Title: Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
Publisher: Dennaton Games
Developer: Devolver Digital
Release Date: 10th of March, 2015
Time Played: 17 Hours
Concept and Execution
Hotline Miami blew open the door to a drug-fueled world of violence, paranoid conspiracies, and a general nihilism that perfectly matched the abandon at which players would slaughter their way through foes. It captured, in essence, a perfect combination of brutality and existentialist dread that most developers don’t dare approach, and ended in with a special finale that left more questions than answers. How do you follow it up? Should you follow it up? Regardless of the answer, we’re sitting here now with Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.
Wrong Number serves as a direct tie to the original’s story, picking up all of the loose threads and then some. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, considering that most opened-ended stories are best left to the player’s imagination. Players are given control of multiple characters: The Fans, a group of pals who worship the original’s protagonist; Martin Brown, an actor starring in a movie based off of Jacket; Manny Pardo, a detective investigating Jacket’s murders; Evan, a man writing a book on Jacket; The Henchman of a Russian mob boss; The Son, who is the Russian mob boss of the previous guy; The Soldier, who is actually the clerk you meet in various locations in Hotline Miami, but before that when you’re fighting against the USSR in Hawaii; Richter, the man with the rat mask from Hotline Miami that attacks Jacket and kills his girlfriend, and finally Jake, an obese man drawn into performing the same killings as Jacket in the same time period. Confused yet? I didn’t quite grasp all of these characters before looking them up, either.
But, somehow, the story isn’t as convoluted as it would seem. Each story is tied up, in some way, not only with the original’s, but with each other. Evan and Pardo are friends who talk regularly. The Fans cross paths with The Henchman, and The Henchman—obviously—works for The Son. Denaton somehow manages to introduce this mess of characters and still, beyond all reason, make it work. My reluctance to learn about the original’s mysterious ending was assuaged by the ways in which the characters drew me in. Despite the near-overwrought necessity for violence, I felt some sort of sympathy for most of them, and the ones I didn’t were interesting enough to pull me in.
All of this is executed from the same top-down pixel-art design, of which is robust enough to fully grasp the impact of the game’s hardest moments. Blood and gore splash wildly onto the floors. Characters panic when chaos befalls them. The masks convey a sinister knowing, especially one in particular that serves amongst all of the stories as a bad omen. Going beyond merely looking pretty, Wrong Number looks powerful. Add to this the pulsating neon background and hard-hitting trance music, and it’s back to the adrenaline-soaked vigilante in the most perfect way.
It isn’t often that a game manages to reveal what’s behind the curtain and surpass player expectations. Denaton set out to answer questions, and they did so spectacularly. If only the rest of the game was as well executed.
Concept and Execution: 25/25
Pulse pounding violence. Instant reaction times and pin-point execution. These are what’s necessary to make Hotline Miami: Wrong Number work. Those are what made Hotline Miami work. What happens when you don’t get that? Well, let’s talk.
Everything about Wrong Number is built to play on the adrenaline rush of the chaining together supremely violent takedowns against foes that would murder you within seconds. Players are supposed to, assuming the ranking system means anything, blow through levels with a preternatural dexterity and vision as they mow down, beat down, decapitate, disembowel, and generally demolish any enemy that they see. There are no survivors. And yet, the game doesn’t always cooperate. Nor should it, at least to a degree. It shouldn’t be easy for players to master the game instantly. That’s not what Hotline Miami was about. It was about mastery through repetition. Playing through levels dozens of times was necessary, as one mistake meant instant death.
This is true here as well, though it plays much uglier. Instant death works when you can see your threats. You know what to expect, have time to plan or to react. When you can’t see the threat, then the thrill grinds to a halt. Imagine, then, having to execute this perfect plan against enemies that you can’t see, yet they can see you. Yes, those thugs with shotguns can shoot you from a screen and a half away, and there’s nothing you can do about it until you’ve died enough times to figure out where they’re hiding. Eventually this isn’t as large a nuisance, when you’ve paid the blood toll and completely memorized the map, the enemies, and whatever patterns they might be carrying out.
In the normal mode, this isn’t as great an issue. Enemies that are far away are, generally, obstructed by some object, usually a section of a wall or a car. This gives players enough leeway to avoid the bullet spray, but it belies the game’s greatest problem overall: levels are too big. Any given level would take me roughly twenty minutes to complete, and I don’t think I’m that bad at the game. I’ve S ranked hard mode levels, dammit. But when levels are this large, it’s no longer about the rush. It’s about meticulously working your way through a car shop, hoping that you didn’t miss the guy with a shotgun on the other side of the building so that you don’t have to spend another three minutes—if you’re lucky—clearing out the level again. When stripped of the adrenaline rush, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is an exercise in tedium dressed up in absurd violence.
But I digress. Masks make a return, though they function somewhat differently this time around. Almost every character gets their own selection of masks, or mask equivalents in the case of The Soldier and The Son, which means that there is a large degree of overlap and thus less variance. Hotline Miami, by focusing on one character, made great strides in providing players with choice. Wrong Number misses that, and misses quite soundly.
Which, unfortunately, is true for much of the game. Where it nails it, it nails it. Other times, well, just bear through it.
Wrong Number is about style. Wrong Number is about music. Wrong Number is about neon-strobes and melting trance numbers that dissolve into a mindless bloody haze. But, before you start, you can forget the mechanics, forget the story, and sit there with the menu open. It’s good enough to exist on its own as a piece of ambient music in just about any relaxing situation. It’s soothing. It’s comforting. It sits you down and tells you everything will be O.K. And yet, nothing is. Nor will anything ever be.
Dread and unrest are the main players here. You’re not supposed to be comfortable. You need to be on the edge of your seat gripping your controller, and the music drills that into your skull at every intense moment. The only semblances of a reprieve are during the few moments in between missions where you’re either winding down from a savage act of vigilantism, or when you’re edging up to another one. Music comes courtesy of a multitude of artists, including Jasper Byrne (also heard in Hotline Miami), M|O|O|N, Benny Smiles, Perturbator, Sean Evans, and more. There’s too many to list here. Rest assured, they all leave a lasting impact, and serve as perfect matches for the scenes that they’re paired with. Everything from clean, dark night clubs to musty chop shops have appropriate music to match. What’s more is that everything fits into the sort of desperation, this literary gasping that’s going on. Characters, even on their down time, feel restless. It’s The Fans itching for scumbags to kill. It’s Jake getting furious over these calls that he doesn’t understand. It’s The Soldier preparing for what is, ostensibly, a suicide mission. All the while colors swirl and dissolve in the background, further adding to the exhaustive unease.
The entirety of the dialogue is carried out in text boxes with portraits of the character’s face. Thanks to the artistic direction at Dennaton, each character looks borderline gross. Jake exists as a caricature of the obese man with anger issues, his face sputtering and his brow furrowing at whoever is giving him grief. Manny’s state of being is betrayed by his disheveled hair, darting eyes, and unkempt stubble. When the masks come in, there’s an ominous quality to them. None of them move, save for the Rooster mask, of which functions as a startling harbinger whenever it pops up. It isn’t overwrought, either. Wrong Number treads dangerously close to the oft-maligned territory of Fight Club and Donnie Darko, in which would-be philosophers sink their teeth into an edgy sort of philosophy that fits in with their privileged, “brutal is cool and therefor this speaks to me” ideology.
It holds back, though, and executes flawlessly on existing on the edge between hopelessness and having something to live for, all in a world awash in blood and neon.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number isn’t the strongest at its gameplay. While it is fast at its best, it’s a crawl at its worst. Going through a level for the umpteenth time simply because a patrolling thug didn’t take the exact path you needed him to is at times unbearable. Nor is it fun inching forwards and holding shift so that you can see far enough to know if an enemy is going to blast you away if you take another step. Those moments are patently unenjoyable, and lack derive any greater meaning. There isn’t something deeper to take away from them; it’s not a commentary, it’s simply bad level design.
And yet, it’s worth experiencing. You can stay away from the hard mode if you want—I would even recommend it. Working through levels to the get to the story, as bad as that may sound, is enjoyable in its own right, despite these issues. The most paradoxical aspect of Wrong Number is that a game that focuses on its mechanics is far, far outshone by its story.
And don’t get me wrong, Hotline Miami 2 is mechanically sound and enjoyable to play. Only when I reached the hard difficulty did I ever feel like giving up. Rapid respawn times and a lighting pace assuage a great deal of the frustration.
Entertainment Value: 20/25
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is the triumph of the story in a game that is centered on gamification and mechanical fetishism.
Overall Score: 87/100 (B)