Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review of Hotline Miami

Underwhelmed.  That's how I feel.  That's how I've felt since the very beginning... since Hotline Miami was announced.  Underwhelmed, and a bit confused by everyone else's giddy excitement.  And here I am, still underwhelmed.  No, I don't think it's a bad game.  In fact I can't dispute most of the praise it's had heaped on it.  The lightning fast strategic gameplay is unique and often fun.  The bizarre story is interesting.  The queasy hallucinogenic style is very well-realized.  Objectively speaking, it's a pretty good game.  But it didn't click with me, ever.  I didn't get to the point where I actually looked forward to starting it up.  By the half way point, I was no longer playing for fun... I was playing to finish it so I could write my review with a clear conscience.  So I could move on to something less abrasive.

That crater used to be a person.

Ok, I guess I have to explain what Hotline Miami is, for the 4 or 5 of you that haven't heard of it by now.  It's a game of nightmarish hallucinations and queasy neon.  It's 1980s ultraviolence that invites some obvious comparisons with the movie Drive.  But where Drive was a vaguely ethereal (if violent) dream, Hotline Miami is a fevered nightmare.  Its violence is gratuitous, its difficulty curve is brutal, its colors are assaulting, its story is surreal and more than a little dark, and its music is of the "you will submit thyself to my funk" variety.  The whole style is, as I already mentioned, very well-realized.  I've never done LSD, but I expect this is what it's like.  From the very beginning, you feel like you're trapped in an unnaturally rotten world.  A sort of manic paradise gone very, very wrong.

Read this sentence over a few times.  It's deceptively confusing.

And what does this all mean from a gameplay perspective?  It means that you'll be killing a lot of people for no particular reason, with a variety of weapons ranging from hammers to assault rifles.  It's a top-down action game with a twist--enemies die easily, but it only takes one hammer swing or assault rifle bullet to kill you as well.  So no running and gunning.  You have to carefully plan every assault.  You have to think like you're playing a stealth game.  The experience requires a lot of trial and error as well as lightning fast reflexes and precision aiming, and the feeling of incredibly brittle power combined with the graphic violence on display can be rather enjoyable.  It's thrilling to burst into a room and turn it into a mess of corpses, debris, shattered glass, and blood in a matter of seconds.  It can also be fairly satisfying to unravel the best way to approach every kill.  Throw your gun to knock that guy over, punch his companion, finish him with a few brutal head bashes, grab his knife and slit the other guy's throat, then turn around just in time to dispose of a third man running at you with a machete.  That's one room.  Only a few dozen more to go.  Maybe the next one is where you'll finally open fire with your shotgun and abandon stealth entirely.  Maybe you can still keep quiet.  That's Hotline Miami in a nutshell.  Short moments of planning followed by even shorter bursts of graphic violence.

Inexplicably, I thought it would be funny to stick in a screenshot of F.E.A.R.

But there are some things that are simply annoying.  For instance, it's really easy to lose track of your crosshair.  I mean, to the point where it's hard to find the damn thing while you're just walking around, let alone in the middle of combat.  It blends in far, far too easily with the rest of the environment, and makes it very difficult to be as precise as the game wants you to be.  A related annoyance has to do with how the camera works.  By default you can't see beyond the edges of the screen, but can hold shift to move the camera around and look further (i.e, actually see the same distance that your enemies do).  Constantly holding down shift starts to feel uncomfortable, but otherwise you feel half-blind.  It's a clunky mechanic, and it seems like an artificial handicap.  Why couldn't the game have simply used the good old "center the camera midway between your character and the mouse" method?  In general, looking around and aiming in Hotline Miami feel really off, which keeps the gameplay from quite living up to its potential.

Try to find the crosshair.  Or the protagonist, for that matter.

Honestly, none of these issues are really gamebreaking.  Hotline Miami still works, and playing it can still be pretty fun.  It's got lots of annoying elements, but then some of my favorite games have lots of annoying elements too.  Annoying elements can be looked past.  It's just that I find the game as a whole to be repulsive, and its mechanical irritations are just lemon juice in the eye.  Why do I find it repulsive?  Well, let's start with the visuals.  Sure, on the one hand they really do make you feel like you're seeing the world through a drug-induced haze.  Like confetti cupcakes that have been vomited back up, Hotline Miami is full of jubilant color... but the color is garish and putrid.  So as far as artistic vision goes, the visuals are great.  On the other hand, they can be really hard to look at.  Not just aesthetically, but sometimes even physically (particularly in the disco level).  I respect that the visuals contribute to a greater sense of style, but at the same time I don't really like immersing myself in the sort of world they create, and I don't like how they make my eyeballs feel.  The same goes for the music.  Yes, yes... I know everyone loooooves the music.  I don't think it's bad, it just comes off as abrasive.  Driving electronic funk with lots of wah wahs, picky little treble motifs, and deep bassy farts.  Again, it fits the game's whole style very well, but I still find it unattractive.  Just like the rest of the presentation.

Oh.  Umm... good doggie?

So... guess what the story is like??  Yup.  Surreal insanity and dark humor, as expected.  And it does a very good job with the whole hallucination thing.  It can be intriguing to try and figure out what's going on, especially when things start to get really unhinged.  Oh, and naturally it's quite ambiguous.  The sort of thing people love picking over and philosophizing about.  I think I've established before that I'm not a fan of that sort of thing, so I won't really comment on it.  What I will comment on is the game's treatment of violence.  From what I gather, Hotline Miami is supposed to be something of a critique of gaming's culture of mass murder, similar to Spec Ops: The Line.  The problem is that its method of critique is hypocritical at best. See, in Hotline Miami you either kill everyone or you don't progress.  Pure and simple.  There are situations where it wouldn't actually be necessary to kill everyone, but all the invisible barriers won't disappear unless you do so.  There are even a few situations where a helpless victim is pleading for mercy, and there's no reason to harm them, and yet you're still forced to gouge out their eyes or bash in their brains to continue.  See, this sort of audience critique doesn't work if you're blaming the audience for decisions that you've made for them.  You have to let people actually make the choices that you're condemning them for.  You have to give them the rope and let them hang themselves.  Otherwise, you're just criticizing them for playing your game in the first place.  And that can still work, but it has to work purely as an artistic statement, and not as entertainment.  See, making depravity fun and then criticizing people for enjoying it is self-refuting hypocrisy.  It's a double standard.  But that's exactly what Hotline Miami does.  It forces you to kill people, makes the killing fun, then turns around and chastises you for having fun killing people.  That's not deep moral introspection, that's self-righteous finger waggling.  If you're going to ask why gamers enjoy violence, it's best not to be the answer to your own question.

You'll see this screen an awful lot.

Basically, I don't like Hotline Miami.  It's not that I think it's a bad game, it's just that I don't like it.  I don't like it because I find it obnoxious.  A jacked-up pickup truck with no muffler and a Confederate flag painted on the rear window.  A very in-your-face sort of thing that alienates with its loud demands for attention.  An experience that I got some enjoyment out of, but mostly just wanted to get over and done with.  And that's probably more a matter of me not being the target audience than anything else.  I knew I probably wasn't going to love it, and I probably shouldn't have bought it in the first place.  But now I don't have to touch it again until I replay it a few years later and invariably decide that I was completely wrong and it's actually one of my favorite games of all time.  For now, I'd say get it if the concepts sound good to you, and steer clear if they don't.  What you see is basically what you get.

EDIT:  I do admit that in hindsight (and in light of the significantly worse Spec Ops: The Line), I may have been unfair in my critique of Hotline Miami's story.  That said, my personal opinion of the game has not changed.  I still did not enjoy it.


  1. Definitely a different opinion of the game than the usual praise. I'm not sure how I feel about the game's story. I didn't dislike as much as you did, but I suppose I haven't played enough of it to have a valid opinion yet.

    I think I take issue with the before-last paragraph, though. Isn't this kind of "hypocritical critique" the very definition of satire? It forces you to murder people because that's what so many games do. What it does differently is to make you walk back through the bodies you left covering the floor. It shows the degradation of the protagonist's life over the course of the game.

    Perhaps the fact that the violence shocked us so much is a sign that the game succeeded at what it was trying to do: be a satire of violent video games.

    I'd really like to play the game to the end to be able to properly comment on it. I'm interested to see what sort of conclusion the story comes to.

    1. Well, you could look at it that way. In my opinion, when satire has a message it can't have double standards. Hotline Miami isn't Duke Nukem 3d or I Wanna Be The Guy. It's not celebrating something by satirizing it. It has a message. It tries to make you feel guilty for enjoying violence but does everything in its power to make the violence enjoyable. It still wants to be fun. That's like if Dr. Strangelove had ended with a long monologue about the advantages of nuclear arms. Or if Kill Bill had opened with a quote from Gandhi.

    2. Hmmm. No, Hotline Miami doesn't fit the definition of satire (for that matter, neither does Duke Nukem or Kill Bill). Satires don't celebrate, they ridicule or mock with humour as a purpose.

      But I don't see the disconnect. I don't see the violence as made to be particularly enjoyable. If anything, it's as brutal as possible(maybe even realistic?).

      Fun isn't the word that comes to mind when I play the game, though. Tension feels closer. I always find it jarring how as soon as that tension goes away at the end of the level, I'm struck by the realisation of all the terrible things I've done.

    3. Well it might be that I simply don't get it :P. After all, the rest of the game didn't click with me either.

    4. I do like the idea behind trying to get the player to see their murdering in a different light by having them walk back through the carnage... it didn't work for me, though. It wasn't like there was any new emotional weight given to the violence. I might as well have been backtracking through a level in Doom. Your victims are just as far removed from being actual human beings. They're just cannon fodder, with no real reason to see them as anything but cannon fodder.

      But art is ultimately a very subjective thing, and critiquing it is as much a matter of trying to figure out where objectivity ends and personal opinion begins as anything else. So I certainly respect your view of the game.

    5. I've been mulling over the idea of "pretentious criticism" over the past few days, and I'm not sure how I feel about it.

      I can't really think of a comparable analogy in film or literature. It's either a new way of expression that we should learn to embrace or a repulsive and pretentious one that should be rejected. I haven't really decided yet.

      Do you have an opinion on Spec Ops? I've only played the demo, and that was fairly typical as far as shooters go, but I've heard that it does this very purposefully to start you on a path that leads to some much darker places later on.

    6. Can you be more specific about "pretentious criticism?" I'm not quite sure I understand what you mean. If we take the word "pretentious" to mean roughly "something pretending to be something it's not," then I'd argue that there are many examples of pretentious criticism in other mediums... more than videogames, in fact. There are entire schools of literary criticism that are based on reading wild meanings into things, without any regard of whether or not they were actually put there by the author. Or do you mean something different?

      Although I own Spec Ops, I haven't tried it out yet. It sounds like a game very related to what we've talked about here. I'll be interested to try it out, and see if I feel differently about it.

    7. I suppose hypocritical criticism might be a better term, since pretension is much-hated and rather vague term.

      What is mean is basically a piece of media that criticises elements of society or its genre, but employs use of the very elements it attacks.

      Spec Ops and Hotline Miami both clearly do this, but for me, the question remains: Is this type of criticism offensive or wrong?

  2. I liked the concluding paragraph of EDGE's review:

    "It’s a puzzle game and a strategy game as much as an action game, then, and like Rockstar’s Manhunt, it will sicken you even as it provides its murky thrills. All the while, that simple question echoes as the bodies pile up, the narrative starts to fragment, and the scarlet thread through this darkly clever game becomes a racing line. Think back to the NES, to one virtual world trapped within another, endless pixellated mirrors stained with endless pixellated blood. The mirrors become a hallway that you walk, trailing a golf club behind you. Up ahead is a door. Do you like hurting other people?"

  3. Just recieved this as a gift - it was actually this review that eventually (after many months and several rereads) that convinced me to get it - albeit through a kindly donated gift.
    I shall let you know my thoughts as I'm not a fan of retro gaming styles, but so many little things seem to appeal to me!