Backlog Logs – Hotline Miami Impressions

A lovely side-effect of some of my dissatisfaction with World of Warcraft as of late has been the playing of games on my backlog.

My backlog, is, well…something.
steam count

Of those, I’ve probably only finished between 25-35. Currently, my Steam folder on my PC takes up around 3 TB of data, because as a weird quirk, I insist on having everything installed. (good thing I have 12 TB of total drive space!)

So when the doldrums set in for WoW, I took a peek over the massive volume of games available and purchased on my Steam account, and decided to finally catch up with 2012 cult hit Hotline Miami.

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The game, for those unaware, is a fun indie title where the premise is simple – it is an overhead shooter game that plays very similarly to old twin-stick shooter games. However, the game makes excellent use of realistic limitations in other ways – while your overhead camera angle allows you a lot of freedom in scouting ahead and making strategic plays, you are limited to weapons you can pick up off your victims, and they have a realistically small amount of ammunition. If you pick up a rifle, you can fire 24 rounds before it’s empty. A regular shotgun packs a heavy punch, but only 2 rounds. You can also elect to punch your way to victory, but enemies you punch to the ground do not die and must be finished, taking a gruesome animation sequence and a fairly significant amount of extra time to do.

You also get to pick a mask, which (with the exception of your starter mask) add a modifier to your gameplay. Take the horse mask, and you can open a door into an enemy to kill them quietly and without revealing yourself. Some masks let you start with weapons, and some allow you to work around the other major realistic limitation the game provides, extending your life to last longer than just a single hit.

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Within this simple premise lies an object lesson in smart, engaging, and limited gameplay. You can scout ahead with your extended visibility, using this to make careful plans about what enemies to deal with and what points to barge into rooms to engage. You can use your limited ammo as a distraction, shooting a gun into a closed door to make noise to draw enemies to you and then club them to death. You can choose from any number of tactics, limited only by your imagination (and sometimes by the guns enemies drop). The game’s difficulty ramps particularly well in later levels, and since you die in one hit, you’ll frequently repeat segments dozens of times to get the perfect strategy – not unlike a raid boss in that way. You always start back at the beginning of the current floor of the level with whatever weapon you had at that time, so it is like the death and events leading to it effectively never happened, so while in later levels this can often mean re-clearing a handful of enemies, it never feels really bad, and it allows you to tighten up your strategy to deal with the enemies.

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Further, the enemy AI can change between attempts, meaning your strategy has to account for varying weapon drops and enemy placements. Sometimes a patrol will keenly pay attention to your noisemaking and run into your trap immediately, while on some attempts they may not respond the same. Later rooms have vastly different patrol patterns with enemies that move between rooms and can modify your plans on a dime. You can take 20+ attempts on a room and the 21st one might see an enemy drop a rifle instead of a shotgun, changing your whole plan. You might even strike out early without dying and just let the enemies kill you to get another attempt in, whether it’s because a distraction technique didn’t work or because you didn’t get a good patrol pattern.

Lastly, the game expects that you pay attention to its environments. There are places with windows that face into other windowed hallways with posted enemies who are all too eager to blow you away should you unsuspectingly run past without first engaging them. Windows do behave how you expect however, and so you can engage in window-shattering shootouts to keep those enemies checked. You can also sneak around to their side and disable them more directly. Doors become useful funnel points, allowing you to bait a room full of enemies to single-file through and be much easier to deal with. You can then use melee weapons to quietly dispatch your foes, leaving the other enemies unaware of your presence, or you can use the horse mask and push the door back on the mobsters facing you, leading them to explode in gore and neutralizing their threat!

Basically, I had a real bad itch for meaningful choices, and Hotline Miami scratched it really well. Every level has tons of ways you can approach it, and the small choices really matter. As a really good example, there is a late level in the game where your first enemy is at the front door and cannot be avoided, with glass windows on both sides and rooms full of other enemies who will run around to attack you when this first foe falls. Since you always start the level without weapons, you can only kill this enemy upfront if you have the Horse mask on. So you can either choose that mask, or if not, you have a tricky gameplay choice to make. If you melee the enemy down, he won’t be dead, meaning you will have to finish him, but with the enemies rushing you from the other rooms, you cannot do it immediately or you will be killed. So you have to carefully strategize – he drops a silenced pistol, which has enough bullets to deal with the enemies from the other rooms if your aim is perfect, but you have to pick it up very quickly and prepare your aim with a sudden precision. You typically have enough time to finish the rushing opponents just before the original foe rises to his feet, at which point he will pick up a weapon and finish you if you do not deal with him. How you deal with him, though, offers a ton of choices – you can throw your empty pistol at him, knocking him back down but with time to finish him. You might have a bullet left you can use to just shoot him. You can pick up a melee weapon from the pile of new corpses at your feet and try to bludgeon him quickly, but this will require some movement and may be too tricky.

This kind of choice is really engaging because in truth, there is no wrong answer (short of losing, of course) and the controlled parameters of the situation offer a clear ideal but tons of possibility. Do you have to shoot the rushing enemies? No, but it’s easier. Can you melee them all down? Sure, but one of the enemies has a gun and if you take the extra time and risk to run at him, you might die. Can you kill the first enemy immediately? Sure, if you can pull the button press off quickly enough to start the finishing sequence and end it before your first goon has arrived.

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The same thing applies to your path through each level – the designs are office buildings, restaurants, and the like. Open spaces with lots of connecting hallways and such, designed specifically so that most places have 2-3 ways to be reached. The later levels also add longer hallways, such that you may not be able to always look ahead far enough to know what lies in wait, meaning you have to choose between taking pot shots to lure enemies out (or hopefully hit them in pure luck), or running in blind and hoping for the best. You can use the lock-on targeting to attempt to reveal if an enemy might be waiting for you, since it will always work if an enemy is available to lock on to, so there are strategic ways to deal with that problem too, once you get the hang of things.

The story is a bit hard to decipher, as it relies on the oddity of presentation to misdirect, but basically, you are Jacket, who is not named in the game, but called that because the one distinguishing thing on your sprite outside of the masks is a varsity jacket, and you receive messages on your phone that tell you, in very coded language, to go to an address and kill everyone there. Depending on your thoroughness in checking levels for hidden tiles, the end result of the game will either be that you discover two punk kids are sending the voicemails, or that the two punk kids are a part of a nationalist terrorist group called 50 Blessings (nationalists doing bad things, who could imagine? /s).

Probably one of my favorite things about the game is that it, in a very subtle way, is actually calling attention to how needlessly violent the game is and how unquestioningly you as the player are enacting these violent moments. Rather than ending the level with the last enemy dead, the game gives you a level clear message, and then forces you to backtrack, spending all that time looking at the carnage around you as you escape the scene. The non-completion ending of the game also calls attention to the fact that it is distinctly odd that people might enact horrible acts of violence just because they are left a coded message telling them to. I found the juxtaposition of the gameplay and this messaging rather interesting, because when the game gets slightly more overt about this theme, it kind of feels like a punch – in a good way.

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Overall, I am very glad to have gone back and played it (and its sequel, which is similar but uses different player characters to segregate abilities and has a bit of a tighter story), and it definitely appealed to me in terms of the simple choices offered!

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