Like the Hollywood classic Drive which provided a large helping of inspiration during development, Hotline Miami is a visceral assault on the senses which often leaves you breathless and sweaty-palmed, but also isn’t afraid to offer up moments of shocking frustration. Part action game, part puzzle title, part subversive mind-bender, this is a game which delights in spraying the screen with gore yet has a surprisingly thought-provoking story at its heart.
And despite the game’s intense focus on unremitting violence – surely the thing which has garnered it the most attention so far – the story becomes the element of Hotline Miami which sticks with you long after your power down your PlayStation Vita. You begin the game as a nameless protagonist who receives bewildering messages on his answering machine instructing him to perform what sound like menial tasks, but in reality are simply metaphors for visiting a particular location and slaying all of the people contained within. Without wanting to spoil the story, things become increasingly unhinged as the narrative progresses, forcing you to doubt the sanity of the lead character and the motives of the individuals around him.
This gripping and often shocking tale is propelled along at breakneck pace by the game’s blood-splattered action sequences, which are divided neatly into bite-sized chapters. Each has the same rough objective: you are required to enter a building packed with hostile forces and eradicate them all in the most creative way possible. It’s here that Hotline Miami’s game engine is truly allowed to shine; you can choose to dash in all guns blazing or you can adopt a more considered approach, silently killing enemies to ensure that those nearby are not alerted to your presence.
A selection of firearms and melee weapons are available, and as you progress through the game additional items are unlocked. These are spread liberally around each location, and are randomly placed – you will find that your strategy changes as you respawn and discover that new weapons now litter the floor. Guns have a finite amount of ammo and showcase different ballistic properties – machine guns are excellent for clearing rooms rapidly, but have a very narrow arc of fire, while shotguns lack speed but more than make up for it with their large area of effect. All weapons can be thrown at enemies to either stun them (in the case of guns) or kill (in the case of bladed items, such as knives and swords), so even when a gun's clip is empty, it can still be of some use. If you don't have access to any weapons, you can rely on your fists to get the job done.
Despite the sheer volume of guns, blades, and blunt instruments in the game, sneaking up and punching an opponent is always an attractive option – especially if you’re running low on ammo or wish to remain unnoticed. Slain foes usually drop to the floor in a pool of blood and brain matter, with limbs broken or blown off entirely. This rather shocking spectacle serves a legitimate purpose within the game, however – if an enemy is prone on the ground but isn’t bleeding profusely, then you need to leap on top of them and finish the job as quickly as possible, as they will soon rise to their feet and continue their assault.
Hotline Miami’s combat engine is satisfying and instant – kills come quickly, both for your opponents and your character, who is no more robust than the people that he is attempting to wipe out. However, the real joy comes from chaining together kills to boost your score – and subsequently your rank at the conclusion of each mission. For example, you can push a door open to stun an opponent, pick up a gun, spray the room with bullets, and then throw the empty firearm at an oncoming foe before leaping onto his body to administer a fatal blow to the skull.
What makes these moments even more rewarding is the fact that your own death is rarely more than a few seconds away. Your rivals are crack shots and will take you down as soon as you enter a room. Also, close combat is no guarantee of success, as your enemy is just as likely to bash your cranium in, given half a chance. Add in rabid attack dogs and powerful boss characters and you’ve got a game which is going to kill you over and over and over – but that’s part of the fun. As Hotline Miami’s loading screen will helpfully inform you, you shouldn’t be afraid to die – in fact, it’s all part of the learning process. As is the case in From Software’s Dark Souls, death in Hotline Miami is merely a mechanic which gives you the opportunity to learn the best route through each level.
Masks are another important part of Hotline Miami's gameplay. These are unlocked during play and offer various status effects, some of which can turn the tide in your favour on trickier missions. One allows your character to walk faster, while another makes opening doors fatal to nearby enemies. Yet another ensures that more powerful guns are located in each stage, making progression that little bit easier. These masks – which are all modelled on animals and feature prominently in the game's promotional material – have another purpose; they cover your character's face and allow you to project yourself onto your nameless digital avatar.
The game’s unique presentation has thankfully made the transition to the Vita intact. The lurid, pixel-heavy graphics call to mind DOS-based PC titles from the early ‘90s, and the outstanding soundtrack suits the on-screen depravity almost too well. Before you even begin playing, the developers insist that you don a pair of headphones for the best experience, and it’s advice that is certainly worth taking note of.
It was almost a given that Hotline Miami would benefit from proper gaming controls, and that is unquestionably true with this Vita port – and, to a slightly lesser degree, its PS3-based relative. The twin-stick arrangement is ideal for this kind of game, with the shoulder buttons handling weapon pick-ups and firing. You can also use the Vita’s touch screen to lock-on to enemies (something which the PS3 version obviously lacks), or you can instead target the nearest foe using the Square button. This option is much better if you need to react quickly, as moving your finger from the right-hand stick to the screen takes too long when you’ve got several enemies to contend with.
The isn't totally without fault, however; sometimes your melee attacks fail to register even when you’re right on top of an opponent, and there’s a frustrating inconsistency to certain encounters – one time you’ll gain the upper hand easily, while another time your foe will have turned and killed you before you even manage to set foot in the room. This unpredictable nature is mitigated slightly by the fact that you can quickly respawn, but on later levels a single mistake can mean having to replay the whole floor, and this leads to understandable frustration on behalf of the player. Thankfully, the action is engaging enough for this moment of anger to dissipate swiftly.
With the vastly improved controls and portable-friendly nature of the game, one could argue that the Vita version of Hotline Miami is the definitive offering. Everything that made the PC original so compelling is present and correct, and the fact that you can now take the game with you when you leave the house is a real blessing. Hotline Miami’s intense challenge, deep narrative, and penchant for extreme violence mix together to create an intoxicating cocktail which once again brings up that age-old argument of whether or not games should truly be considered art. We’ll leave you to wrestle with that particular quandary, but Hotline Miami is arguably as subversive and shocking as anything the mediums of film, music, or literature can produce — and it’s bloody good fun at the same time, too.