Platform reviewed – PS4/ PS Vita
When the initial shock of Hotline Miami’s neon-drenched ultraviolence subsided, it was always the tight, combo-encouraging level design that lingered longest in my memory. With its sequel, developer Dennaton Games has upped the ante with a much more ambitious narrative but has failed to retain that consistently great standard of level design, resulting in a sequel that, while very good in its own right, isn’t quite up to the lofty standards established by the original.
For the uninitiated, Hotline Miami 2’s premise is easy to get to grips with. An ultraviolent retro-psychedelic, top-down shooter that plays like the videogame equivalent of a Joe Pesci simulator, Hotline Miami tasks players with eradicating thugs, goons, and all sorts of unsavoury types from a variety of different ’80s- and ’90s-themed locations.
With your bare fists, knives, bats, machetes, and a variety of guns at your disposal, how you achieve this is entirely up to you. Spicing up the proceedings is a combo meter which increments with every kill and is only broken if there is a long pause between kills or if, as is most likely to be the case, you end up six feet under yourself. In a way, achieving a high, unbroken combo feels nailing a particularly lengthy combo in a skater title like OlliOlli or Tony Hawk, as a palpable rhythm for laying waste to your enemies soon kicks in as your murderous avatar rampages from room to room.
Speaking of dying, one of the hallmarks of Hotline Miami’s substantial accessibility and ‘one more go’ engagement with the player was the ability to immediately restart the level after death. Happily, I can report that this is still very much intact and much like the original game, the brisk loop of start, die, restart, get a little further before dying again endures in Wrong Number.
Elsewhere, the iconic masks that have been a staple of Hotline Miami’s infamy also return, with each animal mask actually providing different modifiers depending on which one is used. One mask might allow the player to roll underneath gunfire while another might empower the player with messy, insta-death punching skills.
Where Wrong Number differs from its predecessor, though, is that the selection of masks is tied directly into events that occur in the narrative. Whereas in the original you could freely pick from a long line of masks, all with different abilities, in Hotline Miami 2 the choice is often whittled down to a much more meagre choice of facial adornments with an overall reduced variety of abilities.
Another area in which Wrong Number feels a little lesser than the first game is in the quality of the levels themselves. Whereas the original had levels that were essentially combo theme parks, allowing players near unfettered freedom to ramp up those kills, the level design in Hotline Miami 2 feels much more restrictive and linear in terms of approach, and is again governed by the narrative rather than the other way around.
Take, for example, a level set on a shipping dock. Here, players are thrown into a one-sided firefight where five enemy goons are using some cargo containers for cover before popping out to shoot off a stream of rounds. While there are a few melee style enemies lurking about for easy kills, the ability to get any sort of combo going in this area is utterly impossible given that instant death is just a stray single bullet away. Given the freedom that so well permeated the levels of the original Hotline Miami, this sort of situation feels like a fair old step back from what we’ve seen before.
Another problem with the level design that rears its ugly head later on is the levels that start with your character off-screen, creating an absolute nightmare of orientation as you stumble onto the screen and usually end up getting ghosted by a rushing foe a good two or three times. Worse still is when you begin a level only to be nailed by off-screen gunfire that you can’t possibly see because you can’t see far ahead to avoid it. Such things simply didn’t happen in the original Hotline Miami.
Still, for every occasional misfire when it comes to level design, Wrong Number manages more often than not to hit the mark well enough. Furthermore, the principal benefit of a more ambitious narrative is that the game takes place in a wider selection of locales than the usual assortment of seedy clubs and gangster hideouts of the original game. With locations including subways, train stations, Cold War-era jungles, sewers, and much more besides, it’s fair to say that the variety of locales on offer is a very welcome step up over the fairly repetitive squalor that players were exposed to in the first game.
With the narrative itself, Dennaton Games has upped the ante quite significantly. Certainly more dark and nasty than the first Hotline Miami ever was, Wrong Number allows players to experience its sordid tale of psychosis-fueled ultraviolence through a number of very different antagonists at different periods of time. As the blinding neon of the game’s principal Miami setting gives way to a tale of grim nihilism and madness, Wrong Number has its fair share of uncomfortable and outright horrible scenarios.
Deserving of special mention is the game’s soundtrack. A stellar and eclectic mix of synth talent like as Perturbator and MegaDrive, the ear-thrummingly addictive score is as much representative of the spirit of Hotline Miami as anything else and is already a clear frontrunner for soundtrack of the year.
Absolutely top stuff.
When all is said and done, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number remains a great prospect for both Hotline Miami players and fans of regular top-down shooters. This is especially true given that the game still retains many of the adrenaline-rush sensations that made the original such an attractive and effortlessly engaging prospect in the first place. Whlie the level design might not exude consistent excellence, Wrong Number certainly triumphs much more than it stumbles.
2 *is* the wrong number. This feels more like an 8.0.