REVIEW: Hotline Miami

hotlinepig

“Wow, I’m actually playing a game.”
Hotline_Miami_cover
Developer: se Dennaton Games
Publisher: us Devolver Digital
Release Date: October 23, 2012
Platform: PC
Genre: Top-Down Action

Hotline Miami is a lot of fun and wonderful things but it is chiefly to my mind an indictment of a major design philosophy currently at the forefront of this medium of ours, a philosophy that takes the term cinematic to indicate the delivery of content rather than the inspiration driving it.

Rockstars Games, Heavy Rain + all Quantic Dream drivel, BioWares space and dragon operas, Ubisofts jejune efforts, all flags that should raise eyebrows for anyone who likes to play their games rather than watch them. These games are cinematic in lineage and delivery, but of poor lineage and of numbing delivery, games that pull you out of the experiences they claim to make immersive, games that seem to be ashamed of their legitimate heritage and all too proud of their questionably adopted one.

Hotline Miami is drenched in the 80s and, more to the point, in the hazy, drugged-out vision  of the 80s central to films like Drive, an influence readily acknowledged in the credits of this title. It is a time and place in history seen through the lens of popular media, through Scarface, through Drive, through Michael Manns Thief, and, perhaps more to the point, through Looking Glass Studios Thief.

What has been described by its creators as a top-down f*ck-em-up is in fact a stealth game of sorts, where the option for non-lethality has been traded for the option of faster, more efficient lethality. The skill involved in clearing a level of enemies without raising an alert, without killing anyone, has been redirected into clearing a level of enemies by killing them all before they ever know whats happening.

The obvious pleasure of blasting dudez to pieces has been elevated by the addition of a scoring system that rewards you for creativity, for boldness, for speed. Any notion that the game is designed to make you question this matter of violence in gaming should be immediately disregarded. Whether the creators intended to make an ironic statement or not, this game revels in violence, bathes in virtual blood, delights in digital dismemberment.

It is an anti-social, amoral game. The reptilian impulses it supposedly condemns are its very core and content. It is not enough to finish a level in Hotline Miami. That B grade you see as the mission screen unwinds makes of your triumph an ugly, pyrrhic victory.  How interesting that the very best games of this year (this, of course, along with X-Com and Dishonored) rely not upon moment to moment action to provide their thrills and wonders, but on planning and enacting, on the successful execution of interesting or original strategies.

This is gaming as involvement: the mind numbing disconnection felt when playing such titles as Mass Effect 3 comes not because the game isn’t pretty or because the cinematic delivery isn’t polished or effective, but simply because the player is not involved in the planning.

The player is riding on BioWares track, absorbing a narrative that BioWare wants them to, no matter the choices made along the way. Its all told to you, right from the start, a story-book opened and closed before you ever turned the pages. Hotline Miami, and Dishonored, and X-Com, are told in moments, in brief, ecstatic bursts of violence or clever evasion that the player thinks up, manipulating the games systems to achieve a moment of personal victory over a relatively small in-game problem.

There is more triumph to be found in the clearing of a single room in Hotline Miami than in all the narrative falls and rises of the Mass Effects and the Max Payne 3s and the Heavy Rains, because it is not the game creators victory, it is not a particularly distinct setpiece, or a clever bit of writing (lacking in that trio, but I digress), or a shocking plot twist, its the players victory, its their hard-earned win over the AI, over their previous skill level, over that nagging low letter grade locked-in for so long.

Run into the room, grab the pool-cue, bash the first mans head in, stab the second with the jagged last-half in the neck, the pool-cue is broke, there’s a dog on the way, grab the pipe from the floor by the door where the first man was walking, break the dog with one blow, out into the hallway, two more men are coming, one with a pipe and one with a bat, throw the pipe, the first man has fallen, punch the second, knocked down, grab your pipe off the ground straddle the first man, crack his head open, and back to your feet just in time to kill the second one as he goes for the bat that he dropped.

A single, stinging, venomous stab, worse than any shot fired by any Russian/German/Arab/Croatian/Mexican/Alien bad guy who ever gunned you down in any Tom Clancy’s Call of Halo’s Duty.

There’s a door nearby, a man passes in front of it, kick it open, knocking the first man down, throw again your reliable pipe to hit the second, he falls, leap atop the first man, slam his head into the floor until the blood spreads, but wait, there’s no time, another dog has entered, grab the shotgun, six rounds, German Shepherd puree, more blood, and the second blast catches the man you hit with your pipe as he rises, now they’re coming, three men, two with guns, down the hallway to the other door, you line up your shot, the angle is perfect, now they’re in, and you fire, but too rapidly, without caution, and the two men you murdered are joined by the third, an **** with a knife who breaks your great combo with a single, stinging, venomous stab, worse than any shot fired by any Russian/German/Arab/Croatian/Mexican/Alien bad guy who ever gunned you down in any Tom Clancy’s Call of Halo’s Duty.

It’s all over. And then, before you can even consider it, before it ever occurs to you to get really angry, to quit playing, to slam your fist into your keyboard, your finger, almost imperceptibly, swings over to the R key and presses it, definitively, as if to say, I can do better than that anyway. You redirect, you change your strategy, you move quicker, you stick tighter to corners, you watch each and every possible line of fire, every avenue of approach, and then, at some point, as your adrenaline pumps inexplicably, and you move your head slightly with the pumping soundtrack, it might occur to you, as it did to me, wow, I’m actually playing a game.

Really f*cking, honestly, great out of 10

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