The first Hotline Miami is one of the best games of recent years (at least, it was one of our favourites), and we have been very much looking forward to getting our hands on this sequel. Like its predecessor, Wrong Number is a gore-filled quick-fire top-down action game, where the player guides a masked character through levels filled with armed-to-the-teeth henchmen. It's bloody, it's bloody tough, and it's characterised by numerous restarts.
The first game was so brilliant because of what it offered: high score chasing, puzzling missions to solve, a weird narrative drenched in meta, blood, guts, lots of guns, and a perfectly executed tightrope walk between art and obscenity. Enemies patrolled rooms, gripping one-hit-kill weapons, ready to turn and end your attempt at the first sign of a mistake. It was about control, speed, aggression, and skill. Players had a variety of masks, unlocked throughout the game, and these offered different abilities (deadly punches or extra ammo, for example), and as you unlocked more masks, more options opened up for experimentation.
It was a near-perfect formula that Dennaton has somewhat strayed away from in Wrong Number. Instead they've created a broader, more narrative-focused sequel that encapsulates most of what made the first game so great, but that is now intertwined with new, more prescriptive elements. In many ways it's exactly the same, but it also feels very different.
One of the biggest changes is the size of the game. Not only are there more missions than before, but they're much bigger. The compact original, which released without an ounce of fat, isn't as lean here, and there's some levels that feel a little cumbersome in comparison. At more than one point we just wanted certain stages to hurry up and finish, with us pushing through three or four larger areas, each more challenging than the last.
We might moan about the difficulty, but actually we enjoyed it for the vast majority of the time. Each mission consists a series of encounters that must be worked out and executed to perfection. There's plenty of doors to kick open, glass windows for your enemies to shoot through (and they will, the bastards), and dogs patrolling, waiting to leap at you and rip out your throat. When it comes to challenge this definitely maintains the tone of the original, maybe even taking it up a notch.
There's enemies that require very specific tactics (melee only, can still move once shot, melee proof), sometimes requiring you to repeat certain sections until the moves needed to take them down are consigned to muscle memory. At times you'll be switching between weapons, pirouetting through rooms in a deadly dance of bullets, and taking out your enemies in a very particular order. And always the spectre of failure looms; make one mistake and it's all to be done again.
Another change, and perhaps an even more significant one, is the way that the story and the gameplay have been inextricably linked. In Wrong Number we're often presented with story missions that decide your approach for you. Where before you could pick a mission and then select a style-dictating mask, here your given a much smaller selection of options - if any - and as such there's less freedom to proceed as you see fit. Dennaton regularly shapes the experience through the story, and often the tone of a run is dictated by design choices meant to complement the narrative.
This runs contrary to the original, and there's going to be some that don't like this change of direction. For the most part it wasn't a huge issue, but nevertheless it's a restricting change to the formula that we didn't have to consider before. It's all tied to story, which this time jumps between characters and narrative strands. The brutish simplicity of the first game is somewhat muddled here, and we can't think of a way to describe the new plot that's better than "convoluted".
It starts off on the wrong foot, with a completely unnecessary sequence depicting sexual violence (that you can switch off if you don't want to see it - which speaks volumes as to its relevance), that in fact turns out to be a scene played out on a movie set. We dart between different years, locations, characters, perceptions of reality; it's all a little bewildering really, and it's hard to know what's real and what's not. Surely that's the point, but perhaps a little more simplicity would've made the whole thing more enjoyable to consume.
That said, even an over-reliance on cryptic narrative devices isn't enough to knock it off course once it finds its stride. There are some seriously enjoyable missions here, a mixture of pulsating set-pieces and hardcore challenges to busy yourself with. We might have been confused once or twice, even a little bewildered at times, but we still enjoyed the majority of the twelve to thirteen hours it took us to play through the campaign (once that's done there's a hard mode that flips the levels around and adds in even more enemies).
Some people might hate having to play certain missions in certain ways, but for the most part we enjoyed the regular changes of pace. For example, in one character's narrative you can only knock enemy characters unconscious, and in another branch of the story there's levels where you have to choose from four masked characters (each with very different abilities). We also visited a lot more varied locations in this sequel, with military excursions into fortified jungle bases sitting alongside more familiar urban environments.
It's made all the more enjoyable by both the visuals and the soundtrack. While it might look primitive, there's some wonderful little touches dotted around the various maps; things that you might not notice at first glance but that make the environments a pleasure to explore. They're nearly all cosmetic, but it's clear a lot of thought has gone into the decoration of these levels. There's a few buggy elements, such as dogs that run in circles (presumably chasing their digital tails), and enemies who get stuck on doors, but for the most part the game looks great; it's brash and neon and heavy on style.
The first game was well received partly because of the stellar soundtrack. This level of quality returns, and it's similarly badass here. These are songs that we might not buy ourselves, or listen to on the stereo at home, but we're happy to hear them here; they're a very comfortable fit for the action and they help you get into a pulsating rhythm and keep you there.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number does many things right. There's some great moments, and if you enjoyed the first game but wanted a more narrative-heavy sequel, that's exactly what you're getting here. However, the side-effect of this tighter focus is there's less freedom for player expression, and that's not going to sit right with some. This is still a really good game that we thoroughly enjoyed playing, but unlike its predecessor, it's not quite a classic.
The level editor detailed in the trailer below will be made available in a later patch, expected at some point in the next couple of months.