Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
The original Hotline Miami came out of nowhere and blew gamers away with its colourful, top-down perspective that harkened back to Grand Theft Auto of yore, fast, ultra-violent action, thumping, hypnotic soundtrack, and surprisingly memorable story. Some of these elements are present in Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, but ultimately the game is too long, too difficult, and too wrapped up in itself to reach the same heights as its predecessor.
One of the most surprising and brilliant elements of the original Hotline Miami, was the story. Taking place in 1989 Miami, the game tells the story of an unnamed man, later known as "Jacket", who is given a mask and a task by a random voice on the phone. He is instructed to kill a group of criminals, for various reasons, by a group wearing animal masks. This continues throughout the game, often out of chronological order, with things getting weirder and the narrator less reliable. You begin to realise the characters are all insane, and question what is truly occurring and what is just madness. The story twists, turns and continually keeps you guessing.
The story in Hotline Miami 2 attempts to continue the twisted story-telling through time-jumps and multiple playable characters. This is where the game fails in a large way. The story is incredibly convoluted; it gets so wrapped up in itself that it's very easy to get lost and forget plot points and characters.
The game has 13 playable characters, and jumps from 1985 to 1991. This makes the narrative very hard to follow because you may be playing as one character for a level, then not see them again for 5+ levels. By then you've forgotten all about them and their storyline. There's an actor, author, mechanic, cop, crime lord, group of Jacket wannabes, soldiers in Hawaii, and a man looking after his sick mother. That's a lot of characters, some of whom overlap, and a lot of various plots. Few of which are actually interesting.
The cop, for example, has a very interesting story. He comes to crime scenes, shows no remorse, and is merciless when dealing with criminals himself. It's clear not all is as it seems with him and his story is one I could have played all on its own, however it never gets enough time screen in Hotline Miami 2. There are just so many other stories to tell.
The plot of Wrong Number is highly connected to the original. The wannabe killers, as pictured above, are fans of Jacket and want to be like him. The author is writing a book on his murders. The bearded guy from the box art was the convenience store owner in the first game but now he's part of the military, fighting alongside Jacket in Hawaii. The guy looking after his mother is the one who killed Jacket's girlfriend and is telling the author stories for the book. The story is very wrapped up in itself and assumes we really care about the silent protagonist of the previous game. Maybe it's just me but Jacket was never that interesting.
Shoot, Die, Repeat
If you played the original Hotline Miami you are aware that dying is an essential part of the process. It could be frustrating and anger-inducing but more often than not it was your own fault. That isn't the case with Wrong Number. About 50% of the times I died, it was because of poor level design. The levels are much larger than the previous game and as such you cannot drag the camera around to see the entire level. This means you end up being killed by far away enemies that you literally can not see. You also don't get to memorize enemy routines because there's so many of them, many you can't see, and a lot of glass for them to shoot through. That's really frustrating.
One of the most accessible things about the original was the intimate levels that you could blast through, now the levels are huge and filled with enemies. Some enemies can only be killed with guns, others only with melee, then there's dogs, and when a group come at you the game can be really difficult. Furthermore, the dogs stick to the walls and thus often get hidden by foliage, lights, dead bodies and more, meaning they often kill you before you even see them.
Also, Wrong Number's 13 playable characters all have different masks and weapons. This sounds great in theory, because you don't get stuck in a rhythm of using the same old mask and weapon, but in reality it just strips you of choice. There are a few different masks for some characters but it's a far cry from the choice on show in the original.
Sometimes using specific characters can be a real pain. For example, you have to play as two characters at once, both wearing duck masks, one with a shotgun, the other with a chainsaw. You can only move the chainsaw duck and the gun one follows on their own accord. R uses the chainsaw and L shoots, but the gun-toting duck is incredibly unreliable. They get stuck in the scenery frequently and their aim is hit and miss, pun intended. Then there's the guy who can only use his fists, and one who can only use a specific gun and thus when you run out of ammo you have to find an ammo crate, which are few and far between. Basically the characters can be annoying and frustrating to use.
Basically the characters can be annoying and frustrating to use.
Also, you are pretty much forced to use guns in 90% of the game. In the original you could use melee weapons and progress just fine but it would be impossible to do so throughout most of Wrong Number. The huge levels, myriad of enemies and insistence on using guns means that you pretty much spend a large portion of the game standing behind doors, poking your head out to attract enemies, then kill them as the run into the room. This game of hide and seek was not so prevalent in the original.
The difficulty was ramped up exponentially in Hotline Miami 2 and not in a fun way. Removal of choice, poor level design and plethora of enemies make it a chore to get through.
On the bright side, the gameplay is entirely the same as the original and that's a good thing. Yes it's really hard and hair-pulling, but when you're firing on all cylinders and killing everyone, the game is still great. One of my favourite things about both Hotline Miami's is the tension and pulsating gameplay when you're blasting around a level, then when you clear everything and have to walk back to your car in silence, retracing your bloody footsteps, the overwhelming realisation of what you've done sinks in. That's very much still in Wrong Number and it's every bit as eerie.
Then there's the hypnotic, pulse-pounding soundtrack that is every bit a part of the experience as the aesthetic and gameplay. I know how popular the original soundtrack was and, even though I am not a fan of that type of music, it fits the game perfectly and, along with the visuals, helps create a grimy, mesmerizing atmosphere. The music in Hotline Miami creates a Pavlovian response, so when you hear the music you immediately get that feeling.
The sense of accomplishment and reward when you beat a level is almost akin to that in Dark Souls and Bloodborne. For every 15 minutes I spent banging my head against a wall, I always finished the level and was able to wag my fist at the screen and shout expletives in glory! So you may think the sense of accomplishment outweighs the frustration, it would.....if the game were 2 hours shorter.
There are 26 levels in Wrong Number, many of which have multiple levels and areas, so each level is fairly huge and long. In the beginning it took me around 5-10 minutes to beat each level but in the latter acts it was taking me 30-60 minutes. No doubt some people would chop that down to my ability but the truth is I'm not the only one who found the game to be more punishing than challenging. The Vita version of the game holds a 66 on Metacritic, the original has an 85, without a single negative review.
The Number You Have Dialed Is Not Recognised
Hotline Miami 2 succeeds in a few of the same areas as the original, but it ultimately fails in many more. Developer Dennaton Games seemingly misunderstood what people loved about the original; it was not the story, the timeline, or the difficulty, for those are the 3 areas they decided to pump steroids into. No, it was the fair challenge and fast restarts, the intimate level design and few but deadly enemies resulting in strategy, the choice of masks and weapons at the beginning of every level, the soundtrack, and the easy-to-follow-but-great story. Thankfully the soundtrack is still awesome.