Earlier this week, I wrote about the original Hotline Miami, a sharp little nightmare that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since the first time I played it.
On March 10, 2015 Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number was released. It immediately became one of my favorite games of that year. The fast, hyper violent gameplay was back. The surreal story was back, complimented this time with frequent skips forward and backward through time. Aesthetically, Hotline Miami 2 is a visceral delight. The soundtrack is simply incredible once again, and is more diverse than its predecessor.
But something about it never sat right. I wanted to love it, but I only liked and respected it. Upon reflection and replaying these games back to back, it was less that things were missing and more that there was too much going on.
Note: Spoilers for the Hotline Miami series from this point forward.
To be fair to developers Dennaton Games, making a sequel to Hotline Miami is an unenviable task. It is one of those games that transcends its medium and becomes an Experience, capitalization intended. The sequel was originally designed to be downloadable content for the first game, but was expanded as the scope of the work did.
And “expand” is a good way to describe what Wrong Number feels like. The final product feels like The Wall compared to Dark Side of the Moon. Or Sandinista! compared to London Calling. Or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness compared to Siamese Dream.
Hotline Miami 2 is a double album, with all of the good and bad traits that implies. The best double albums are incredibly ambitious, diverse pieces of work, but even the good ones suffer from overindulgence. The number of double albums that truly earn their expanse is small, and the number of those that are perfect without editing are even smaller. Not even the White Album is peerless. “Revolution 9" is not essential, I am sorry.
Hotline Miami 2 is longer than the first one, but pure length isn’t the issue. There is a hell of a lot more Hotline Miami to attempt to wrangle. There are more characters, a more convoluted plot, bigger levels, more weapons, time skipping, and an even bigger soundtrack.
The last of those is undoubtedly a good thing. Hotline Miami 2's soundtrack absolutely fucking stomps. Before I get super critical, I want to show you that this is something that happens in Hotline Miami 2:
That is some Grade A ultra-violence right there.
Outside of the ridiculously great music, some of the expansions on the Hotline Miami formula succeed more than others. Hotline Miami 2 is bigger and more ambitious, and the result is sometimes too much of a good thing.
I am not going to cover the plot as a whole, because that is something that can only be done justice through a separate analysis. That being said, Wrong Number’s plot differentiates itself from its predecessor in key ways that help it stand on its own as a piece of interactive art, while at the same time taking away some of what makes the original so memorable.
Hotline Miami 2 has 13 characters that you play as. None of them are Jacket or Biker. Jacket has been imprisoned after his killing spree from the first game, and Biker is basically a drunk mess. The game heavily revolves around the fallout of Jacket’s actions.
One of Hotline Miami’s greatest successes is the feeling that only half of what you are experiencing is real, and being left to connect the dots on your own. As bizarre as this game can be, it doesn’t carry through that same feeling of living out a nightmare. Make no mistake, it has some moments that are utterly horrifying, like the scene from the image posted above. However, Hotline Miami 2 makes a concerted effort to make the game’s world bigger and more interconnected, while also slightly more grounded.
Hotline Miami feels like you are in the head space of a truly deranged person. Jacket doesn’t speak the whole time, so all insight into his motivations is created through his actions. And most of those actions involve the brutal murder of whoever is in his way. Here, you jump between a bunch of different people at different levels of deranged and they all speak. Most characters plainly spell out their motivations.
Overall, the plot of Wrong Number is interesting, and most of the major reveals are well done. However, I can’t help but miss all of the misdirection of the first title. It loses a touch of mystery, and as a result, a little of its power. It is a small, but noticeable, change.
This emphasis on branching storytelling and characters also has big impacts on the gameplay.
In the original, you can modify your play style based on the masks you choose and your general approach to the level. To be overly reductionist, Hotline Miami is a puzzle game with murder. However, the developers did a great job with giving the player a lot of tools to play around with to solve the puzzles. I prioritize speed and close combat, while other players might be more methodical or use more firearms.
The second half of the game as Biker greatly brings your abilities back. All you can use as a weapon was a cleaver, which can also be thrown. This made for a unique challenge the first time around. Also, his story is integral to understanding Jacket’s. This diversion works.
You have thirteen characters to juggle in Hotline Miami 2. On its surface, this diversity is a good thing. Certain characters are built for certain play styles, and the level design of their chapters reflects this. This is interesting from a storytelling perspective, but Hotline Miami 2 lacks the experimentation that made subsequent playthroughs of the first game so rewarding.
Another issue that hurts Hotline Miami 2's options in combat is the increased size of the levels. The claustrophobic levels of the original game works both aesthetically and mechanically. It is really hard for an enemy to truly be able to surprise you, as you can generally see across the map regardless of your position. You can also use the top down perspective to map out your plan of attack.
The bigger stages also has another impact: A larger dependency on guns to get through them. The enemies are often a good distance away from you and armed with guns themselves. It is practically impossible to close the distance and get a kill without using guns. As someone who preferred the option for close combat, I was disappointed that so many levels turn into shooting galleries.
The bigger, more open areas results in taking a lot of bullets from enemies that are just off screen, and makes the game feel more trial and error than hyper skill intensive. Hotline Miami is already difficult, and this change pushes the sequel a bit too close into “frustrating” territory.
All of this comes together to create a feeling that every level has a strict,“right” way to play. There is some room for experimentation, but you can’t try nearly as many things as the mask system allows. As a result, I didn’t really feel the need to replay Wrong Number until preparing for this write up. I had solved the puzzle successfully. This criticism also echoes issues I had with the plot. Hotline Miami is inscrutable, and Wrong Number is its solution.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is incredibly ambitious, and like most ambitious works, sometimes takes too big of a swing and misses the mark. Even though the game gets too unwieldy at points and perhaps over-explains itself, it is still a hell of a good time.
I just can’t shake the feeling that I wish there was a single disc cut of this record.