 into something of an unwieldy beast compared to its predecessor.
Take those vaunted bigger levels for instance. For the most part, the original game’s levels were quite compact. Not small, as such, but packed in tightly to make for lots of winding corridors and rooms that were necessary to get the drop on opponents whose AI always seemed to teeter between scarily competent and utterly moronic. At first blush, HM2’s larger levels are impressive. The locales are much more varied and clearly there’s been more effort put into their design. You could forgive a person for thinking that many of the levels in Hotline Miami were rather samey for the most part, with the occasional flourish of an exciting environment to traverse being kept for the bigger story set pieces. Not so this time around. A shopping mall, a subway, a holiday resort in the middle of a jungle, it’s all quite refreshingly imaginative. And, like I said before, they’re all much more expansive.
But there lies the problem. It feels, at least in my opinion, that the many choices and approaches you could take in the first game have been stripped down considerably. With such wide, open areas being so common, I found myself being far more cautious as a result. A big part of the appeal to Hotline Miami is tackling a challenge fluidly and in as short a time as possible. But too often in HM2 I just stuck to squatting in the safest corner, poking my head out intermittently to lure a dumb bozo or two into a place where I could safely clobber them. It’s partially my fault, I’m sure, for being overly cautious, and not being the greatest Hotline Miami player to begin with. But with areas so wide that the small camera pan you have at your disposal can barely cover enough ground to tell you what’s lurking just beyond (it’s a guy with a gun who’s about to force you to start the room over again, in case you were wondering), it certainly feels like you’re being nudged towards being more careful and patient than you would have ever been in the original. Sure, you still get a better score if you throw caution to the wind and try to emulate the recklessness typical of the first game, but unless you’re a real pro at it, it’s going to quickly start feeling like you’re deliberately running yourself into a brick wall over and over again.
This feeds into the whole increased difficulty thing. Again, that’s by no means a bad thing to begin with, but it’s how that ramped up difficulty is achieved that quickly begins to rankle. Aided and abetted by the previously mentioned increased map size, enemies with guns are a constant worry. Because they tend to see you from the other end of the room when you often can’t, and many of them are either standing or roaming by windows that they can helpfully peek out of at any given time and fill you full of off-screen lead. How do you deal with guns? More guns! If you currently don’t have a gun, you’re probably going to want to get one. Hotline Miami struck a nice balance between melee weapons and guns to the point where firearms often felt like a last resort. HM2 in comparison feels a bit too much like a dual-stick shooter at times with how reliant you become on them to deal with faraway threats that’ll quickly blast you away as you run halfway across the screen to try and hit them with a golf club. It’s a shame because the up-close-and-personal combat always felt the more visceral approach, but in the sequel it falls to the wayside all too often.
The controls remain as finicky as ever with an often imprecise, temperamental lock-on function, and the all-too-common issue of trying to pick one particular weapon out from a messy pile. This becomes particularly aggravating when you’re trying to pick up the one gun with some bullets left and your character instead prioritises the metal pipe, right as the guy with shotgun comes bearing down on you. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sadly common bug of enemies getting stuck in doors which can mess with you at the best of times.
I was never the biggest fan of the story in the first Hotline Miami. It was esoteric in the wrong sort of ways for me, and I never found myself particularly invested in much of what was (maybe) happening. But I could certainly appreciate what it did for the the seedy, often disturbing atmosphere that the game went for. If nothing else it contributed to the sleepless, strung-out feeling the game was going for in a game where you played as an unhinged serial killer wearing creepy animal masks. And best of all, it very rarely got in the way of the gameplay, excepting a particularly dire visit to the hospital and the bonus levels where your options and tactics were notably curtailed. The sequel decides to drop much of the cryptic bent from the first one in favour of a more traditional narrative with much more dialogue, comprised of a number of different brutal vignettes and psychotic episodes rather than focusing on the story of just one or two characters. But it also needlessly obfuscates things by making the timeline non-linear, jumping between those many different characters, stories, and time periods at will.
People who found themselves invested in the story of the first game will likely enjoy how the sequel fleshes out various details across several characters, and I’ll admit that even as someone who didn’t particularly care for the original game’s story that some of the revelations managed to interest me. The real problem with this more focused narrative is how it often feels like it’s getting in the way of the game. Almost completely axed from the game is the ability to choose a mask at the beginning of each level to bestow a strange quirk on to your character; either beneficial, detrimental, or just weird. I say almost because a couple of characters can still have the ability to pick a mask or mask-equivalent, but the characters are few and the choices are really diminished. And as previously mentioned, you’re thrust into the role of each character as the story demands, so if you prefer one style of play or really detest another, you’ll just have to suffer through it with a stiff upper lip. More often than not, the characters you play as are just how they come. A few come with conceits, some intriguing, some frustrating, but you’ll be doing as you’re told regardless.
At this point it must seem like I absolutely loathe Hotline Miami 2, and that really isn’t the case. It’s still a good, if not great, game despite numerous flaws, and is a decent sequel in its own right. The menacing synth soundtrack flows perfectly with the brutal gameplay and thanks to the longer length of Wrong Number it’s even heftier than the original. People who play Hotline Miami as a vehicle for the music are unlikely to be disappointed by the eclectic selection on display. The indisputable neon-bleached, nostalgic 80s style remains in place as well, guaranteeing that Wrong Number remains a rare experience despite some rough edges. And there’s plenty of replayability you’re getting for a game that took me around 8 hours to finish the first time around, with leaderboards for score if you’re so inclined, an added hard mode for additional challenges, and the promised level editor coming at a later date as a free extra, which could theoretically provide hours of new content for players being provided by the more creative and deviously-minded among us.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number can sometimes be a frustrating adventure. But the first game was often no different, and I’ve always found my feelings towards the series to be somewhat complicated as a result. ‘Fun’ never feels like the proper word for what I get out of it. I tend to waver towards something like ‘satisfaction’ or ‘relief’ instead. Satisfaction in managing to finally pull off that perfect, or at least complete, run of a level. Or relief in having overcome that one sticking point so I could move on to the next level of potentially Sisyphean hell. I suppose I prefer whichever one makes me sound less psychotic. But fun isn’t always what you want from Hotline Miami. For me, overall, it’s mostly about the experience. And Hotline Miami 2 has that in spades.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is out now and available on PC, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, and Playstation Vita.