June 28, 2013 3:45 PM | Anthony Swinnich
Murder has long been a central element in gaming. From Contra to Manhunt, digital manslaughter has never been in short supply. Hotline Miami does nothing to change this; it's an absolute bloodbath from start to finish. It is, however, one of the first games to bring to question the motive behind such senseless slaying as a central element in the plot. And it does so with ruthless efficiency, like a .44 magnum to an eye socket.
What Dennaton has done with the story is groundbreaking for the medium. No, it isn't going to shake the foundation of storytelling in games -- it's still mostly text on screen. But Hotline does more than convey how the character feels through words: It makes the player feel how they feel. The mystery and confusion that surround the motivation for your actions are palpable because it's you performing the actions. And they're wholly unsavory, downright malicious actions. Don't get me wrong, it's thrilling to bust into a methadone clinic and methodically dismantle anyone inside. But the small voice questioning the "Why" in the back of your head when the game starts to get a little louder each time you march through your carnage back toward the exit, eventually becoming a full blown scream.
Of course, not everyone is going to feel the effects of the narrative this strongly. Thankfully, Hotline Miami plays as well as it ever did on PC due in no small part to the controls. Since it's a top-down shooter at heart, the character moves with the left stick and looks around with the right. The R1 button swings or fires weapons, while L1 either picks them up or throws them. Looking around is handled by depressing L2 on the PS3 or the touch screen on the VIta, while any events can be activated by pressing X.
Those new to the game will likely be surprised by the numerous ways one can interact with their future victims. There are plenty of weapons lying around to sever the thread of life, though my absolute favorite interaction is the way doors stun people. Opening a door as an enemy is passing by will knock them straight to the ground and disorient them for several seconds, allowing you to climb onto them and repeatedly smash their head into the floor or break their neck. Firing guns alerts enemies to your presence so melee weapons are a decent alternative for those who prefer to play stealthily.
Honestly, the game will likely make short work of those who shoot first and ask questions later. Learning the layout of the levels is paramount to your success as a would-be serial killer, and planning a route definitely takes the driver's seat during gameplay. Things can go wrong, so there is some degree of reactionary gameplay here or there, but it's usually best to create a plan and stick to it as closely as possible.
I'd be remiss not to mention the game's incredible audio-visual style. Hotline Miami's dark sense of style would be severely diminished if it weren't for the care and effort put in to these elements. Bright, neon colors clash wildly with the uncomfortable and twisted pixel-art, from the talking heads to the masks you don during missions creating a style unlike any other. It's how I'd imagine an acid trip, frankly. The soundtrack ranges across several incredibly talented artists, like Jasper Byrne or MOON, creating a diverse soundscape that sets the proper mood for every scene. Thumping bass, smooth grooves and foreboding moodiness are represented in equal parts.
If you missed out on Hotline Miami on PC and you find yourself even remotely intrigued, it's a crossbuy title well-worth picking up to play on PS3 or Vita. The story is as disorienting as it is compelling, the gameplay is killer and the soundtrack is among the best ever put to gameplay. It could be among the best uses of $9.99 in your gaming history.