Hotline Miami 2 - Wrong Number review: a history of violence

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, PS Vita, PS4
Publisher Devolver Digital
Developer Dennaton Games
Release Date Mar 10, 2015

I can't get Hotline Miami 2 out of my head.

This sequel is brutal and savage in ways the 2012 original never dared to be, but it's not its hyper violence that I can't stop thinking about. Nor is it its returning, super-tight gameplay loop, which demands memorization and reckless improvisation in equal, satisfying measures.

In fact, Hotline Miami 2’s memorability has nothing to do with the strengths of the original at all, and that's exactly what makes it so memorable. It's a bold deviation from its predecessor in a lot of ways — some of which work, some of which don’t — but it’s also a departure from the storytelling conventions by which almost all games swear. It's not as smooth or streamlined as the original, but those very changes make it one of the most fascinating games I've ever played.

Hotline Miami 2 is still a game about weaving together strings of murders as recklessly and variedly as possible, which is just as rad as it was the last time around. No other action game has come close to building such a condensed, trance-like loop of repeated failure and refinement, culminating in a perfect, super stylish run through each stage. It's always challenging, never too frustrating, and the payoff is frequent and sublime.

A lot more is expected of the player this time around, though. Levels are much, much larger than they were in the original, with the largest among them hosting small armies of enemies to kill and not get killed by. There are more enemies that can only be killed in certain ways — some only with guns, some only with melee attacks — forcing you to constantly switch-up your approach, and ensuring that you can't cheese your way through a level with a single weapon.

Hotline Miami 2 is considerably more difficult than its predecessor, which makes it all the more rewarding when you finally finish sweeping up a stage. But the longer levels deter the kind of hypnotic recklessness I loved in Hotline Miami. Some floors take a long time to clean out, and the longer you spend making headway, the more demoralizing your foolhardy deaths become. There's a bigger emphasis on survival, which can't help but take some of the emphasis away from wanton carnage.

Though the gameplay is a bit less fluid, the presentation of Hotline Miami 2 is even slicker than it ever was in the original. The star of the show is the soundtrack, which I cannot praise enough. It's a lovingly curated list of synth-driven pump-up jams that sounds like a best-of compilation of non-existent, dope-as-hell '80s slasher flicks and action-packed cop shows. I’ve been letting the game idle in the background while I work, just so I can keep listening to my favorite tracks — I’m listening to one right now, actually, as I write this.

Other than the increased challenge, the core gameplay of Hotline Miami 2 isn't so different from the original — but the framework containing that gameplay is, and thats where things start getting really interesting.

For starters, there are nine different playable characters (one of which is actually a group of five characters), each with their own mechanics and unlockables. Gone is the idea of collecting a vast catalog of masks and choosing the best one for your play style with each stage. Each level in Hotline Miami 2 casts you in one of those nine roles, giving you a far more limited subset of masks or weapons to choose from.

The star of the show is the soundtrack, which I cannot praise enough

hotline miami 2

This structure is anything but formulaic, which is risky

This structure is anything but formulaic, which is risky, considering the strength of Hotline Miami's formula. A few characters break out of that usual routine entirely, behaving totally differently from their counterparts. Evan, for example, is a writer who prefers non-fatal combat — unless you kill someone, which sends him into a bloody rage. One character is a guerrilla soldier who uses just one weapon, which he must collect ammo for if he runs out.

Some characters are more interesting and unique than others, but it's telling that the best time I had in Hotline Miami 2 is when I played as The Fans, a group of violent vigilantes designed to simulate the experience of playing the original Hotline Miami.

hotline sidepiece

When playing as The Fans, you can choose between a small collection of masks with some wild powers, like one that lets you dodge roll under enemy fire, or one that starts you with two sub-machine guns, allowing you to get down on some serious John Woo shit. The Fans represent the most fun I’ve had playing this series, because they best tap into the mechanics that make Hotline Miami great. I always missed them when they weren’t around.

It's almost as if the events of Hotline Miami 2 were shuffled and tossed up in the air, then told in the order that they landed. You'll get the occasional moments of lucidity — entire chapters told from the same perspective, for instance — but mostly, the game ping-pongs between people, places and decades with each new level. You have to work to make the game’s stars align, but it’s work that’s totally worth doing.

Hotline Miami 2 almost plays out like a drug-addled mystery novel. I became obsessed with the lore of the series’ masked killing cabal, which the game explores both the origins and terminus of, with surprisingly deep and personal stories in between. There are some awkward deviations here and there — sometimes characters are thrown into a combat sequence with barebones, nonsensical exposition to guide them — but on the whole, it’s a compelling tale that culminates in, bar none, the craziest, most audacious ending I’ve ever seen in a video game.

Hotline Miami 2 is also fucked up in a big, big way. In one sequence, your character slowly beats another playable character to death as they calmly, hauntingly beg for their life. There are way more, way gorier executions you’ll exact on the game’s beefier enemies. The game also kicks off with a depiction of implied sexual violence which, for what it’s worth, an opening prompt allows you to skip before you even start playing.

Hotline Miami was certainly a violent game, but it was much easier to simply think of your slain enemies as blood-soaked piles of points. Hotline Miami 2 certainly has that pursuit, but it’s also more of a character piece, making its exponentially increased carnage that much harder to stomach. The original Hotline Miami asks a question in one of its early scenes: "Do you like hurting other people?" Hotline Miami 2 expects an answer.

Wrap Up:

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is unapologetic, and unforgettable

Hotline Miami 2 may look like its predecessor, but it’s a completely different beast. The original was a drug; a pulsating, hypnotic thing. Hotline Miami 2 consciously makes it slightly harder to get lost in that flow, but trades that trance for a story that I’m still rapturously unpacking. It gives you the tools and freedom you need to execute unbelievable killing combos, and then gives you ample time to consider the consequences. That might be what has made Hotline Miami 2 such an unforgettable experience for me: Between those two halves — the killing and the consequence — I still do not know which is more brutal.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number was reviewed for Windows PC using a retail code provided by Devolver Digital. You can find additional information on Polygon's ethics policy here.

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