Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Sony PS Vita
When the original Hotline Miami dropped into our lives it brought with it an incredibly addictive and heady experience built on blood, repetition, an incredible soundtrack and a subversive storyline. However, it also brought division in opinion as to whether the meta-narrative on gaming and violence excused the sheer level of violence on show. It even managed to bring division to the Digital Fix team as our two reviewers, for PC and PS3, positioned themselves in very different camps. While the scores were largely the same, there was a stark difference over the nature of the violence in the game with Edd feeling that it had, “single-handedly proven that the industry is still obsessed with nothing but horrific comedy violence.” Meanwhile, yours truly felt that gamers would, “..be hard pushed to find another immediate gaming experience that feels so good.” There is no doubt that having spent a lot of time with Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number that it will again divide people’ opinions, but this time the division will not lie simply with those who like the game and those who do not, this time the division will be solely down the middle of those that loved the original as Wrong Number makes a lot of choices that seem ill-advised.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the core gameplay that made the original Hotline Miami a success is alive and well in Wrong Number. Those familiar with the original will feel instantly at home and before long you’ll not even know that you’ve been away from this pulsing, blood soaked vision of Miami. Moving through each level, dissecting the layout and putting together that perfect run of murder and millisecond-precise evasive manoeuvres at times surpasses even that of the original. Once again it is hard not to succumb to the moreish nature of the gameplay, with failure rectified by a simple button press to restart the level. It is all too easy to not notice thirty minutes pass by as you live, die and repeat and in that respect Hotline Miami 2 is a success, and perfectly delivers on the expectation that the original has built up. The problems however aren’t with the core mechanics, the problems lie with some poor choices with the story and the necessary implications for gameplay that derive from those choices.
Part of what made the original Hotline Miami so compelling was its subversive narrative, questioning why we enjoy violence while committing these truly awful acts of murder, but it was always told through the lens of a singular character, ‘The Jacket’. Wrong Number tries to up the ante with the story this time around, covering periods after the original story but also travelling back to the mid 1980s to give origins to some of the characters from the original game. As such, with each level the game jumps across time periods in a manner that would even leave Quentin Tarantino scratching his head as he tries to put all the pieces together. It is undeniably ambitious to attempt such an approach but the story progresses as such that you will be desperately trying to remember where each thread left off in the last mission. It feels like a narrative mess a lot of the time, with the writing ambition providing you with nothing but moments of confusion before each level.
There are genuinely interesting elements to the story that perhaps should have been focussed on in a more concise way rather than having a cast of thousands (around ten actually), many of which you won’t care about by the time the finale arrives. The most interesting new characters are Detective Manny Pardo, investigating The Jacket’s murders and on the trail of a seeming serial killer. Linked to Pardo is Evan, a writer who is gathering information to write a book on The Jacket’s exploits. There is genuine interest in these stories, and they inform each other in a more direct manner at times which gives a sense of cohesive narrative rather than many of the characters who feel shoehorned into the story for a type of fan service such as the backstory of the original owner of the ‘Jake’ mask from the first game. Perhaps the one set of characters that could have been the central focus of the game are ‘The Fans’, a group inspired by The Jacket’s actions who then turn to donning masks and administering vigilante justice. It feels like any of these could have made for a well-focussed narrative, still leaving all the room for all the subversion that fans would expect without the non-linear mess that the game sometimes becomes.
This jumping from story to story is not just frustrating from a storytelling perspective but it feeds directly into the gameplay experience. Too many times you are introduced to a character who you will spend some time with, mastering their skill set, only to have them taken away in the next mission. You never get a real chance to get to grips with any particular character in a consistent way which is a real shame as again it adds to a sense of being disconnected with not just the characters, but with the entire story that the game is trying to tell. It is telling that originally Wrong Number was due to be essentially DLC, adding more levels to the original but based on the success and notoriety of Hotline Miami, they decided to expand it out into a full game. It does at times feel that they have spread themselves too thin, perhaps out of ambition, but it is so disjointed that it is hard not to get frustrated or confused.
Thankfully, one choice that is perfectly on the money, and something that all Hotline Miami fans will want to know right off the bat is the quality of the soundtrack. Suffice to say it is another audio masterstroke and is a perfect continuation of what the first game managed to establish, expanding out to around fifty tracks with the likes of M|O|O|N and Perturbator featuring. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the soundtrack on offer here, with each track perfectly complimenting the levels as the thumping electronica pushed you onwards and deeper into your killing spree. It is safe to say that the Wrong Number soundtrack will be on gamers’ player of choice for a long time after the neon credits roll, much like the soundtrack that came before it.
Another element that seems to have followed from the original is the somewhat temperamental code, and with it comes some level of frustration. In our playthrough we encountered at least five instances of level-breaking bugs. These ranged from levels crashing at certain points with certain characters (do not use Ash and Alex in the sewers), checkpoints not activating despite every person being killed and characters that drop keys when you kill them, dropping them into the wall so you can’t pick the key up to exit the level. There really is nothing more frustrating than having a nigh on perfect run that has taken you around half an hour only to be undone by a bug. Although it can be frustrating at times, the nature of the game almost has you programmed to just restart again and for that it can be nearly forgiven and forgotten as you jump back in for another shot at the level.
For all these failings it can still be an utterly brilliant experience, a unity of aesthetics and mechanics that rarely comes along. Top that off with moments that surpass those of the original and you do, at times, have something so satisfying and addictive that it should come with a health warning. While Dennaton seem to have at times over-reached, it would be hard to say that they haven’t given the fans what they thought they wanted. Sometimes less is more and while there is a real need for some story editing in Wrong Number there is so much more to counterbalance the meandering narrative failings. It is highly unlikely that there will be a third instalment of Hotline Miami as stated by the creators, despite a cheeky menu for Hotline Miami 3 appearing briefly in the game. I would say that’s a good thing as any further extension of the story would go beyond levels of spreading it thin rarely seen, and with the level editor soon becoming available, it will live on through the eyes of the fans.
For what it’s worth Wrong Number is the typical cliched mixed bag, with the best bits of the original dressed up in the excesses of what the developers thought they needed to add to make this a bigger, badder sequel. It’s still fast, violent, addictive and complemented by one of the finest gaming soundtracks available, so in many ways Hotline Miami has never been better. At times it’s brilliant and at others it’s disjointed but thankfully the Hotline Miami magic still exists in the wonderful collaboration of bullets, beats and bodies.