My eyes sting and my hands hang claw-like over the mouse and keyboard. I have spent the last three or so hours hunched over my glowing laptop dispensing quick precise death. Or at least for part of the time. The rest has been taken up with frantic gasps between badly aimed gun shots, misplaced punches, and strange backward movements which more often than not have left me leaking florescent red stuff over some indistinguishable hotel lobby.
It's hard to tell how many times I've died in Hotline Miami. But for all my failed attacks and spilt blood I've also managed to successfully traverse the nine levels which I've so far played and this in itself feels like an achievement. Like several other games in recent years who have courted serious difficulty tempered by satisfying gameplay, Hotline Miami achieves its addictiveness through the quick, unhindered movement from death to life. As quickly as you fall in these neon halls you promptly get up again, ready to replay and replay until you either get the level perfectly right or stumble upon a bit of savage luck.
Amidst all this dying and respawning, HLM 's real achievement is the pervasive sense of tension which is applied to all aspects of the game. Every movement is a tense, quick action; every wait charged with potential - the almost comically quick attack. And when you aren't murdering criminals, in the game's perfectly brief downtime, the florid 80s aesthetics work to extend you're violence into some kind of recurring hallucination. It captures something of that sleazy, neon, coked-up brutality which must have happened somewhere in the 80s.
Tom Bramwell's excellent review for Eurogamer expressed this well, drawing attention to how it works as a whole piece - unable to achieve its effect without any one of its individual elements. In many ways this is clearly true of the game. I feel like I've been snorting grotty lines of cut coke because of the adrenaline procured from the horrifyingly tense combat along with the gritty/glitzy dichotomy associated with the 1980s. However, I can't help but feel that this enveloping sensation somewhat papers over some quite glaring problems with the game.
The most obtrusive problem is that the AI is rubbish. Enemies often respond quickly and brutally to any sound you make (even when you're not making any sound!). This is perfectly fine as it forces you to be very clever with your attacks and makes stealth one of the best ways to complete levels. The problem occurs when enemies inexplicably do nothing.
One tactic which I've really enjoyed using in the later levels - whose rooms are just too difficult for me to clear intelligently - is finding a decent corner in a room with a good angle on the door and simply gunning down the enemies from there. This of course needs a bit of gun management as each weapon has a finite amount of ammo but it seems to work quite well most of the time. The problem is when no one hears you! Trying to get their attention when you're being stealthy is frustratingly easy but when you're being blatantly loud they appear to know instinctively to stay on their determined patrol paths. This could well be a clever bit of programming (and if so, compliments to them) but I get the feeling it's not. It's also not unlikely to have your enemies simply walk over a dead comrade without batting an eye while another time they will search for you rigorously.
This all adds a level of unpredictability to the game which no doubt adds to the games distinctiveness and arguably its charm. But in a game which challenges the player to use precise and considered actions, these niggles often really add unwanted frustration. You could easily argue that it's just part of the game's brutality but I feel like that's a bit of a copout in a game which works best when you victories and defeats mostly come from personal considerations or mistakes. To my mind it's a fair criticism of an otherwise brilliant game.
So far Hotline Miami has left me shaking: clammy handed and heart pounding. It's no doubt one of the fiercest and most twitchy game I've played in a while, but one whose style matches and perfectly complements this gameplay. This isn't a violent gore-fest in the traditional sense. There is measure and power behind the twitch controls and the violence: sometimes precise, sometimes frenzied. It's made me feel stressed, desperate, powerful, intelligent, brutal and satisfied - but also empty. At those moments when everything is done; when the rooms are cleared of all virtual life, there is a moment where all the adrenaline slowly fades and you walk back through the remnant scenes of the level's violence. It's kind of profound - until it all starts over again and then all that matters is killing.