Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

Hotline Miami returns! The sequel to the infamously hyper-violent psycho simulator was released this month and I was very excited to get my hands on it. I consider the original a classic—it was a splash of freshness and originality, featuring intense gameplay mixed with really unique, entrancing music. Yet when I heard Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number was announced, a thought crossed my mind (as I'm sure it has for many others)—did this game need a sequel? I still went in excited to see which tunes Dennaton Games meticulously picked this time around, but I was mostly curious as to how Hotline Miami 2 would differentiate itself from its predecessor.

The basic gameplay remains primarily the same, but has been tweaked in a couple ways to change how you play it. The two most important alterations are the lack of masks and the more expansive room layout. The plastic animal heads only appear in around half the missions, and even then you only have a handful to choose from as opposed to the overwhelming options present in the first game. There's a couple of notable abilities, like the hard-to-master roll and Ash & Alex's gimmick, but you'll largely have to solve each stage relying on your raw skill over your initial load-out.

The increase in room size for each level is more of a "make or break" aspect. There's fewer interlocking rooms but longer hallways; armed enemies are quick to react from a distance so there will be multiple occasions where you'll suffer a shotgun blast from offscreen despite the constant use of the shift key. On top of that, there's a higher enemy density which can make clearing floors a pain if you miscount which men are still patrolling. Gunshots no longer alert the entire floor so you'll be relying on them far more than the first game, and camping around doorways to kill everyone you've aggro'd is usually the optimal way to make it through the latter stages.

The results of these changes are mixed. Some people think they raise the skill bar and force you to play with extreme precision if you're aiming for an S rank, but for me it makes the journey through the game more grating. It's certainly harder than the first, but the lack of challenge was never a problem for the first title. In some ways it feels like it's designed for the "Fans" of the original, but for those that want to dip their toes back into the Miami's blood-soaked neon-beyond, it will be an arduous task that can be more frustrating than fun (like with the boat stage or Hawaii missions).

While I usually reserve a section of these entries for a synopsis on the story if I deem it applicable, I'm not sure if I have much to say for Wrong Number. I've looked at some summaries on forums and while the interweaving paths of the characters and their meta-commentary is interesting, I also felt like much was lost when the designers aimed to establish a grounded narrative. I know that 50 Blessings was present in the secret ending to Biker's path, but the initial draw of "do you enjoy hurting other people?" wasn't whether it was related to PTSD or the desire for anti-Russian retribution—it served as a glimpse into humanity's most violent desires. It was the appeal of popping pills and killing a group of people that may or may not be related to any kind of syndicate, the gnawing feeling of your own insanity close behind as the corpses of your victims began to appear in local convenience stores.

Ultimately it's up to the author to decide which direction to take their work. Some will enjoy piecing together the shuffled series of events or arguing whether Richard embodies Jacket, but I still contest that the magic becomes drained the closer the plot gets to reality. Plus the purposeful obfuscation of the timeline strangles the pacing of the game, with the climax happening midway through and a lot of "filler" occurring when the player takes control of Richter and the Son afterwards. The last level was spectacularly inventive, but beyond that the latter half of the game felt like it took a little too long to tell its garbled plot.

It can be argued that Hotline Miami 2 does enough mechanically to distinguish itself from the first game, but given how distinctive the original was, Wrong Number isn't nearly as impactful. The music is fantastic but isn't as novel, and the absurdly violent gameplay isn't quite as shocking as the first time you smashed someone's head open with a bat. Wrong Number is enjoyable in its own right if you're looking for a little more thrill and danger (or are mad enough to manually unravel the story), but the original remains a much more enticing package in comparison. Plus getting killed by enemies offscreen tends to sour the experience.

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