Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number Review—Hype, Controversy, and Rehashes

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Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number caused quite a stir before it came out—there was a lot of hype based on the popularity of its predecessor, a controversy related to the game’s content, leaked footage, and censorship in Australia. But was it all worth it? Well …

One of the first things you’re going to notice about Wrong Number is that it looks, sounds, and plays a lot like Hotline Miami. That’s because it wasn’t originally supposed to be a standalone title but a big expansion pack for the original game. As a result, most of the basics are the same: it’s a top-down shooter in which you (usually) have to kill everyone on a given level. In order to do this, you utilize a variety of conventional and improvised weapons, which you find lying around or take from defeated enemies. There are some tweaks here and there (most noticeably the ability to survive a stray bullet or two) but overall, you could pick it up right after finishing the first Hotline Miami and get used to it almost immediately as the controls and mechanics are almost the same. Curiously, Hotline Miami 2 uses a custom game engine as opposed to Game Maker—I’m not sure what was behind the decision as it doesn’t seem any more complex than the previous game and it now has some bugs that could have been avoided if the engines hadn’t changed (e.g. in some levels, your character can wander outside of the borders of the stage).

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That is not to say that there aren’t any gameplay innovations in Hotline Miami 2: the game mixes it up by introducing different characters and drastically changing the way the levels are designed. The levels are now much bigger, and that’s a good thing, given how easy the first game was to clear. There were plenty of deaths in the original, but you never lost too much progress and could therefore beat it in one sitting without too much effort. As completing a level in the sequel takes longer, the risk of losing progress actually makes you want to avoid death–the late parts of the levels become especially tense as you try to hunt down the last enemy before he gets the chance to snipe you from the other side of the room.

And like that, we arrive at the downside of the altered level design. You’ll be sniped from the other side of the room all the time, usually by enemies you can’t see even if you hold down shift and look as far as possible. The rooms are now bigger and much more open, which doesn’t really work for this kind of game. It’s trial, and error, and memorization now. This is all made worse by the fact that you can’t customize most of the characters, and even when you can, it’s still mostly about picking your restrictions. (The soldier is the worst, as he’ll always have a firearm and a knife, without the ability to pick up weapons dropped by the enemies–your only choices are which gun you use, and he’ll never have more than four options in that respect, anyway.)

Not all changes are for the worse, however. The plot of the first Hotline Miami was nothing special, the alternate history angle seemed like an afterthought, and the whole “you’re an asshole for playing this” shtick from the non-secret ending has been done better (see The Execution for probably the first indie take on the concept; or if that’s too pretentious for you, play the amazing Shadow of the Colossus), and while it made up for it with its style and atmosphere, it would have been nice to see more character development and fleshing out of the game world. Hotline Miami 2 gives us just that.

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The game slowly reveals its story by switching through various interconnected plotlines. For a bit of a mindfuck, their order is not chronological but (sort of) thematic, kind of like Tarantino films. Over the course of the game, you’ll play as an actor starring in a slasher movie based on the events of Hotline Miami; a writer doing research for a book about the same topic; a group of copycat killers trying to emulate the protagonist from the first game; the aforementioned protagonist’s friend from the military; two 50 Blessings assassins who served as NPCs in the first game; a ruthless police officer; a Russian gangster; and the son of one of Hotline Miami’s bosses.

As in the first game, crime and violence are important themes. It’s not a coincidence that the same bloody, hazy, psychedelic style Hotline Miami 2 uses for showing criminal activity is used for its depiction of war, police brutality, and violent media. (It’s also ironic, since it seems that both the game and its most vocal critics are saying similar things about cultural attitudes towards violence.) Another important theme is the blurry line between fiction and reality, best demonstrated with the actor feeling as if he’s turning into the character he’s portraying, and the cop imagining himself as a character in the same film. Characters are once again balancing on the edge of sanity as you watch them dream, hallucinate, trip on drugs and, in one instance, trying to stay as calm and non-violent as possible in a very hostile world. The alternate history aspect of the game’s plot is still not that interesting, although it’s much more fleshed out than in the original, and sets up a rather shocking twist at the end.

Hotline Miami was mostly known for one thing: the style. Its look and sound were heavily inspired by the movie Drive, and it all felt as if it were an evil twin of the 1980s. The bright colors, the extreme violence, the synthpop-inspired electronic soundtrack, the neon-lit night, the clothes, and the cars all created an instantly recognizable atmosphere, which probably contributed to the game’s popularity as much as the gameplay (or even moreso).

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The sequel pretty much keeps everything the way it was. It doesn’t fix what wasn’t broken, stays true to its roots, and might even sound better than the first one. That said, most of the game takes place in the early ’90s but (outside of VHS pausing and rewinding effects here and there, and the dirtier and poorer atmosphere of “fan” levels) still feels like the ’80s. I’m not sure if it was possible to do it any other way without making it feel disconnected from the original game, although I’d like to see the developers try. After all, the ’90s gave us Windows, low-poly 3D, and Internet 1.0–and it’s not too hard to make those trippy and disturbing.

The similarity between the style of both games extends to violence and shock value. The game isn’t any more shocking or offensive than its predecessor, and the whole controversy around it (especially the game’s ban in Australia) is blown out of proportion. Even the “implied rape” (which, by the way, happens only in a film within a game, and serves to show both the exploitative nature of the fictional movie, and to illustrate how the filmmakers demonize the protagonist of the first game, turning the only decent thing he did into a heinous crime) is nothing new–after all, the offending scene is a retelling of a situation in the first game in which someone was also implied to be raped, just by a different character. It’s quite funny–the game introduces an exploitation film into its storyline as a way of criticizing sensationalism, and then it gets a lot of negative press that turns out to be the very same sensationalism it criticizes.

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Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is a good game. Unfortunately, it’s also rather disappointing, as most of the changes are for the worse and it isn’t as fun to play as its predecessor. Both the hype surrounding the game, and the controversy about its content, were very exaggerated, and gave the game the semblance of being something more memorable than it actually is.

Changes to gameplay (negative) and narrative (positive) will probably be widely discussed among the game’s fans and detractors, but the truth about Hotline Miami 2 is that your opinion about it will probably be very similar to your opinion about the first game. Did you enjoy the fast-paced gameplay of the original? You’ll enjoy it again. Were you disgusted by all the blood in the original? You’ll be disgusted again. Did you like the songs so much that you’ve always set the volume to full while playing? Your neighbors will call the police again. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number follows in the footsteps of the original game and, like follow-ups usually are, will be overshadowed by the original’s popularity and impact.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number was reviewed on PC using a code purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

Overall: 7

The Good:

  • An interesting expansion of the original story
  • Amazing soundtrack
  • More challenging gameplay than the original

The Bad:

  • Restrictive level design and character mechanics
  • A focus on memorization over skill
  • Noticeable (but not game-breaking) bugs
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I play games (I have a preference for old, weird and difficult ones but that's not the rule) and write articles about them that are sometimes a bit too long. Sometimes I also do things other than gaming, I swear.

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