On occasion, when a game spawns a sequel, the playing public is distracted from the realisation they're playing the whole thing over by the use of simple tricks - a new skin, weapon or map. After the initial glitz wears off that inescapable sense of emptiness settles in, followed quickly with buyer's remorse. Occasionally though, a sequel takes steps to further the original experience while retaining the core of the original - Hotline Miami 2 verges on being one of them.
On the face of things, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is a top-down shoot’n’slice’n’bash’em up, set in a depraved hellhole rendition of '80s Miami. Players typically enter a level unarmed and need to eliminate armed foes, taking their weapons and performing stylised executions as they go. Clear a level, the “story” moves on in a non-linear fashion, unlocking characters with masks that grant the ability to perform special moves.
There is a lot more noise in terms of characters, stages and number of bad guys to dismember, but the overall gist is basically the same as Hotline Miami. And although things look and feel similar at the outset, the sequel does not play the same way.
Despite looking and sounding almost identical to the original - the psychedelic and hallucinatory neons and ultra violence of Hotline Miami are all still present - something has changed. The original Hotline Miami let players spill blood and guts with something like artistic freedom - the player launching into each stage with freewheeling abandon. The extremely quick manner in which the characters enter an area, kill (or are killed) and the restart the level fed beautifully into the way in which gamers approached the game.
Each retry felt like a fresh level and due to the scoring system, players felt compelled to give each completed stage another crack to see how else the action could play out. In the sequel, however, the core gameplay has changed. There now seems to be a single (or at least far more limited) path throughout each zone. No more walking into the lion’s den and brutally picking a path - Wrong Number wants to you to bash your head against its limitations until you find your way out.
It’s a subtle change, one that fans of the first game will possibly find a stumbling block for the first few levels. It’s unclear if this change was intentional or potentially an inevitable consequence of making the scope of the game larger. Playing Hotline Miami again in preparation shows the sequel for what is is - a bigger game with a more punishing demeanour.
Despite losing some of the ‘do as you feel’ vibe, Hotline Miami 2 soon begins to flourish within its new limitations. During the fifteenth attempt at a particular scenario a zen-like calm settles in. You know what must be done and it’s pure skill that will get you through it. It can be immensely fun. Still, this kind of gameplay is not for everyone - throwing the controller through the TV is less likely than simply putting it down for good - this is not a game you can get through through lack of determination.
Speaking of the controller - this review was performed on a PC using a mix of mouse and keyboard, and an Xbox 360 gamepad. Using the lock-on to enemies feature and the controller drops the difficulty down a notch or two, which is especially important on the larger levels where enemies are often far off the screen. At 1920x1200 the camera can feel a little too elevated, especially compared to the more ‘zoomed in’ original. This becomes a double edged sword, pulling the claustrophobia back and simultaneously making enemies harder to hit - but don’t for a second think they’ll have a hard time hitting you.
The way Hotline Miami 2 gets away with its gruelling repetition is through the aforementioned reward of success as well as keeping the player locked in with hypnotic sound and stage. The soundtrack of this game pulsates and arpeggiates constantly, subtly latching onto the player's brainwaves and driving their every move. Due to the fluid spawn-kill-die-respawn dynamic that Hotline uses so well, playing in time with the music becomes natural even if it’s not prescribed. The song choices are sublime and they kick, the only thing that follows on purely from the predecessor.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is a much bigger game than Hotline Miami was in every way except one. It will take longer to beat (much longer to complete), has bigger maps, story, characters and range of weapons - and yet the implicit channeling of the player throughout the majority of maps will prove divisive. Some will applaud the opportunity to hone and improve skills in a limited framework while others will miss the more open ended slaying of Hotline Miami. Despite all the subtle improvements to graphic and sound, as well as the great soundtrack - Hotline Miami 2 doesn’t quite fill the boots of it predecessor and finds itself mildly hamstrung by rote repetition and brutal difficulty.