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Hotline Miami

(Devolver Digital; US: 25 Jun 2013)

When reviewing a re-release of a game, comparisons to the original are inevitable. Usually these focus on changes, what the developers kept, what they added, what they altered, and whether or not all of that retains the central core of the game. Usually only remakes are subject to differences in artistic interpretations, but as some of the more incompetent HD re-releases have shown, even a straight graphical update can completely undermine the artistic power and message of a game (see Silent Hill 2. Hotline Miami for the PS3 and PSVita foregoes nearly all that comparative analysis by being the exact same game released last fall.


Hotline Miami is still an introspective surrealist dive into the mind of a maniac who lives within the neon gloss of the late ‘80s. You still go around killing groups of thugs at the behest of a voice on the other side of the phone calls, which is somehow sufficient to addle you into killing everyone you find at an address that that voice provides. You still choose an animal mask to wear before entering these kill zones, and you still have a variety of weapons at your disposal to stab, shoot, and bludgeon your way through crowds of Russian thugs and the police. You still have the moments after the stage clears where you have to walk back through the carnage that you are responsible for creating. You still watch increasingly bizarre scenes between levels in which at first there appears to be some level of normalcy in your world before everything goes completely mental. And you still are visited by three people in animal masks asking you what the hell you think you are doing while communicating only through cryptic and vague phrases. All of the content of the game is the same.


It also looks the same. The pixel art does its best to act as some sort of shield from the brutality and violence by creating an abstract distance from it. Yet, the game’s aesthetics don’t quite succeed as each level is slowly transformed by a liberal painting of the walls in blood. 


It also sounds the same. The grooving soundtrack still immerses you in the era through its excellent techno beats. The rhythmic and repetitive nature of the soundtrack seeps into the back of your mind, but never steals the spotlight or gets annoying no matter how long it goes on and on. And it still plays… oh wait…


To be honest I was a little worried going into this review. Hotline Miami was one of the best game coming out of last year on PC, but part of what made it so strong was the very physical sense of fatigue that the controls and challenges caused the player, creating some sort of connection to the character on screen. For me, that was the element that elevated Hotline Miami from being great to being sublime.


The console version of the game uses a controller rather than the original’s mouse and keyboard. The PC controls were not conducive to the frantic, precise input that the game required. Or at least not without severe hand strain after a while. Controllers are ergonomically designed for comfort as much as function nowadays. Instead of trying to hit keys and missing due to fatigue or numb reflexes, the positioning of the buttons and analog sticks grant a finer, less taxing control to the player.


And for the first few levels, I was right to worry. The levels seemed easier to execute and the easy placement of the lock-on button – a feature that on the PC seemed more like a myth than something actually programmed into the game—means it gets used quite a bit. The analog sticks seem to make looking and moving easier to do in tandem, being, as they are, located on the same input device rather than splitting duties between mouse and keyboard.


However, once I got about a third to maybe halfway through the game, when the challenge and complexity of the arenas really increases and I began to die more often despite foreknowledge of the layouts and enemy locations, I began to feel the familiar hand strain and fatigue. It takes longer to hit, but the resulting physical feelings are still largely the same.


The difference between the two versions comes down to a minor trade off. The controller is a smoother and allows a more fluid input system that makes the game somewhat easier. The analog sticks aren’t as precise as the mouse, but the ease of the lock-on button more than negates that effect. While the mouse and keyboard make you work at your kills and is better at physically draining you, matching the merciless descent of the character into the darkest themes of the game.


To me, losing that physical feeling compounded on top of the emotional weight of your actions causes the player to miss out on something necessary to “get” the full effect of the game’s tone. And while the difficulty does increase enough that the same effect soon overcomes the player on the controller, I wonder if it may be too slow to take effect, but since the power is still there even with the new control scheme, I think I can safely downgrade that single worry into a minor niggle. And in all honesty, the main element of difference is one of thematic reinforcement of Hotline Miami’s content rather than the heart of the content itself.

Rating:

Eric Swain is a self-educated game critic. One day he had the crazy idea that video games could be put under the microscope with the same amount of respect and thought that books and movies are only to discover he was not the first person to think of this. He set out to learn all he could and hopefully add to the growing field of game criticism. He has no idea how far he's come or if he's moved forward much at all. He graduated from Boston University with a B.A. in English. You can read more of his work at http://www.thegamecritique.com .


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