The Hotline Miami Collection is an ode to the bloody, cocaine-fuelled fantasy of the ’80s and early ’90s. It feels like Scarface in video game form, brutally rampaging through corridors, using almost anything to shed some pixelated blood. Both games in the collection revel in this over the top, fast and stylish violence with plenty of intrigue to pull you along. While the second game loses a little of this momentum in the transition to bigger environments, it doesn’t stop the collection from being a summer fever dream you won’t want to wake up from.
First off, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Hotline Miami is oozing with style (and blood). The soundtrack in both games is incredibly intense synthpop and techno tracks that perfectly fit the retro ’80s and ’90s aesthetic of the entire collection. The energetic beats here help to keep Hotline Miami’s non-stop action running full speed, and the momentum present in the gameplay is always palpable in the soundtrack.
Hotline Miami’s visuals also keeps up with its music. Top-down pixel art might not sound like the most exciting thing to look at, but it works surprisingly well here. Pixelated blood drenches the floor and bursts out of enemies in the most satisfying ways. The fact that none of the characters are too expressive means the violence on display never gets too overwhelming, although there is room in the game for the animation to depict some of the more disturbing aspects of your actions too. Hotline Miami manages to be stylish in more subtle ways to: the screen flickers like a broken tape recording in certain sections, and after you’ve successfully massacred a building the game will come to a screeching halt and almost move in slow motion, allowing you to witness the bloodshed you’ve created.
Of course, Hotline Miami’s throwback, neon-coloured pixels are only there to facilitate a brutal and addictive gameplay loop. In the first game, everyday you’ll wake up as an unnamed protagonist and receive a cryptic phone call asking you to “clear an infestation” or “cover a shift”. Your apartment changes in interesting ways after each frantic mission so take the time to observe. Each of Hotline Miami’s levels are pretty clear. You drive up to a building, get out of the car and kill everyone inside. The game’s areas are relatively small and compact but are generally full of enemies, meaning staying in one location for too long isn’t a good idea. This way, Hotline Miami encourages fast movement and twitch shooting.
Anything can be used as a weapon. Your fist can knock enemies over but cannot kill them. Guns are your safest option but the noise attracts enemies from other rooms. Melee weapons like bats and machetes are fast and offer one-hit kills but you also run the risk of being spotted and shot. Since enemies have a quick trigger finger and also instantly one-hit kill you, you’ll end up dying. A lot. In regard to weapons, this means you’ll need to cycle through all of your options frantically to fit the situation. Dogs move at the speed of light so you might want to take care of them first from afar. Or maybe you need a gun, in which case you could try knocking over an enemy, picking their one up and then aimlessly shoot the entire room. There’s a lot to keep track of and no two situations feel the same.
Hotline Miami also offers lots of options to use the environment. If an enemy is walking past a door, opening it or shooting it from the other side will temporarily knock them down, giving you space to deal with others. Windows are also an interesting aspect of the game’s levels. Instead of walls separating some rooms, there’ll instead be breakable glass. This can lead to interesting mechanics where you’ll be able to take out targets from certain angles without getting close to them at all. But the opposite is also true. Enemies can see you through them and this leaves certain spaces inaccessible to you unless you want your brains blown out. The levels are always varied and creative while playing around with this.
Depending on your score after a mission, you can also unlock certain masks that give you buffs or nerfs like George the giraffe who’ll allow you to see further or Graham the rabbit who allows you to move faster. This adds a certain level of strategy to levels as you want to figure out what buff is the most appropriate for a situation. It also gives the entire game more replayability as you’ll want to redo missions to unlock new masks and try on new ones.
While Hotline Miami’s gameplay is fun, frantic and addictive, it’s not perfect. In many longer corridors and larger environments (particularly in the sequel), enemies will be able to see and shoot you from off screen. This leads to situations where I’d be killed by enemies I didn’t even know existed. The intention might have been to slow down gameplay in some portions and make it more tactical but the design choice just makes the game more frustrating. Enemy AI is also quite bad. Gunshots attract enemies but this is never consistent. There’ll be instances where enemies in the next room are unbothered by a shot but goons are running toward you from the opposite side of the building.
The game also features some unwelcome boss fights. These force you to learn an enemy’s attack pattern and react accordingly. Hotline Miami is at its best when it’s forcing you to act fast and think on the spot to plans gone awry, not react to patterned movesets. Aiming on a gamepad is also not ideal. While the game’s lock-on feature is appreciated, it’s not as snappy and precise as aiming with a mouse usually is, especially when enemies have such quick reflexes. One or two bugs also see enemies spawn outside of the building, making them unkillable and breaking missions. This means that you need to load up the game and clear out the entire area, again.
Hotline Miami’s ambiguous narrative is just as bloody, drug-fuelled and unique as the gameplay. I appreciate the consistent sense of mystery throughout both games and not knowing if what I was seeing was a drug-induced hallucination, a mental state deteriorating due to all the violence, or reality, which would be even more unsettling. The sequel goes to some controversial places and I don’t always think it manages to pull it off, but that’ll depend on the player.
Overall, the Hotline Miami Collection on Xbox One features fast-paced action, an unbeatable soundtrack, retro presentation and an intriguing plot. Lots of replay value, optional ways to play and a tough-as-nails difficulty will keep any gamers invested for a long time. If you’re willing to move past some annoying gameplay sections to get to see Hotline’s coolest ideas, than the Collection is a no-brainer.