By Jonathan D. Lee
It seemingly came out of nowhere. On October 23, 2012, Hotline Miami was released to critical acclaim. it was unapologetically ultraviolent and featured brutal but surprisingly cerebral combat set to a kickass synthpop soundtrack. The cryptic storyline about a secret war between patriotic American vigilantes and the Russian Mafia was an homage to the cold war paranoia that permeated 1980s politics and media. Ultimately, it led President Ronald Reagan to spew in 1987, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
2012 saw the release of several highly anticipated indie platformers like Dust: An Elysian Tail and Mark of the Ninja, but it was Hotline that ultimately garnered the most passionate cult following. The neo-noir action puzzler with the gaudy neon veneer became a sleeper hit, inspiring cosplay, some serious game criticism, and tons of fan art. In fact, one piece of fan art was so good that Dennis Wedin, one of the co-creators of Hotline, got it tattooed on his chest.
Unfortunately, breakout success is both a blessing and a curse. Hotline Miami 2 has a lot to live up to. Everyone expects sequels to be better, but everyone expects sequels of great games to go beyond “better”. Dennaton Games had to deliver a successor that could usher in yet another age of Hotline-related fandemonium.
With Hotline 2, Dennaton tried to cut the Gordian Knot of hotly anticipated sequels by making everything bigger: larger maps, more enemy types, and more playable characters. It’s an ambitious approach, one that works beautifully sometimes, but it’s not without hiccups.
Hotline 2 remains the frantic, top-down chain killing game that fans expect. However, where the Hotline Miami was defined by tight interiors, Hotline 2 mixed this up by adding in some expansive outdoor maps. The result is a more conservative style of gameplay than the previous game, a change that’s not completely welcome.
Guns play a more prominent role in Hotline 2. In the new wide open maps, it’s common to have enemies firing from off-screen, forcing players to adopt a much more defensive strategy compared to the original. Some sequences become battles of attrition, sniping enemies from afar and playing peek-a-boo to bait in shooters.
The story also has grown. Rather than following perspective of one character, Hotline Miami 2 is divided into a series of expansive vignettes that don’t follow a linear timeline. They alternate between the events of 1985 that gave birth to the nationalist organization 50 Blessings (featured in the first game) and in the early 90s after the narcissistic, pizza-loving Jacket’s one-man killing spree against the Russian mob. Some of the new POVs include a pacifist journalist (odd for this kind of game), a corrupt detective, a young spec ops soldier (Beard, the king of odd jobs in the original game), and my personal favorite, a group of copycat vigilantes inspired by Jacket called The Fans.
With this larger cast comes a change in the way masks are used. They’re now character-exclusive, and most missions won’t allow players to select alternate masks at all. It’s a change that feels challenging rather than stifling, but not all masks are created equal.
Mark, the bear-masked big man of The Fans, has the firepower ability, which allows him to wield MP5s. In one of the game’s trailers, Mark rushes into a crowd of enemies and spins with arms out and both guns blazing, becoming a lead-slinging hurricane of death. Yet during gameplay, this is virtually never practical and the only thing it will earn you is a continue prompt. Alex and Ash, the brother-sister duo of the fans, are two characters that are controlled as one. Alex wields a chainsaw while her brother Ash sports a pistol. But ash also has a frustrating tendency to lag behind doors when Alex charges in.
Ultimately, Hotline 2 is a good game that’s sometimes a great game when it isn’t biting off more than it can chew. The slower gameplay in Hotline 2 isn’t worse than its predecessor. But it can feel less satisfying. Rushing down a claustrophobic corridor and chain slaughtering a gang of mobsters is a lot of fun. Popping out a door to aggro a bunch of shooters and then hiding in the corner is a little less fun.
Although Hotline 2 won’t enjoy the same prestige as the original, it’s a solid title that was made with much hope and ambition. Not all the new changes work, but when they do, the results can improve the fan experience.
It could also be the last Hotline game. The finale didn’t leave much room for a sequel. By delivering what is strongly implied to be a conclusive ending to the series, Dennaton Games could be forcing themselves to start fresh, to prove that their freshman success wasn’t just a fluke. Perhaps they want to show they’re capable of making another hit without riding on the wave of celebrity.
That’s something I gotta respect. Even in the midst of the questionable design decisions, Dennaton’s proclivity for deceptively complex gameplay and cool aesthetics shine through, and I look forward to what the future has in store for them — and for us as gamers.
Jonathan D. Lee is the deputy editor of 1337, a new, digital eSports magazine based in Denmark. Lee, however, makes his home here in The Big Apple.