Skip to main content

Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

Hotline Miami review

Call now to avoid disappointment.

Hotline Miami only works as a whole, and it doesn't hit you like a flavour; it builds up in your system like an intravenous solution.

I've been trying to figure out what it is about Hotline Miami that really works on me, because something clearly does. Something made me play through it all in one go, which took about two hours, and then go into the kitchen for a glass of water, return to my desk, and play through it all over again.

Maybe it's the fact that I love super-violent top-down action games, because Hotline Miami is an immaculate super-violent top-down action game. You move through colourful buildings full of angry little guys, and each room is like that bit at the end of a Mexican standoff when someone pulls the trigger and everyone dies in a split second: you crash through a door, which knocks a guy to the ground, then sprint six feet to cut a guy's throat before he can raise his weapon, quickly throw the knife backwards as someone bursts through the doorway to investigate the commotion, and then straddle the guy you knocked out and smash his head to mush on the concrete floor. There is no time to think. There is no 'think'.

Or maybe it's because the controls and difficulty are so unforgiving that nine times out of ten you get killed instead, at which point you tap 'R' to restart the floor of the building you're on. The controls are just WASD, spacebar to straddle downed enemies, and the mouse buttons to pick up, use and throw weapons. But you and your enemies move so fast that even the best-planned encounters - the ones where you've lurked outside a door for half a minute and plotted everyone's downfall - often fall apart because you aren't Neo from The Matrix. But it's not frustrating; it's amazing slapstick fun. Stop thinking. Try again.

Actually, maybe it all works because once you get into a rhythm with it, you try different things. The game doesn't really lean on you to do this; it gives you a rating at the end of each level, which can be polite or savage, and the Steam Achievements are all things like "kill two guys by throwing one brick". But it's just as intense and funny if you spend the whole time kiting enemies into doorways so you can spray them with machinegun fire. As you get more confident, you probably do try obvious things like only using melee weapons or taking enemies out in a different order to see if that works - but mostly these strategies enter into your thinking subconsciously because you fail in such a way that a new idea emerges.

Then again, maybe I love it because of the animal mask and weapon unlocks. You get these when you start totting up high scores for each level. The weapons aren't things you pre-select or anything like that - they are just added to the random rotation of sick tools that cycle through various spawn points within the levels, so you might enter a mafia den and find a knife lying in the lobby to start with, only to restart a few seconds later and discover a samurai sword or sledgehammer instead. The masks give you certain boons - quiet gunshots, extended view, start with a shotgun, dogs don't attack you, etc. - and each has a name. I'm a sucker for the horse-faced Don Juan, who gives you a bonus for face-kicks. I don't know why I like the Don - I haven't thought about it.

The thing a lot of people mention is the music, which is a sort of hazy neon electronica that thickens the air around you; the way the music stops whenever you kill the last guy on the level is certainly startling and abrupt. But it's not so much the music alone as the way it folds into the rest of Hotline Miami's aesthetic. Your angle on the action is fixed above, but it's not quite fixed - the level sways slightly as you move through it - and the purple disco fog that sits outside the boundaries of each level layout not only phases through different hues but sparks fiery reds and oranges with every kill and gunshot. That definitely does something to me, although I didn't notice it at the time.

Then again, maybe the thing that stays with me is the way that, after you kill the final guy on a level, you have to walk back to your DeLorean parked outside, past all the bodies of all the guys you've killed. They sprinted in your direction with knives and bats or shot you a hundred times, and you are conscious of all the violence as you twitch and restart your way past them the first time - but it isn't until the music's stopped and the threat is over that you really notice the fact that there are so many and they're all cut in half or piled on top of each other and swimming in puddles of bright red blood. It's not haunting or anything like that - this is a silly video game, right? - but it's something to think about. It's the only time you can think about anything.

I guess that's the thing, really. So many games are really good at one or two things, or they're full of lots of good ideas that you respect individually, and their qualities arrive in your head with great fanfare, like a county parade trailing down your high street. Hotline Miami isn't like that. It only works as a whole, and it doesn't hit you like a flavour; it builds up in your system like an intravenous solution. If you took away the masks, or the blinking colours, or knocking over guys with doors, or the stuff about answerphone messages, or the DeLorean, or the wobble on the screen, or the super-fast movement, or walking back through what you've just done, you probably wouldn't understand why it stopped working, but it would definitely stop working. Fortunately, it doesn't, and that's why there's only one number to dial.

10 / 10