Oh boy, did I forget how violent Hotline Miami is. Like it’s predecessor Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is a mesmerizing gory trip through stage after stage of increasingly challenging blood baths. Unforgiving, uncompromisingly violent and mind bendingly trippy, at first glance Hotline Miami 2 is more of the same. While it’s true that the parts developer Dennaton has used are identical, the way they come together feels very different. Wrong Number is less twitch based and far more fond of thoughtful planning that the original. The number of masks and weapons on offer is more constrained, and players are never allowed to choose the full roster of masks in any stage. The culmination of the changes is that Hotline Miami 2 feels less like an arcade game than the first, and that is to the games detriment.
Mechanically Hotline Miami 2 takes the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach. Wrong Number controls exactly like the original. The simple control scheme helps minimize confusion during intense confrontations, naturally I occasionally pushed the wrong button in panic. But panic is part of Hotline Miami’s hectic charm. Weapon design continues to be fantastic, guns spew out bullets in uncontrollable hails, melee weapons bludgeon foes with bloody efficiency and throwing a knife into a baddies head still feels awesome. It’s a shame that Wrong Number trims back overall weapon variety, both melee and firearm choice is more constrained than the original; exclusively thrown weapons are removed altogether. So too are quirky one off’s like pans filled with boiling water.
Stage design has been altered too; smaller intimate stages have been dropped in favour of larger open areas, and long twisting hallways filled with tricky window sections. The radical change up to stage structure means overall a shift in how levels are approached. Melee weapons are still great for close encounters, but Wrong Number places an emphasis on firearms because of it’s larger areas. The new focus on guns is a refreshing change of pace, instead of depending heavily on melee weapons I found myself weaving firearms into my slaughter rotation with more frequency.
With stages constructed with a combination of enclosed rooms and open segments how I tied melee battles together with ranged ones to keep the combo meter high was more crucial than ever. I found myself taking care to tie attacks together with ruthless elegance – “I’ll knife this guy, take his shotgun, shoot it in the air, that’ll alarm his friends, I’ll shoot one, throw the gun into the face of the other, stamp on his head and take his pistol to get the next guy”. Hotline Miami’s scoring system rewards variation in combos; so working out efficient brutal chains is par for the course. Regardless of whether I made them up on the fly or after repeatedly banging my head against the wall the pay off was the same – rewarding.
Tactical approach was always a part of Hotline Miami, but in Wrong Number planning is more important than ever. The arcade feel of running into a room with a basic plan and then relying on instinct and reaction to rack up a high score is sadly absent in Wrong Number. The sequel is far more concerned that the player work their plan and scout ahead according. I never touched the look ahead button in the original, I always winged it, but in Wrong Number I was pressing the button constantly. Wrong Number’s over reliance on asking me to plan every aspect of my approach broke up the fast paced gameplay that defined Hotline Miami – it’s Wrong Numbers greatest weakness. In later stages the inability to progress without intimate planning becomes increasingly obvious until it’s simply impossible to play like the original.
Another formula change comes in the form of the masks. In the original at the start of each stage players were allowed to pick a mask, each would change the characteristics of the player character – a ‘perk’ if you will. Mask effects ranged from ‘punches kill’ to ‘opening doors on enemies kills’. The mask could radically alter a players approach to situations on each stage. The collection and trying out of masks was one of my favourite parts of the original, and in Wrong Number where it’s not trimmed back it’s omitted completely.
Instead of choosing a mask Wrong Number assigns players a character for each stage. Some characters have a choice of a few masks and others have none at all. Even cumulatively the number of mask on offer in Wrong Number pales in comparison to the original. In return each mask characteristic has been amped up. For example one character has the choice between: throws kill, start with a nail gun and punches kill/ no weapons. The choice is welcome, but a larger variety would have been appreciated. The fun in picking my approach was half of Hotline Miami’s fun – like choosing how to assassinate in Hitman, without the choice the execution is less exciting.
Interestingly it’s the characters who’ve no perk selection which offer the most intriguing ways to play. The investigative reporter was my favourite addition, he doesn’t kill. Pick up a gun and he ejects the ammo, when he hits people with a bat they writhe around in pain rather than die, and when he punches enemies with a ground execution he knocks them out cold. The choice to put in a character where there’s the potential for no blood fascinates me, I would love to see more of stages with the guy. There’s something so satisfying about ‘Batmaning’ a bunch of gang members.
Streamlining the experience is Dennaton’s way of placing stronger focus on the story – a wholeheartedly terrible idea. Hotline Miami 2 like the original tries to tell a trippy story of drugs, murder and a bunch of other awful stuff, but succeeds only in tripping over itself. The story is nonsensical and follows six plot threads at once – none of which are good. Nearly all of the threads don’t even get wrapped up. It even jumps around three different time periods, following each thread completely at random. It’s simply impossible to follow, it’s the antithesis of cohesive and ultimately one big mess. The original games core narrative thread was at least followable, even if it wasn’t very good.
Thankfully Wrong Number matches the original in terms of music quality. The soundtrack is stellar. A sublime blend of retro gaming music and sinister eighties dance Wrong Number sounds as good as the original. Every stage is accompanied by music that matches the mood so perfectly – truly phenomenal.
At the beginning of the review I said Wrong Number took an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach mechanically. If Dennaton took that approach with the other areas of the game Wrong Number would be a better experience. Instead many of the new implementations feel like they detract from the game as a whole. Mask restrictions limit variety, increased focus on story was a wrong move and overly tactical combat breaks the fluidity. Thankfully the core of Hotline Miami is mostly intact, combat still feels awesome, bloody and rewarding; the presentation is fantastic too. In the end over experimentation has stolen away some of Wrong Number’s soul; ultimately it’s a good follow up, not a great one.