Live. Die. Repeat.
Live. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Die. Repeat.
As I struggled through the final levels of Hotline Miami 2, death ceased to be a state of being. Whether a dog was tearing at my throat or a bullet was puncturing --- I'd click to restart, to be reincarnated, without hesitating or even acknowledging my apparent failure. Death becomes part of the sequence rather than an endpoint, just another beat in the game's flow, and no matter how difficult the challenge, I didn't ever walk away mid-level. Everytime I took a break, I was between scenes.
Pausing to regroup and recuperate during a scene wouldn't help. There is a time for analysis of layouts but it comes at the climax, when every body has its own garish halo of blood, rather than in the gap between one life and the next. And that's because those gaps are vanishingly small. The most important action in Hotline Miami isn't the slash of a knife or the squeezing of a trigger, it's the reset button. The game trains and strains muscle memory as each level coalesces into a ryhthmic sequence of motion and violence.
As an extended and elaborate expression of the first game's methods, this is as perfect a sequel as we could have hoped for. It's a smooth, tight experience and there isn't a bullshit bossfight in sight. The basic rules are the same – top-down ultraviolence in tight corridors and exposed chambers. Enemies patrol, armed with either melee weapons or guns, and as soon as the player disturbs them, they hunt.
By the end of the first level, you remember that line of sight doesn't matter. Not really. Enemies detect within a radius and while they can't see through walls, they do have eyes in the back of their heads. By the fourth or fifth level, you'll know the exact radius that they detect within and trailing behind them, just outside that radius will be second nature.
You'll instinctively map out the location of windows, dogs and enemies with guns. The sequel uses windows to create dangerous uncanny angles and killing floors much more readily than its predecessor did, and it uses its three basic enemy types in all manner of cunning combinations. The large bruisers are the most horrifying. Only bullets stop them and even then a weaker weapon won't drop them immediately – they close in, leaving red trails, and can still kill you before they choke on their own blood.
By the seventh or eighth level, you'll have a perfect understanding of the rules, and that's when Hotline Miami 2 starts to erase them. You'll control a character who can't use weapons at all but can kill with his fists and another who refuses to kill, leaving enemies squirming in agony or dry-heaving after a blow to the guts. If he picks up a gun he dismantles it, wasting precious time. He's Batman, without the body armour and years of training. He's fucked. You are him.
My favourite characters work together. They're the Ice Climbers of the hideously violent underworld. One has a chainsaw and the other has a pistol, and attempting to line up shots as he trails behind requires slight adjustments that lead to a hundred deaths. Close in for a finishing move with the chainsaw and the shooter can defend his pal while he's spilling guts and spinning steel against bones.
There's always something new to learn. On one level, I killed four enemies within the first two seconds. That alerted a group of three to my left and I took them out before heading south to lure out two gun-toting maniacs. Nine dead with less than fifteen seconds gone. And then a dog eats me.
Fifteen seconds later, the dog is chewing on my jugular again. Fifteen seconds later, same. And again. And again.
I pace myself, hesitating so that everyone is perfectly placed, leading bad (?) guys into rooms rather than killing them in the corridors. I throw my gun at just the right angle as soon as I restart, knocking an enemy back against the wall. I take his head off and go to work.
Twenty seconds later, the dog eats me.
The thirtieth, fortieth or one hundredth time that the dog kills me, I realise that it is meant to be. The dog will always kill me. I've become locked into a timeloop, trapped in the precision of enemy placement and level design. The only way to break out is to change the sequence, to remix the track that I'm punching into the machine again and again. Adjustment is almost impossible though. No matter how many times I die, it seems I'm incapable of wrenching myself off the path I've chosen in order to take a detour from the short, sharp road to the grave.
It should be agony but it's bliss. Partly that's down to the glorious soundtrack that throbs beneath every level. Equal parts danceable, dreamy and disconcerting, it may not be the equal of the original game's dusty mixtape, but that's only because we know the mould this time around. There are still surprises, most notably a couple of tracks that sound like drum 'n' bass scratched into the grooves of a recurring nightmare, but the music is a now-familiar blend of an imagined past and an aggressive present.
There's beauty in the locations as well. More so than in the first game, which didn't contain as much variety or fine detail. Scenes without violence are still rare, and brief, but they provide the opportunity to stare into the squalor of the characters' lives – it's an odd thing to notice, but Hotline Miami 2 contains the most convincing snapshots of lived-in, messy homes that I've ever seen in a game. Dirty dishes, grime, piles of crumpled clothes. And there are jumps to cramped drug dens, a gothic gangster's paradise, wartorn rainforests and blood-drenched prisons.
The dialogue doesn't live up to the locations. I learn more about these people by walking in their shoes than by reading their words. Skipping back and forth, the story takes in copycat killers, a true crime writer, a frazzled and baked military squad, and a detective on the verge of his final nervous breakdown. At times it feels like a puzzle but, rightly or wrongly, I enjoyed the pieces as pieces rather than parts of a whole.
Better to inhale this one than to chew on it, I think.
The story begins with that scene. It's possible to skip it by choosing to remove scenes of sexual violence (I didn't choose to skip that content and didn't see anything else that would qualify) and I'm not convinced that the rest of the story does enough to inform or build on its opening. It's there to provide more than shock value – if it is a misstep it's not an entirely thoughtless one – but the game's occasional moments of lucid reflection on the portrayal and processing of violence are lost in the happy haze of six or seven delirious hours.
By the time the credits roll, hallucinations and regret seep out of the screen. It's a gorgeous ending but it reaches for a closure for its characters that I'm not convinced the story earns.
Perhaps that's because the game becomes less convincing when it attempts to make connections. Hotline Miami's Miami is fractured, neon diamonds on a windshield, and every location floats in a paranoid hallucinogenic haze that vibrates whenever blood spills. Cars – and occasionally trains and buses – pass through the kaleidoscopic fog, but there are no streets or highways, just tangled structures full of furious men. The closest I came to understanding those men was during a sequence with the soldiers, where the repetitive actions of combat are made equivalent to those loops of muscle memory that the game spools out of the player.
It's unwise to dwell on the ending for too long because the game doesn't stop just because the story has. There's a level editor, unlockable characters, weapons and styles, and the intense challenge of repeating levels to gain an A grade. I only achieved one on my first playthrough and I felt like I was probably the best person who had ever played a game. I have no doubt I'll still be playing when summer finally arrives, striving for perfection.
Dennaton have said this is the final Hotline Miami game and it's heartening to see that it's the design that has been squeezed dry rather than the style or setting. Throughout the game, every weird quirk and rule that drives the action falls under scrutiny, and when you walk away, you'll have a better understanding of the intricate work that goes into the split-second timing and inch-perfect positioning.
Each level is an exquisite machine designed to reveal and betray the game's cruelties and compromises. With rare exceptions, they succeed handsomely and with style to spare.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is out today.