[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]hen it released in 2012, Dennation Games’ Hotline Miami presented us with a question: do you like to hurt people? The game took violence to the next level with some of the most brutal gameplay ever conceived. It made you uncomfortable, not just because of the violence but because, deep down, you were enjoying it. In the end, the game left us with a powerful message about violence in media and how dangerous it is to glorify it.
But now it’s 2015. Plenty of games, like Nier and Spec Ops: The Line, have made similar statements—sometimes in frighteningly effective ways. What could a sequel to Hotline Miami really bring to the table?
Well, the answer is… pretty much nothing.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, as a video game, is everything a sequel should be. It takes all of the core gameplay elements from the first game and cranks them up to 11. At the center, little has changed: you still head out on missions, and those missions still involve clearing out entire buildings of bad guys. On top of that, there are a ton of new weapons, enemies, and characters with special abilities.
That all sounds good on paper, but for some, Hotline Miami 2 will be alienating. For example, the difficulty curve continues right from the end of the first game, and only climbs up from there. The game devolves from a fun challenge to a frustrating romp. Floors get larger and more complex, to the point where you could spend close to five minutes clearing out an entire area only to get shot by an enemy way off screen that you couldn’t possibly have seen coming. There are a lot of huge, open rooms with windows for walls that make it hard to keep track of every enemy—“five minutes” quickly becomes “thirty minutes” spent on a single floor as you memorize the layout and enemy patterns.
Near the end, I found myself hoping that the next mission would be the last one. It’s not like I don’t enjoy difficult games—I love Dark Souls, and Super Meat Boy is one of my favorites. I just don’t like cheap games, and in its final missions, Hotline Miami 2 felt cheap.
The new characters are a bit of a mess. Instead of one character with a series of masks that granted him abilities, there are now multiple characters. There’s a group of four Jacket copycats, a crooked cop, a soldier, and a writer. These characters all have unique, interesting playstyles, which is fantastic, but you’re forced to play as these characters as the story demands it. Instead of getting to pick from a long list of masks at the beginning of each mission, you’re given a character with a specific skill set, even if you don’t like how they play.
The biggest disappointment is the game’s hackneyed attempt at narrative. These characters all have their own storylines, but the plot jumps around so much that it’s difficult to keep track of everything. The game constantly tries to outdo itself—it wants so badly to be edgy, but it loses the impact and resonance that the first game had by trying to one-up its own madness at every moment. There were points where I could tell the game was trying to tell me something, but the notes fell flat. Or maybe that’s the intention? Maybe I’m supposed to be confused? I don’t know. To be blunt, I don’t care—that’s the problem.
In the end, Hotline Miami 2 feels like the game Hotline Miami was criticizing and mocking.
That’s not to say the game isn’t fun, mind you. Those who enjoyed how the first game played will still find some satisfaction here; clearing out entire floors of bad guys in one swift motion is as rewarding as ever. The controls are responsive enough, though there are some annoying bugs (like bad guys getting stuck in doors or disappearing off of the map entirely, forcing you to restart). Each mission still ends with that damning silence as you walk back to the car and admire your handiwork, thinking, “Wow, did I really kill that many people here?”
The music and art style is top notch, as well. The entire game has a VHS tape aesthetic to it, with random bits of static and tear distorting the screen. The game’s style is reminiscent of old 80’s action movies, and it absolutely nails it. Like the first game, Hotline Miami 2 feels like some sort of fever dream or drug trip, and when you stop playing it takes a bit to shake that feeling.
But if you’re hoping for something as refreshing and clever as the first game, you’ll find only a hot mess that doesn’t seem to know what story it wants to tell. It can be a fun story at least, whatever it is.