Review: Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number – The Sound of Violence

on March 21, 2015 12:00 PM

Bursting into the room with hyper-stylized visuals, a pulsating and hypnotic soundtrack, and possibly the most graphic violence ever to be experienced in a video game, Hotline Miami was brutal and horrifying — even more so, it was intense and fun.

In the opening moments, the protagonist was asked “do you like hurting people?”

That question was originally asked in 2012 with the first game’s debut; now three years later in its sequel, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is looking to answer that question.

Developed by Dennaton Games and published by indie extraordinaire Devolver Digital, Wrong Number brings back all of the aspects of the original and amplifies them, while also seeking to conclude its saga of blisteringly-intense gameplay, almost-disturbing levels of violence, and a story thick with the influences of neo-1980s spectacles and synthesized soundtracks.

Taking place both before and after the events of Hotline Miami, its sequel feels as drug-hazed and tripped out as ever as it takes on a wildly non-linear approach in its storytelling and structure.

In a manner not unlike the videogame equivalent of Pulp Fiction (and equal to it in violence), this title bounces between several storylines that span different areas, characters, and even decades, all through the clever stylization of a VHS tape fast-forwarding and rewinding to the next section.

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As with the original, players take on a variety of different characters with more or less the same objectives during each level: clear out the floors/levels of each area and brutally murder any and all foes that stand in your way.

The game, like its predecessor, is almost more of a puzzle game than an action-stealth title — players must figure out how to clear enemy forces with whatever means they have, whether it be a combination of melee weapons, deadly firearms, or for the more bold, your bare knuckles.

With extra emphasis placed on chaining together combo strings and taking out enemies as quickly (and consistently) as possible, it effectively retains the gameplay loop that made Hotline Miami such a hypnotic experience.

Make no mistakes about it, Wrong Number is still punishingly-difficult; with players able to be killed just as easily as any of their enemies, death can come quicker than a bullet to the face to the unsuspecting.

It’s equal parts infuriating and belittling to be killed by the last enemy in a level or right before hitting a checkpoint, yet the game still provides its own brand of intense action that’s strangely-rewarding.

Even as I died dozens of times on one level (no exaggeration), the feeling of success after finally nailing a perfect run and surviving a level brought its own sense of satisfaction.

Though the title is still heavily based around trial-and-error, executing a perfect run comes down to progressing little-by-little; figuring out enemy patterns in one area and slowly (but surely) finding the best ways to survive while chaining together strings of combos.

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The core of Hotline Miami 2 has remained largely unchanged for those veterans of the original game. In every other aspect, Dennaton Games expanded to make the title bigger, badder, more difficult, and an even more addictive experience than the last.

However, with vastly-larger stages and a longer main story, the threat of the sequel overstaying its welcome are certainly present given the short duration and incredible pacing of the first game. But thankfully even with nearly ten hours logged into the title’s core campaign, it still nicely divides it chapters and keeps gameplay feeling fresh, even at a running time well over twice the original’s.

Though the main components of Wrong Number will fall within the original title’s ideas — donning your role as a masked vigilante inflicting ultra violence on countless enemies — the ever-shifting nature of the story always ensures each level brings a new face or recurring character back, and more importantly, brings in new gameplay ideas and ways to clear out enemy floors.

In just a few levels into the game’s opening, I was already switching between many of the game’s new characters and playstyles, putting slight twists on the blood-soaked twitch mechanics and introducing plenty of new ways to chain kills, alongside equal amounts of limitations and new challenges.

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In particular, gone are the days (mostly) of switching between a large swath of animal masks with unique powers and abilities, as in the original title. Instead  Hotline Miami 2 radically changes its structure, with only one character (mostly) being available per level.

However, their specific skill sets and abilities make each of them play wildly different, from The Soldier who can brandish both a knife and machine gun (at the expense of having to search levels for more ammo), to a writer that prefers non-lethal takedowns, to a subset of characters called The Fans that recall the action of the original title.

As the most reminiscent of the characters from the original title (and in an appropriately meta setup), The Fans are made up of a group of wannabe vagrants imitating the animal-mask wearing vigilantes of Hotline Miami, and each have drastically different play styles.

Corey the Zebra comes equipped with a bullet-dodging roll maneuver, while Tony the Tiger eschews firearms in favor of lethal punches. Mark the Bear brandishes dual-wieleded submachine guns that let him fire in two directions akimbo-style, while the swan mask-wearing Alex and Ash provide possibly the most unusual combat style yet — the player controls a chainsaw-wielding maniac while another computer controlled character follows behind with a pistol.

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Where as in Hotline Miami I mainly stuck with a few select masks that served my particular combat style on each level (in particular the “lethal doors” Horse mask and “quiet gunshots” Unicorn masks), the fact that Hotline Miami 2 instead forces players to experiment with wildly-different play styles is admirable.

Naturally this leads to some instances where players may enjoy playing as some characters while dreading others (in my case, loving The Fans and dreading The Writer). The game manages to perfectly straddle the line between offering a largely-unchanged experience for veterans of the series, but still providing plenty of new and fresh content to make its “2” well-earned and more substantial than something that could have been resorted to an expansion or DLC.

It commendably makes changes in ways that go against the mindset that many games, sequels in particular, tend to take.

Rather than resting on its laurels, Dennaton Games has done an excellent job of still catering to the fans of the original breakout indie sensation while making Wrong Number still stand on its own feet, through the pixelated (and still incredibly violent) visuals and its pulsating soundtrack make the game a pure adrenaline rush.

Everything has been made even bigger and badder than before, and while the majority of the game’s changes are for the better, its expansion physically and conceptually doesn’t always improve the title.

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In particular, one of Hotline Miami 2‘s most notable changes is the sheer expansion of its levels and layout of each area, with most levels early on easily trumping some of the biggest levels from the previous game.

Where the first title was focused heavily on strategically figuring out enemy placements and the best ways to chain together kill strings (while still staying alive on your own accord), many during the sequel feel purely focused on the need to survive and avoid getting killed at a moment’s notice.

Even when using the ability to extend your sight and view enemies in other areas of the stage, the pure size of every level leads to encounters that can hold considerable armies of enemies to clear out on each stage, leading to overwhelming frustration more so than pure satisfaction in some cases.

Levels in Hotline Miami were also about careful player progression — gradually the players’ many, many deaths would eventually lead to surpassing a level and figuring out the exact strategy needed to clear an area – the levels were challenging to be sure, but they were fair and (often) avoided being cheap.

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In the case of Hotline Miami 2 though, the pure size of each area can lead to a variety of frustrations, most notably in being killed from the other side of the map from enemies beyond a player’s vision, or purely overwhelming numbers of enemies at some points.

Where I often found myself in several stages getting killed almost countless numbers of times, eventually frustration at some points led to a more cautious strategy of hopping out of a room to lure enemies in and bottleneck them through a door, taking away some of the drive and flow that made Hotline Miami so mesmerizing to play.

Instead of the joy of figuring out the best way to chain together enemy kills, it exchanges that for a few stages that are just punishingly difficult, nearly veering into “unfair” territory, thanks to enemies with far greater field-of-view that can kill from across the map and other slightly-nagging issues, such as enemies that glitch into doorways or invisible walls that sometimes hinder player movement.

Rather than the satisfaction I felt at accomplishing some of the original title’s more difficult stages, the most brutal stages led me to breathe a sigh of relief more than anything that I didn’t have to jump back into them again (yet).

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Where some of Hotline Miami 2‘s changes have slightly negative alterations in the gameplay, the chaotic visuals and stellar soundtrack make it one of the most disgustingly-beautiful games available. 

The game throbs with color and energy in its blue and pink Miami Vice 8 and 16-bit style, with most of the game’s animations and character models improved for greater clarity and in many cases, greater brutality.

The experience still comes down to the game’s absolute biggest draw and fuel behind its fire: the mesmerizing soundtrack. Lovingly assembled with the same taste for synthesized and blaring 80s-styled techno and beats, Hotline Miami 2‘s soundtrack is pure audio bliss that warrants multiple playthroughs just to experience all over again.

In several cases, just having the game paused to listen to its eclectic soundtrack leads me even now to multiple playthroughs of its exhausting song library when I wasn’t playing through the game.

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Coming off the success of the original title that caught like wildfire, Wrong Number carries with it the expectations of the previous title and significant hype. Luckily, the game doesn’t disappoint.

Equally relentless, shocking, and filled with moments that I’m still digesting, Dennaton Games’ sequel keeps pushing forward by giving fans of the series the breakneck action and thrills the previous title provided, and most of the time even exceeding them.

Though a few of the new changes and the larger level designs bring as much new problems as they do new challenges, it’s still the blisteringly-difficult and intense game that brings out the best of what made players fall head over heels for in the original title.

Even though Hotline Miami 2 asks much of what the original title asked of players, specifically if they “liked hurting people,” the tough questions and even harsher consequences made me want to keep looking, even if it was unbearable and uncomfortable to do so at times.

 /  Features Editor
Ryan is the Features Editor at DualShockers, with over five years' experience in the world of video games culture and writing. He holds a BA in English & Cinema from Binghamton University, and lives in New York City.