Monday, 29 October 2012

Hotline Miami (PC)

Hotline Miami title screen
Today on Super Adventures I'm playing something recent for a change, ultra-violent action game Горячая линия Майами... uh, Hotline Miami. I had to check to see if I'd gotten the Russian version by mistake, but nope that's the actual English language menu screen up there.

The game has a retro pixelled look and no resolution options, so these screenshots are going to look pretty bad after being resized to fit the page. Of course it was never going to look like Crysis 2, it's a cheap indie release apparently designed to look like a video game from the late 80s played on a flickery TV while on drugs, but clicking the pictures will let you see them at the optimal level of crapness the developers intended.

After a short tutorial brought me up to speed the basics of running up to people and dislocating their brains with an iron bar, my character decided to barge on these animal-headed gentlemen in their house. No idea what's going on here and unfortunately I'm playing as a silent protagonist, so they get to do all the talking.

They reveal that I don't know who I am, I don't know who they are, they don't know why I'm here, and no one seems very happy about this. But the bloke with the chicken head and a stylish outfit tries to jog my memory, leading to a flashback...


April 3rd, 1989. Miami - Florida.

Hey, our protagonist's house isn't so bad. Not much furniture in here so he has to store his clothes... well pretty much anywhere he takes them off I guess. But at least he's got the essentials: a NES, a TV, and two controllers. Also two beds, one without sheets... weird that.

Oh right, I should mention that the hero is moved around with the keys (WASD by default, but they're redefinable), and I can aim with the mouse cursor. Though no matter how much I clicked I couldn't get him play on the game console. Or turn the damn TV off.

I was able to check his answering machine however (the clue was the red arrow pointing to it), and it turns out that there was a message from the bakery telling me my cookies have been sent out and should have been delivered to my house by now. Best flashback ever!

Unfortunately the cookie box outside contained instructions telling me to go collect a particular briefcase and leave it at a drop point. Not a single cookie in the box, though there was a chicken head mask. Hmm.

Turns out my house was stuck in a strange empty colour-cycling void, but climbing into my car let me escape to level one. Well it's a prologue so it's actually more like level zero but whatever.

Right, I've got my chicken head uniform on and I'm ready to do some good honest delivery work. But there appears to be a guy standing in front of the door and there's no way I'm getting inside without knocking him flying. Damn, if I'd known this was going to end in violence I'd have come armed with something more dangerous than a rubber mask.

One shove isn't enough to take an enemy out for long, so I needed to run over and perform the finishing move. It's okay, he was evil! He was armed with a baseball bat and he was guarding the door, clearly that means he's an evil video game enemy. Well put it this way, if I'd somehow gotten in here through another door he'd have likely ran over and smacked me without provocation, so it was pre-emptive self defence.

Oh fine okay I'm playing as a terrible person and this is obviously the first step on a slippery slope of psychopathic violence and insanity that ends with him chatting to animal heads in a dark room that are possibly aspects of his own shattered mind. But hey, +600 points! Plus a free bat, which should come in handy on the next floor.


A FEW SECONDS LATER ON THE NEXT FLOOR UP.


Okay, I've learned four things:
  1. The enemies are bloody fast.
  2. They can kill my guy in a SINGLE HIT.
  3. But I immediately restart back at the stairs with the weapon I was holding and no lives lost.
  4. My guy wears bright blue jeans, hopefully making his corpse easy to spot on these screenshots.
'R TO RESTART!' appears and bobs around on bottom the screen. You know, I think I'll take them up on their offer.


SEVEN DEATHS LATER.


Look at that, took out two of them in a single swing, no finishing move required! I got a 2x combo for that, +700 points, and I actually almost care about it. It took me eight tries just to make it across a single room, and now the games tempting me into trying to play more stylishly.

It's got me thinking about all the other ways I could have handled this. I could have lured these two out one at a time and hit them as they came around the corner. Or I suppose I could have thrown my bat at them from the doorway and knocked them out before they even saw me. It looks like a dumb action game, but this is all about observing the area and planning the next move.

The good news is that I found the briefcase I was sent here to pick up! The bad news is that a pair of enemies came in off the train downstairs as I was making my escape, and I can't drop the case to grab another weapon.

Armed with a bat I can knock an enemy's brains across a wall with a single well timed swipe, but while I'm stuck with this, things are getting a little more messy. I've knocked them both down, but it'll only take them a couple of seconds to get back on their feet, so I'm hoping I can cave this guy's head in with a takedown move before the other one gets up, or else he'll end my killing spree with a single whack to the back of the head.

Congratulations to anyone who can actually make out what is going on in this screenshot by the way. I promise it makes more sense when you're playing.

Hotline Miami Grade A
What? Grade: A? Seriously? I must have gotten my poor protagonist murdered at least a dozen times on that run, and it still gives me an A?

Hang on, I don't think there's any penalty for dying in this at all. It only seems to care about how I performed on my last, successful run. Man after all those retro games I've been playing though, it's so nice to play something that honestly doesn't give a fuck how many times I screw up for a change.

On the way home from the prologue mission our hero decides to do some late night shopping. So that's my objective for this level: pick up some food. I've already failed at paying for it though, as the guy won't take my money. He did mention that our nameless hero lost his girlfriend recently though, so there's a bit of backstory for us.

Well... okay then. Glad we could have that weird little interlude. Guess I'll get back to visiting buildings and hitting people for the mysterious voice on the telephone then.


April 8th, 1989. Miami - Florida.

I unlocked a second mask for completing the last stage, and it seems I can choose which one to equip at the start of the level to gain various special abilities. Hey, I recognise this owl face, he was in the intro room too! He basically told me to fuck off.

Oh check out my shiny gull-wing'd Delorean-looking sports car by the way. That's the kind of thing you can afford when you don't waste cash on furniture and get all your snacks for free.

Damn, the enemies have upgraded to shotguns on this level. Still, that just means more weapons for me if I can somehow get close enough to kill one of them. Fortunately they can't see through walls, so they're not a problem at the moment.

Right now I should be more concerned with thinking of the best way to get this guy patrolling the hallway. He hasn't spotted me yet, but if I try sneaking up behind him he'll definitely hear me. This ain't Metal Gear, stealth takedowns are not an option. And there's no way to do a non-lethal run as exit won't open until everyone on the level's bled out.

There you go, best way to deal with ranged enemies: hit them from a distance. With a gun. Yeah my arm was a little off, but with this shotgun it doesn't matter so much. Now I just need to get the other bloke on the couch before he pulls a weapon and shoots me.

Ah.

It appears I neglected to factor in the fact that unlike a swinging a bat, firing a gun is very loud and tends to let the people next door know you're shooting at their friends. One shower of buckshot from off-screen later and I'm back at the staircase planning a new strategy. A quieter strategy.


LATER.


Another level complete, another interlude. This time he's visiting a precognitive pizza place, run by a guy that looks a lot like his friend from the other shop. Actually no, this IS his friend from the other shop. And he's giving me the pizza for free as well. The plot thickens.

I keep thinking there must be clues here leading to some end-game twist that'll be obvious in retrospect, but right now I got nothin'.


April 16th, 1989. Miami - Florida.

Look at that, I burst in the room, knock a guy down, immediately get a lethal shotgun blast in my face. The game does not fuck around. There's no way to dodge bullets in this by the way, if an enemy's gun goes off, chances are I'm restarting.

Usually I'd whine about being shot from off screen in a 2D game like this, but this game has a secret weapon: you can hold shift to drag the view around to scout out the area. So basically I have no one to blame for this but myself; I didn't do the necessary recon and I paid the price.


ON THE NEXT FLOOR UP.


Holy shit that's a lot of guards with guns! If I open that door, and they hear me, I've lost. This is not an action shoot 'em up, and they will not miss.

Unless... I can send the knife guy flying with the door on the way in, kill the next bloke with my pipe, throw my pipe at the third guy to stun him, then wait around the bottom corner for the last gunman to come over. Then I knock him out, grab his gun, run back out of the room and shoot the survivors as they pick themselves up and follow me out through the door. Simple.


SIXTEEN DEATHS LATER.


Man... the game ain't easy.

But you know what's weird? This isn't even slightly frustrating for me. I've got a huge smile on my face, and I'm eager to try out a new tactic I've just thought up. The game throws me back into the fight so fast I've got no time to be annoyed. This must be what playing games like Super Ghouls'n Ghosts is like to people who have patience.

Good, I'm glad this guy's finally coming out. He's been locked in his room all level and I haven't been able to shoot him.

Art like this had me wondering if the artist from Timeslaughter had worked on this, but nope it's an entirely different guy. He just also happens to like pixelling weird faces and a lot of blood.

Uh, why aren't my bullets killing this guy? Oh no don't tell me this is a boss battle. I don't want to have to study his routine, or learn his weak point, or go around hitting him with every weapon on the floor until I find the one that works. Especially not when I have to restart every time he catches me.

You know, I had a theory that I haven't been frustrated by my constant failures in this game because of the infinite lives and fast restarts. But this fight is already pissing me off, so it can't just be that.

I think what's happening here, is that the game has certain enemies, and certain weapons, and I can predict how everything will act when I get involved. Everything is known, and it's up to me to make use of that knowledge to find a solution. But this guy, I don't know him, I don't know what kills him, and I can only beat him through trial and error. And that's no fun for me.

Turns out I just had to find a shotgun and shoot him a few times, so now you know.


May 5th, 1989. Miami - Florida.

That's weird, are they torturing this guy with electricity from the plug sockets or something?

I guess that was a no then.

Well that was cool, how I managed to successfully kill all those dudes to get here, but then got killed by something I didn't know about and couldn't predict. Well okay there was a pretty big clue, but I didn't figure it out. Plus I need to get through that room, so what else was I meant to do?

I had to look up the solution in the end, but I won't spoil it. Though here's an interesting and totally unrelated fact I just learned: shotgun blasts can open doors.


May 23rd, 1989. Miami - Florida.

Oh come on, not another boss? Does anyone out there actually enjoy these fights? The developers have played fair, they even put a checkpoint on the door this time so I don't have to walk from the elevator each time he carves my dude in twain, but this is still pissing me off.
 
Took me fifteen tries to get the guy in the end, trying to stay out of his range long enough for him to screw up and give me an opening. I used to like this game once as well.


LATER.


Man, I fucking love this game. Look at that, seven kills, plus a few more off screen, and I barely had to move. This silenced pistol is amazing. Honestly though it was careful planning rather than skill that let me pull this off. I didn't even have to aim, as I can lock on to enemies by clicking on them with the mouse wheel. (To be honest it took me several levels before I learned I could do that, as I somehow skipped past it in the tutorial.)

Shame I can't reload weapons in this, so the gun has finally had its day. I'm sure I can find something lying around here to replace it though.


SOON.


Man, I fucking hate this game. I'm trapped in a room by fires I can't get around, being attacked by a guy I can't shoot. Oh and he ran me over with his van first time around. No hint of it coming, just SMACK right through the wall! Instant failure out of nowhere.

On the plus side it did restart me pretty close. In fact it restarted me standing RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE VAN AS IT CAME THROUGH THE WALL. Instant failure, again and again.


AND THEN...


And now it's a forced stealth level out of nowhere. Nope, I'm not shitting you, this is a real thing in a game made in 2012. It's made EXTRA AWESOME by the way enemies can see me through windows... from off screen. But again I can't hate the developers, because they've put checkpoints in this level every couple of doors in. It's obvious they were trying to make this as bearable as possible, I just don't really want it to exist at all.

Surprise stealth level fans however, rejoice! You have two entire floors to sneak through before they let you have your guns back.


EVENTUALLY.


Well here I am, sixteen levels in, fighting the final boss. I'll leave you to guess how many times I was instantly annihilated by his dual sub-machine guns from off screen before I found a way to get to cover. This screenshot gives away the trick a little, but this was the only place I found I could survive long enough to get a decent picture.


And then, after a little bit of epilogue, the game was over. I actually finished it. Well okay I didn't get the secret 'collect all the hidden puzzle pieces' ending, but I got enough of an ending for me. And it wasn't really as interesting as I was hoping for after the weirdness of the intro, but that's just my opinion and I don't want to go into detail and spoil it. Though I will reveal that it definitely doesn't turn out to be a dark Spec Ops: The Line style condemnation of violent video games. Probably. 

The gameplay on the other hand, I reckon is 95% gold (and 5% boss/stealth levels). It actually reminds me of Super Meat Boy, in that it features a retro gameplay style, but with a modern gaming philosophy, so it's challenging without being overly frustrating. It has infinite lives, checkpoints, a level select, collectables; everything a player needs to find themselves voluntarily replaying levels to find secrets or beat their best time/score. This is a fun game.

It plays better than it looks, it definitely sounds a lot better than it looks with a quality synthy 80s style soundtrack driving the action, and I'd recommend it to anyone who thinks they might be interested. Do not be put off by my whining.



Do you have opinions about Hotline Miami, difficult video games, boss fights, or just wish I'd stop playing games released this year and get back to the classics? The time for comments is now.

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