No other game interprets both the alluring and repulsive elements of violence as well as Hotline Miami. It offers giddy power, a marked thrill in your ability to easily take the lives of the goons you have to kill in order to beat each stage. It is either you or them: frequently it will be both. And yet once you've disposed of your enemies - hired thugs, security services, dogs, anyone unlucky enough to be there - there's a somber traipse back over their bodies as you make your escape from the hit. The flow state-inducing music, your accomplice, is suddenly gone, replaced with a disquieting review of your actions.
Hotline Miami 2 still does all this. But it doesn't do it better than Hotline Miami.
By becoming more ambitious - and, it must be said, satisfying - in its storytelling, Dennaton's sequel loses sight of the other element that made the interplay of violence and player agency work. The original game's stages were small to medium-sized indoor arenas, built to be replayed, perfected. A scoring system which, among other things, prized efficiency of time - and as a corollary boldness and diversity of action - reinforced that. The levels were puzzles to be solved via the medium of pipe-to-head interfacing.
Here, the environments are frequently sprawling, overlong, and often with elements not in keeping with the scoring criteria. (An example: levels don't take your best time, they take your cumilative time, even across deaths. Given the much-bigger environments, this has serious repercussions.) When selecting a stage in the original game, players were shown a simple map of the environment: pure geometry, a blueprint. Here, it's a VHS tape that reveals nothing of what is to come.
It's telling of what Dennaton is trying to achieve: Hotline Miami 2 is broader in almost every possible way, but especially in terms of its narrative. There are now many playable characters, with varying roles and abilities. Their stories intertwine as the 'movies' you're playing progress, and while some are more interesting than others, they flesh out a world that had only been hinted at before: a surrealistic, hazy, half-remembered nightmare of neon and barbarity that nevertheless has an undeniable allure.
There's no denying it works, stylistically, as you try to piece together what exactly is going on, work out how the threads are all connected. Dennaton expertly conjures a deeply unsettling world with little more than a few talking heads, some ordinary environments, and some clever character crossovers. But it doesn't work as well mechanically, falling victim to the 'bigger is better' thinking that often blights sequels. Where the original was consistent in its approach to each level - choose a mask, plan an approach, see how it works, repeat - Hotline Miami 2's overarching narrative sees fundamental changes made to core concepts. The ability to choose those masks, which bestowed unique abilities such as more health, more dangerous attacks, etc, has been mostly removed or adapted. Very few of the 25 or so stages give you the option to tailor your style.
Instead, the character present in that level defines what you can do. The Writer, for example, can't use firearms, but instead strips them of their ammo and discards them so they are useless to others. Another has incredible killing power in just their fists, but can't pick up weapons. Another still - well, a duo, rather - gives players simultaneous command of chainsaw and pistol-wielding psychotics, both under direct control.
It's an interesting idea, in keeping with the story that Dennaton is trying to tell. But it boxes players in, asking them to play a certain way at certain times: it enforces its playstyle on you, rather than the other way around. It makes a mockery of the rating system that underpinned Hotline Miami. Said system is still here, but is near-irrelevant thanks to insufficient player choice. "Recklessness is rewarded" boasted the original game, but it's difficult to be bold when you're being told what to do.
There will be some who thrive in these constraints, of course, and in theory forcing players out of their (no-doubt Tony mask wearing) comfort zones is a good thing. But whereas once Dennaton's series was about speed, here a preponderance of over-sized levels makes for attritional play. A fatal run in the last game usually meant a failure in thought or action: a poorly conceived plan, or a mistake when under pressure. Trial and error was a feature, but not to the degree it is here.
Wrong Number's stages are massive in size, and as such introduce more enemies, more risk, more chances to die. In and of itself this may not seem like a terrible decision, but for a game where knowing enemy patrols and their location at any point is paramount, not being able to see across the play area is a problem, and one compounded by other design choices. Chief among these being the sheer amount of windowed rooms that now feature. It means enemy sentries - with their superhuman reflexes - have many, many chances to take you out before you see them.
Stage size, your own frailty, and the aforementioned windows (and the shotgunners that often lurk behind them) make for a game that feels overly difficult, a slog through ultra-hard - but not necessarily fair - arenas that feel too big to support traditional Hotline Miami play. Instead of chaining kills together gracefully, it's often better to creep forward, eliminating enemies one at a time, to lessen the frustration of your inevitable, somewhat unavoidable death.
At times, especially during a boat level which turns into a cover shooter, or the missions where you are creeping through jungles with a sniper rifle (exactly) it feels more like Cannon Fodder - and Cannon Fodder 2 at that. There are moments when it descends into almost self-parody as you step over dozens of bodies during the end of stage walk of shame.
It's hugely frustrating, because there is genius here. The baseline Hotline mechanics, when played to their strengths, are still wonderful. The electronic soundtrack, your partner in flow-state induced crime, is as good as in the original. Sound design is sharper, crunchier, and - yes - more violent than the first game. Its efficacy in communicating the current state of chaos - smashed windows, blown-out watercoolers, staccato pistol shots - adds immeasurably to the experience, especially when played with headphones. Collision with melee weapons is better, with less frustration as to who landed the killer blow first. Enemy variations, such as the katana-wielding foe that ducks bullets and must be met head-on with a blade or a bat, keep things interesting.
There are levels here that represent the best of Hotline Miami: playing as The Fans (and their abilities) and storming different floors of a high-rise building is great, mixing and matching smaller areas, diverse playstyles, and challenging enemy encounters quickly and brilliantly. But for every one of these there's more that resemble drudgery. The entire Soldier section is a waste of time: colossal in size, undercut by your character only being able to reload from ammo caches. Making matters even worse is that as a whole it's also quite buggy: goons often get confused by doors, and there's a 100% reproducible issue where a dog walking into an open door sees it spin around in circles forever.
Even Wrong Number's story, its strongest element, is prone to serious error. The much talked-about rape scene doesn't really feature into the rest of the narrative, and as such it feels like a grave mistake. Hotline Miami's non-sexual violence is brutal, but it treads a fine, sophisticated line between titillation, power, and reflection, an integral part of both narrative and mechanics. The rape scene merely exists for almost throwaway shock value, and that it can be skipped outright with little consequence elsewhere tells you everything you need to know.
Ultimately, Hotline Miami 2 improves upon its predecessor in a way that is pleasing, but non-essential. And to get there, it undercut the one thing that made the original great. Hotline Miami was nasty, brutish, and short. Hotline Miami 2, sadly, is not.
Version Tested: PC.