When I was a kid growing up in the 90s, I had a rule: no top-down games. There were a couple exceptions to that, of course. Today, I have a new exception: Hotline Miami.
Hotline Miami blew me away. It's a top-down action title in which everything is a one-hit kill, and you cannot save your game whenever you want. It will make you a nervous wreck.
You are a guy. The game doesn't really give you any background, and that's purposeful. When you start the game you'll meet a few people in strange animal masks taunting you for not knowing what is going on. And they are right to do so, you'll discover. The ultimate message Dennation is trying to send is intriguing, but the journey to reach that message definitely factors into it, so I won't spoil it for you here.
In the game proper, you'll wake up in the morning to a cryptic message on your answering machine (this is 1989, after all) which will tell you to go somewhere and help out with something. In Hotline Miami, "helping out" means murdering a bunch of armed folks.
The story is vague and very strange, and I respect that they even tried to do something that stands out here rather than going for something that most gamers could see as nonessential to their enjoyment of the game. Here, folks will praise the game for its stellar gameplay while also expressing joy at this weird plot.
But the gameplay. Oh lord, the gameplay. It's very simple, sort of. You walk into a building and will need to clear it of people, using any means necessary. You start each of the fifteen levels unarmed, but the bad guys all have weapons, and you can use theirs. After you kill them, of course.
The key is to remember that melee makes no noise, and so if nobody is looking when you bash a guy's head in with a baseball bat, they won't discover you. Guns, on the other hand, make a lot of noise, and so when you eviscerate someone with a shotgun, his friends will come running. Again, a single hit will kill you, so you have to be careful. Or you can fly in and try to wipe folks out quickly, which works well in a lot of circumstances, if you are twitchy enough. I should note that you receive a score at the end of each level, and there is a bonus for completing them quickly.
No matter how you approach a level, the experience of taking out these enemies is thrilling, thanks in no small part to the driving electronic soundtrack. If I were a music critic, I would have more words to describe this stunning music, but alas. Just trust me when I say you'll be excited to find MP3s of the music in your game folder, because you'll definitely want to throw these on your iPod so you listen to them while you cruise around in your DeLorean. The gameplay and mechanics and weird story are wonderful, but the soundtrack adds an extra oomph that really puts the game over the top. Presentation is very important, we learn today.
I appreciate how this game escalates. At the beginning, the levels are relatively small and manageable, but as you progress it really starts to get out of hand with the numbers of enemies you'll have to face, which ups the difficulty significantly. You might fight your way through a floor with eight enemies early on, but by the fourth level you have to deal with 15, and that's a crazy amount of dudes to have to handle without being able to save your progress. But when you manage to get through a floor such as that, you will feel a huge sense of accomplishment, and if you do it fast, you'll think you're the biggest badass in the history of gaming. It helps that Dennation has built the game so that while the odds may feel insurmountable, they never truly are. You just have to persevere and strategize, and success will be within your reach.
The masks can help, of you choose the right one for a particular situation. At the beginning of each level you get to choose which animal mask of want to wear (assuming, of course, that you have been able to unlock any of them), and each of them provides some sort of bonus. My favorite is the horse mask, which allows you to kill enemies by hitting them with a door, which very much comes in handy in certain seemingly overwhelming situations.
You will operate Hotline Miami with a mouse and keyboard. You aim with the mouse and move with WASD, and that control scheme works very well. Using a game pad stick to aim, I imagine, would make this game far more difficult than it already is, so I endorse this scheme.
Hotline Miami is, if nothing else, a game you will remember. I'm sure there are people out there who will play it and become frustrated and give up, but sticking with it is incredibly rewarding, as it features one of the year's best gameplay experiences. This is one of those games that makes you feel like a king if you can beat it, and that's not something we get enough of these days.