Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number Review

274170_20170301143000_1Developer: Dennaton Games
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Played on: PC
Release Date: March 10, 2015
Time Played (Steam): 9.6 hours
Played with: Mouse & Keyboard
Paid: $5.49 (Digital Special Edition)

Those of you who follow my work somewhat regularly know that life hasn’t really been the greatest as of late.  Without going into the unpleasant details, let’s just say that there have been many days where getting home from class has involved a dramatic flop onto my bed, an arm draped over my forehead, and a long, heavy sigh.  Surprisingly, though, I found something of a cure to this funk: horrifically graphic killing sprees.  Thankfully, not in real life (I’m writing this in a Starbucks, not a prison cell or a safe-house), but in the neon-soaked world of Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.  Despite the fact that it’s been awhile since I played the first Hotline Miami, diving back into its world of blood and carnage seemed to be second nature.  Unfortunately, part of the reason for this is that Wrong Number is just a little bit too familiar.

One of the main areas where Hotline Miami 2 has expanded over its predecessor is its story.  In the first game, the narrative was mostly left intentionally vague.  Directed to different areas by cryptic messages left on your phone, you took control of Jacket, a mysterious protagonist with seemingly one mission in life: destroying every last piece of the Russian mob.  Interspersed throughout this were short hallucinatory vignettes where you spoke with three strangers in animal masks, each making unsettling inquiries and comments regarding the violence you were committing.  It was a pretty solid setup, and I remember it kept me hooked to see just how far down the rabbit hole things would go.

Hotline Miami 2 seeks to fill in the blanks all around the plot of the first game, giving context to what led to and followed Jacket’s rampage.  It’s an interesting concept, but the execution is unfortunately lacking.  The main problem is that Wrong Number’s approach to storytelling is similar to the film Cloud Atlas.  Both media pieces tell their stories by jumping around between different times and characters, showing the actions and interactions in each and how they affect what is to come.274170_20170228213334_1There are a number of reasons why I feel this approach fails in Wrong Number, but they mostly come down to how difficult the plot is to follow.  Now, don’t get me wrong: Cloud Atlas is a film that I needed to watch multiple times before I really started making sense of it.  However, there’s a key difference: Cloud Atlas is three hours long.  Hotline Miami 2 is nine hours, and that’s if you’re halfway decent at the game, which I consider myself to be.  It’s a hell of a lot easier to piece together the details of a story when you can go through it all in one sitting, and this is far easier to do with a three hour piece of content than a nine hour one.  And that’s ignoring the fact that Hotline Miami 2 has effectively taken the middle part of that story and sectioned it off in a game called Hotline Miami.  Yes, I know that Wrong Number is the sequel, but bear with me.  So what you end up with in Hotline Miami 2 is a plot that jumps between time periods and characters from level to level, fragmenting the story and making it that much more difficult to pick up on the key details it wants you to pick up on.  I mean, this is a game for which I had to watch a twenty-odd minute video that pieced together the story in chronological order, just so I could make sense of it.  Plus, each of Cloud Atlas’ time periods had a distinct aesthetic and recognizable characters, whereas Wrong Number’s characters (and especially environments) are little more than chunky, pixelated palette swaps of one another.

Following the plot isn’t really helped by the nature of the game.  Due to how heavily Hotline Miami 2 focuses on its story, every level is bookended by some sort of plot-relevant piece.  The difficulty here is that it’s pretty tough to keep track of key plot details when you’re constantly forced to spend twenty minutes or so in a laser-focused blood rage in between.  By the time you come out of the trance-like state the game puts you into during gameplay, the entire plot has turned into a haze.  In the first game, this worked, because the story sequences were mostly meant to be confusing and surreal.  Here, though, you’re constantly taken out of things to remind you that you’re a soldier in a war, a struggling writer, a detective, and more.  It’s like the game comes up to you after every level, smacks you in the head with a baseball bat, and yells out, “WELCOME BACK TO REALITY, SUCKER!”  The only problem is that you’re too busy lying dazed on the ground to really absorb any of it.274170_20170228210543_1So, at this point, one could make the argument that more exposure to the plot is all that’s required.  That I just need to play through the game a few more times, and then it’ll all click into place.  Aside from the time issue mentioned previously, though, here’s the other problem:  found the story to be forgettable.  I thought about going back to play through some levels again in the hopes of figuring things out, but then I realized that I didn’t care.  If I did go back through, I’d probably just skip all the story cutscenes, because there wasn’t really anything interesting in there aside from the occasional gory shock.  It just didn’t have a compelling story, unlike Hotline Miami’s “descent into madness”-esque tale.  I think it says a lot that I got more out of watching that twenty minute recap video than I did from playing through the entire nine hour game.

At its core, Wrong Number’s gameplay is fantastic.  It’s built on the same premise as Hotline Miami: Barge into a house, mow down enemies until one of them inevitably creates a new orifice for your body, mash the hell out of the ‘R’ key before the “Restart” prompt even shows up, and repeat.  Plus, both you and your enemies die in one hit, giving a great risk-reward tradeoff to the proceedings.  Charging in while madly swinging a pipe may let you clear a room without a scratch, but it may also see you quickly picked off by some gun-toting character and forced to restart the floor.  The fast, visceral combat makes it so you barely even process the atrocities you’re committing until you slaughter the last enemy, the music cuts out, and you’re forced to walk back through the carnage that you’ve wrought.

There’s also a great amount of weapon variety, though some of my favorites like the pool cue from the first game seem notably absent.  As you progress, you can unlock more options, so it is possible that I just didn’t work through the bonus weapons enough.274170_20170301212403_1Unfortunately, most the “improvements” Hotline Miami 2 makes to the established formula just hamper the experience.  Let me get this out of the way first: the game takes a “bigger is better” approach to level design, and it is maddening.  Almost every level has at least one massively long line of sight, and whenever there’s one of these, you can guarantee that there’s a rifle at the other end, waiting to shoot you from off-screen.  Remember how I said you die in one hit, and then have to restart the floor?  Now imagine how rage-inducing it is to be scouring a floor for the last enemy, only to have a bullet suddenly perforate your skull.  It got to the point where I was almost constantly holding down the Shift key to pan around the level, where this was something I rarely had to do in Hotline Miami.  It really slows down the pace of things, forcing you to put your frantic killing spree on hold to peer around corners and duck into cover.

While I’m sure that more seasoned players will have other ways of dealing with the above problem, my solution ultimately boiled down to “cheesing” the game.  Basically, on most levels, I would just get the attention of enemies, then hide around a corner until they showed up for me to pick off.  It was amusing, but for all the wrong reasons, and mostly pointed out how idiotic the AI can be as opposed to providing a rewarding strategy for completing a level.  This is a Hotline Miami game, not an extra-gory version of Whack-a-Mole.

The other main problem is that the game largely forgoes the unlockable mask system from the first game, and instead provides a limited arsenal of unlockables for certain characters.  The soldier can choose a weapon to start the level with, while Jake can choose one of three snake masks, each of which grants a different effect.  The list goes on, with most characters having a handful of options at their disposal.  While I can appreciate the fact that this makes players change up their strategies depending on the character they’re playing, it also further kills any desire to replay the game.  Just thinking about it now, I would much rather go back to the original Hotline Miami and tell myself, “Okay, I’m going to beat the entire game with the Tony mask”, rather than going to Wrong Number and saying, “I’ll beat all the soldier levels with the sniper rifle.  At least until I run out of ammo and have to run around with my knife, searching for ammo crates.”274170_20170302215348_1There are a few nice additions to the game, like some missions where you don’t have to kill anyone, and ones in which you control a chainsaw-brandishing character, while their partner follows behind you with a gun.  Unfortunately, in the case of the latter, the following mechanics can be pretty hit-or-miss, and sometimes you’ll dart around a corner so your partner can unload on an enemy, only to discover that they’re stuck on a door frame.

At least the game’s presentation has remained stellar.  From its opening moments, I fell in love with the soundtrack.  While it has a lot more peaceful, atmospheric tracks on it compared to the original game’s score, the massive amount of effort put into Hotline Miami 2’s soundtrack is truly impressive.  It’s also something of a miracle to me that, despite having so many artists involved, the soundtrack has such consistent theming, while still allowing room for individual styles to show through.

The graphics and attention to detail really shine here as well.  Despite my earlier complaint about the character and map designs, there’s still so much to love here.  Animations, while often simplistic, do a great job of communicating what is supposed to be happening.  Little details like your character throwing some bills onto a counter just add an element of believability to the world.  It shows just how much care and attention went into making this game look and feel like a neon-infused, pixelated, and horrific version of reality.

Speaking of which, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the violence.  Holy crap.  I thought that Hotline Miami was crazy, but I think Hotline Miami 2 has set the new standard for me.  Chainsaws can be buried in enemies’ chests and revved until they fall over in a bloody heap.  One person is grabbed by the head, and has it ripped off, their spine trailing behind.  And speaking of losing one’s head, the game includes physics-enabled decapitations, letting you kick the noggins of enemies around the level to your heart’s content.  All this variety means that every enemy death ends up as a gruesomely satisfying affair, even with the most basic of weapons.274170_20170302114836_1In some ways, I feel like the Hotline Miami games came out in the wrong order.  Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is like the developers took a “kitchen sink” approach, throwing every idea they had at the wall to see what stuck.  On the other hand, the first game feels like a lean, mean sequel, with the mechanics and story stripped down to include only what worked from Wrong Number.  Instead, Wrong Number feels like a game that just got too ambitious.  It tried to go bigger and better, when it was really at its best as a simple, focused product.  Hell, it even did this while ignoring bugs from the previous game: the hearing and sight of guards appear to use random number generators, doors can flail around madly if someone stands in them the wrong way, and the enemy AI sometimes just gets stuck and spins around in circles.  At the end of the day, there’s still a lot to love about Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.  It’s just a shame that it’s all been done better.

Also, they got rid of the guy in the owl mask.  So disappointing.

6/10

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