“Hotline Miami” is a game about murder. Unlike most games on the market, it does not attempt to sanitize its violence. Bodies pile up as you viciously murder everyone in your path. Floors become painted with blood, along with smashed-in faces and stray limbs. It surpasses Rockstar North’s “Manhunt” in its sheer amount of violence. It’s disgusting, brutal and brilliant.
“Hotline Miami” succeeds due to the combination of half “Drive”-inspired ultraviolent rampage (think specifically of the elevator scene) and half meta-commentary and analysis of violence in video games. On the surface, every facet of the design bleeds this ’80s retro aesthetic: The soundtrack is filled with psychedelic electronic tunes reminiscent of a coke-and-LSD-fueled 1980s Miami, and the car you drive from mission to mission is a DeLorean, easily recognizable from “Back to the Future.” Perhaps the best representation of the game’s aesthetic is the soundtrack, worthy of a listen independent from the game. The album, along with many other aesthetic aspects, is a precursor to the underlying commentary of the game, which examines the mix of relaxation and great highs at the cost of accepting disturbing, discomforting tones.
Like any dark ‘80s movie, “Miami Hotline” starts out cryptic. A quick, disjointed tutorial during the beginning of the game has a hobo teaching you how to kill — as if you don’t know how to do that already. Soon, you’re given hit locations, disguised as voicemails in your apartment’s answering machine, to clear out the Russian mob.
The combat, then, is the meat of the game. Played from a top-down perspective, it is reminiscent of “Robotron: 2048,” “Smash TV” or “Grand Theft Auto,” still sporting a pixelated art direction. “Hotline Miami” is meant to be played quick and dirty. While your enemies fall quickly, you will die quickly (in either one shot or one swing of a weapon), and you will die often. Every encounter becomes an experiment to achieve the perfect run. As you die again and again, you learn to fine-tune your path through the level. It’s masochism at its most forgiving degree, as checkpoints are always nearby and restarting takes at most half a second. Eliminating the final few enemies of a floor induces a huge adrenaline rush as you risk losing all of your progress, but when you do kill every single person, you feel like a god.
A scoring system for each level is also in place, and it rewards your brutality as you fight your way through each floor. Using guns, while a safer bet, nets you fewer points than using a melee weapon. If you knock down an enemy with your fists, you have the chance of executing him by smashing his head into the ground, and though you will be vulnerable during that time, it will net you the most points. Chaining your kills together also leads toward a bonus. In short, you’re incentivized to become a killing machine.
The other interesting aspect of “Hotline Miami” reveals itself at the end of each mission, when you kill everyone in the level. At this point, the music suddenly changes to a more sober tone. As you walk back to your car, you pass by every person you have killed. Without the adrenaline high, the landscape changes from achievement to destruction. Murder becomes decontextualized from an individual achievement to a disfigured body. The juxtaposition of this incredible high and sobering low represents the addiction of violence in video games: To achieve the best highs, we have to resort to doing despicable things.
Yet, despite how horrifying it is, there is something that brings me back to “Hotline Miami” time after time. In playing it, we accept the fact that we become virtual monsters to achieve the adrenaline rush “Hotline Miami” provides. But every element is masterfully developed such that “Hotline Miami” cannot be ignored, making it one of the best games of the year.
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