Distinguished Brit and lord champion of acting dead Sean Bean once observed under the guise of Boromir that one does not simply walk into Mordor. He was wrong, but for the sake of this pathetically thin metaphor we’ll let him off. Replace ‘Mordor’ with any of Hotline Miami’s congested, human-sized meatgrinders and you’d have your very own videogame Mordor, albeit one painted in retro hues and pulsing to pummeling synth music. We’ll call it Disco Mordor.
Hotline Miami is a cruel game, but like many cruel games of recent memory it’s also a fine game. Fast, ruthless and wantonly violent, it’s what emerges when the unchecked cool of Drive collides with the one-more-go spirit of Super Meat Boy and all that is shot through with a dash of Smash TV. But reading hog-wild prose is a world apart from taking the plunge into this harlequin, knife-edge world of murder-fetishists, glorious music and disturbingly habit-forming top-down savagery. You have to play for yourself to understand why it’s such a murky delight. Screengrabs convey its grisly aesthetic well enough, YouTube can offer a fleeting glimpse of the breakneck gameplay and I’m sure the soundtrack’s about if you fancy a listen. But it’s only when those parts merge that the game roars to life.
And boy does it roar.
It’s a game of hairline misses, of tactics and last-ditch gambits that, on occasion, echo with the conventions of something more akin to Need for Speed than early Grand Theft Auto; feats of practiced dexterity met with a dash of luck that confer onto the player an enormous sense of self-worth. And there are few games you can bestow that praise on.
Murder is the focus, as any image should evince. You wander through levels armed with all manner of nasty weapons – pipes, sledgehammers, bricks, shotguns to name but a few – swinging at anything that moves. It’s fastest finger first in Disco Mordor. Swing prematurely and you’ll be swimming in a pool of your own viscera. Swing late and it’s the same story. Death arrives in a hurry here and there are no second chances dealt. Fortunately, levels are short so you’re only ever at risk of losing ten-seconds of progress.
Those levels are all top-down puzzles wrapped up in a veneer of retro grit that invariably begin with the player stood outside a building in a neon-hued no-man’s land and end looking like something out of a Tarantino flick. You learn quickly that a certain amount of planning and stealth is required to succeed, although it’s often the knife-edge gauntlets that arise out of everything going awry that prove to be the most memorable moments looking back.
The blistering sequence of dying and restarting as seen in games like Trials Evo or Super Meat Boy is incredibly commanding. There’s no time to get upset at the occasionally shonky controls or the unpredictable nature of the enemies, who have a canny knack for straying from their normal routines or blasting you from somewhere off-screen.
While twitchy-murder is at the heart of the game, there’s a story of sorts bubbling away beneath it. The popular chain of thought describes Hotline Miami as a bit like an acid trip but it’s more like the fever dreams of a psychopath. Disco Mordor is an offbeat place painted in neon hues that never quite feels right.
Which is probably because it’s not. Dennatron has a go at underpinning Hotline Miami with a message but it’s too undernourished to really stick (although a secret ending lends it some credence). At the climax of each level the music stops and you’re forced to walk back passed all the pools of gore and glib and by all the goons whose heads have collapsed in on themselves like poorly baked cakes.
The trouble is, while admirable, the net effect isn’t so much that you’re given time to ponder the atrocities you’ve committed, but instead given time to hit print screen and book yourself a VIP suite at the hotel of consummate badasses. The air of Drive is legitimate and while Hotline Miami doesn’t quite glorify its violence, the vengeance movie motifs do nothing to help swing the pendulum the other way. You’ll feel pretty fucking cool playing it.
Still, there’s so much more worth celebrating. The soundtrack bolsters the themes conjured through the art and the eccentric characters; as important to Hotline Miami’s whirlwind bloodshed as Twisted Sister was to whoosing around Vice City in a shiny sports car. Hotline Miami wouldn’t be nearly as good without it.
There are masks too, chosen at the start of each level, that afford the player perks and skills. These can completely alter the way the bloodshed pans out. Perhaps the best of them all is Jake the cobra who converts all thrown weapons – usually only good for knocking foes to the floor – into deadly weapons. You’ve not known brilliant until you’ve killed five men with a flying shotgun.
The masks lend Hotline Miami an air of replayability the game already has in fatal doses. One does not simply walk into any of Hotline Miami’s disco meatgrinders, then. But, of far more importance, one does not simply walk away from Hotline Miami either.