Review: 'Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number'


As the fire axe obliterates the skull of your final victim, the room goes silent. Walking down the hallway, you observe the after effects of your massacre. The bodies of dozens of men mutilated beyond recognition, blood splattered over every wall and piece of furniture. Dog corpses and empty shotgun shells litter a once luxurious office. You calmly enter your vehicle to escape. There’s no concern for retaliation, everyone is dead. Welcome back to the world ofHotline Miami.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is the follow-up to the smash 2012 Indie hit. As a sequel, it takes many elements of the original’s fast paced run-and-gun foundation while introducing a plethora of new gameplay elements, storylines and characters. Unfortunately, Wrong Number’s ambition to alter the core experience does more to interrupt than evolve. Fans and newcomers will still find a lot to like, but the overly cryptic narrative, occasionally distracting visuals and inconsistent level design might turn off some players from seeing it to the end.

The story of Wrong Number is a gory, paranoid, temporal collage. Taking place two years after the original, Miami has become a hotbed of mass murdering vigilantes. A writer (Evan) is attempting to uncover the rationale behind the Masked Killings of 1989. Detective Pardo takes advantage of the now commonplace violence to deliver his own brand of vigilante justice. The son of a deceased mob boss works to restore his gang to prominence. Back in 1985 Hawaii, a small platoon of expert soldiers are tasked with wiping out the growing communist presence.

The narrative is decidedly obtuse, often resisting explanation in lieu of abrupt endings. While each of the characters are diverse in personality and motivation, their common actions remove any sense of individuality. It’s hard to believe that more than a dozen people have become so proficient at murdering large groups of trained men. Though given the mental stability of the protagonists, who’s to say what’s real?

Over the course of six hours, Hotline Miami explores the themes of familial responsibility, regret, drug abuse, sexual violence, copycat criminal behavior, the horrors of war and police brutality. But none of these concepts are ever fleshed out beyond a few expositional lines in between chaos. It definitely archives a vibe but if often explains too much only to deliberately pull back. There are plenty of interesting plot threads but don't expect a conclusive payoff. On a side note, it’s a shame to such a large cast of playable characters be limited to Caucasian men, leaving other demographics as cameos.

If you played the original, you’re in luck, as the gameplay is nearly identical to it’s predecessor with some slight tweaks. Players must murder everyone on a given floor, quickly swapping out weapons and delivering fast lethal attacks before moving onto the next. A single bullet or melee attack can end your character’s life, creating a strong sense of tension. It may look like chaotic fun, but Wrong Number is equally strategic. Scoping out rooms, identifying weapons and creating a route are essential to survival. Firearms have the longest range but will cause surrounding guards to inspect the source. Bats and pipes are silent but ineffective against larger forces. There’s something undeniably satisfying about finishing off the final enemy after a multitude of failed attempts.

Each character includes their own unique ability as well as limitations. Some are able to roll under gunfire, kill with a single punch or start out with a power set of machine guns. One inspired selection features two characters: a player controlled chainsaw wielding maniac and an accompanying AI carrying a pistol with 15 bullets. Another welcomed addition is Evan’s refusal to deliver lethal attacks or use guns, often resorting to ground attacks. These sections do a good job of testing the player’s abilities in preparation for the game’s punishing final sections.

But not all of the experiments are equally successful. The 1985 military sequences remove the ability to pick up found weapons. Instead, players find ammo for their selected firearms or swap to a short range knife. These stages come off as generic, trading off Hotline Miami’s sui generis gameplay for a more traditional experience. I often found an ammo stash and simply fired away, eliminating any sense of accomplishment.

Large stages also become problematic, often resulting in a death from an off-screen enemy firing a gun. Glitches such as guards becoming stuck in doorways and players teleporting outside of the environment occur frequently. The darker tones of enemy dogs can blend into the background, making them nearly impossible to identify before it’s too late. One particular stage involve a fluctuating light source, creating an overly complicated and frustrating environment. These problems are already noticeable but become insufferable in the post game hard mode.

When it works, Hotline Miami is an exhilarating and challenging experience. Quickly taking out a room of armed guards, picking up their discarded guns and blasting away a larger enemy to create a combo is as thrilling as ever. But far too many of the stages come off as cheap, often limiting dangerous experimentation for rigid safety and memorization. The good certainly outweighs the bad, but the fluctuating mechanics result in the thoughtfully crafted core being interrupted by lackluster deviations. Dennaton Games' risks are appreciated, so it’s disappointing that many of them do more to detract than enhance.

Wrong Number retains much the original's aesthetics. Neon fused pixel art is paired with graphic, cringe-inducing death scenes. If you want to play, a strong stomach for exposed entrails, smashed brains and severed limbs is a prerequisite. Each environment creates a unique sense of place. From the lush jungles of Hawaii to the decrepit ruins of gang hideouts, no two areas feel the same. This is especially true when later stages include psychedelic effects and distorted visuals, adding to the already otherworldly atmosphere.

Dialogue is delivered by large bobbing heads, making even the most casual conversation uneasy. Each stage is paired with its very own movie poster and title. It’s a staggering amount of work for a wholly unnecessary feature. Many cut-scenes are ended by an omniscient force pausing the tape, rewinding time as tracking lines slowly climb up to the center. Much of the art will go unnoticed the first time through. It’s a rich and disturbing world that celebrates the horrors of man-made destruction.

For the most part, the presentation is a marvel thanks to its fantastic licensed soundtrack. Grimmy techno, low-humming ambient and peaceful guitars are perfectly paired with seedy scenarios. Bouncy dance numbers are juxtaposed with bashing a man's head into a floor. The music so enthusiastically compliments cold-blooded murder that it becomes difficult to ever feel truly comfortable with your actions. It’s a texture unlike any other video game series and remains a creative triumph.

Whether you’re a newcomer or a veteran to Hotline MiamiWrong Number is a solid title with sloppy execution. Mesmerizing visuals and a perfectly crafted soundtrack can’t overcome the irritating level design and occasionally banal gameplay. The story may lack an arc, but the individual beats are engaging enough to see the blood soaked saga to the end. Wrong Numberis all about creative excess and an unwavering personal vision. Sadly, it could have used an editor. For better or worse, anyone seeking unrestrained artistry will find it’s all here.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PS Vita and PC.