I was ready to love Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.
Dennaton Games’ Hotline Miami was one of the most peculiar and viscerally satisfying games to come out in years. With its crude yet elegant pixel art and shocking display of ultraviolence, this was a game tailored after the seedy neon-drenched underworlds of 80’s crime cinema, right down to the moody Carpenter-esque thumps which accompanied the player’s every step. This was a game that, at first sight, elicited a genuine “holy shit” gut reaction from just about anyone who laid eyes on it, its candy-coated bloodletting and pulsating score making one hell of an initial impression.
More importantly, Hotline Miami understood repetition better than almost any other game; like Super Meat Boy before it, death was always around the corner, whether in the form of a bullet to the head or a guard dog at your throat. Utilizing appropriately bite-sized levels and a wide, often randomized assortment of tools, the game’s trial and error structure rarely proved frustrating thanks to immediate, infinite respawns at the press of a button. This simple loop also provided ample room for experimentation, lending the game a unique, improvisatory brand of bloodletting that remained as tense as it was addictive for the game’s entire duration.
Hotline Miami also knew better than to overstay its welcome, an initial playthrough running somewhere around 5 hours in length, if little more. With a simple premise, an equally simple gameplay hook and densely atmospheric presentation, Dennaton Games achieved something of a pure experience, with only a handful of moments souring an otherwise complete, mind-bending experience.
I wanted to love Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.
So what went wrong? Well…
To its credit, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number isn’t just “more Hotline Miami“. The duo at Dennaton have crafted a substantially different experience atop the first game’s sound mechanics and structure; you still clear rooms and dispose of goons in wince-inducingly gory fashion, albeit in a far more rigidly structured playground. Bigger, longer and certainly not lacking in ambition, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is a wordy soup of ideas without enough of what made its predecessor shine.
Hotline Miami 2 immediately distances itself from its predecessor through its level design, replacing the narrow halls and dingy living rooms of the first game over the course of its 26 “scenes” with wide open spaces, windows adorning nearly every wall. Most stages are in fact so large that peering ahead becomes paramount for every single move you make. To make matters even worse, each stage is densely peppered with gun-toting goons, many of which just so happen to be positioned in front of those precious windows. Due to the scope of its environments and the fact that its enemies are always actively out to get you, Hotline Miami 2 breaks a cardinal rule and proves more frustrating than fun. Whether in the form of offscreen deaths or unforeseen circumstances at the end of a particularly lengthy stage, the resulting experience can feel a bit like a chore.
The game’s emphasis on guns also proves particularly distracting. As powerful as they could be, guns were the least interesting aspect of Hotline Miami, each shot ringing out and alerting varying amounts of enemies to your location. While an occasional shot or two in a vicious combo string would feel great, clearing entire levels using only firepower often felt counter-intuitive to the game’s momentum-based design. In this respect, Hotline Miami 2 is very much a different game, nearly every level forcing you to renounce your firm anti-NRA stance and unload on sharply-dressed goons. As a design choice, it ultimately proves less enticing due to the more rigid parameters established through the use of guns, as well as the sheer unpredictability of said weapons.
While enemy A.I. has never been this series’ strongest suit, Hotline Miami 2‘s baddies behave in inconsistent, often frustrating ways. Fire off a bullet in a room and watch as three distant enemies rush to your location, yet the man in the next room remains unfazed. This can lead to many a death at the hands of an enemy from 5 rooms down, who was somehow alerted by the sound of a gunshot thanks to his supposed bionic hearing. While this kind of behavior can lead to tense, exhilarating moments, it’s ultimately more of an annoyance than anything else. Perhaps the single worst behavioral pattern to return however is a bug in which enemies, especially dogs, get caught in between revolving doors, spinning endlessly until they’re put out of their misery. Though this issue was quickly smothered in the first game through a patch, it’s returned with a vengeance, occurring in nearly every stage and proves to be distracting nearly every time.
Where Hotline Miami told a lucid tale of phone calls and killing sprees rich on atmosphere and little in the way of concrete exposition, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number assumes players wanted answers. Spanning three different eras and freely hopping from one to the next, sometimes tossing the player from one character to another mid-conversation, virtually every facet of its seedy 1980’s Miami is expanded upon, for better or worse. Jacket, the original game’s masked killer, has become something of a media sensation, inspiring animal mask-wearing copycats known as “The Fans” to follow in his footsteps and carry out their own sprees on the remaining mobs in Miami. As the streets run red with blood, writer Evan Wright attempts to get to the bottom of things and emerge with the full story regarding Jacket’s motivations. While its story contains some truly invigorating moments and a few neat callbacks, it’s ultimately too verbose for its own good, filling in gaps that were probably better left unanswered. By grounding the first game’s hazy wanton carnage, Hotline Miami 2 loses much of what made its world so luridly interesting in the first place. It’s an ambitious and commendable effort nonetheless, even if it ends up feeling superfluous and unnecessary.
Also gone is the freedom of choice; for story reasons, masks and weapon unlocks are extremely limited and specific to each of the game’s multiple revolving characters. Each character brings forth a different mechanic and demands a different playstyle. Tony, the tiger-mask wearing leader of The Fans for example, is a fisticuffs-only brawler, delivering lethal punches, while Corey, sporting a zebra mask, can perform a dodge roll under enemy fire and knock them down. Although a few modifiers are offered at the start of each stage in an effort to encourage replayability, most levels are locked down to a specific character. A welcome change of pace, it’s nonetheless baffling why these levels can’t be replayed with any of the dozen or so characters introduced over the course of Wrong Number‘s story, especially considering how some are simply more fun to use than others; Alex and Ash, a chainsaw wielding, gun toting duo sporting swan masks, prove to be particularly unwieldy due to the latter getting caught on the level’s geometry.
When Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number works, it expertly recalls the original game’s masterstroke style and ratchets up the intensity tenfold to gleeful abandon. To achieve this, the two folks at Dennaton Games have curated yet another impeccable, pulsating soundtrack tailor-made for its brand of bloodletting. Spanning an expansive, excessive 49 tracks and combining the Tangerine Dream-esque sounds of rising synthwave artists with dance-floor burners and lush psychedelia, the results are as chilling as they are downright addictive. While most of the previous game’s artists return in full force, with Perturbator and M|O|O|N once again providing some of the soundtrack’s most striking themes, there are numerous, welcome surprises; new addition Carpenter Brut dials up the intensity with a downright percussive French house assault in the form of “Roller Mobster”, accompanying one of the game’s shining stages. Simply put, Dennaton Games have outdone themselves, providing one of the year’s best soundtracks.
As problematic as it can be, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number isn’t without its share of lurid thrills. Its atmosphere is as intoxicating as ever and when its gameplay taps into the original game’s gleeful, improvised chaos, it can be a teeth-gritting blast. Credit is due where it’s deserved and Dennaton Games have definitely made substantial changes to their winning formula. By expanding on nearly every facet and aspiring to be something grander and more nuanced than its predecessor however, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number caves into its own ambitions to mounting frustrations and more often than not forgets what made its predecessor so appealing; fun.