Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Hotline Miami - Blood and Badassery

by Michael Dodds

Hello there, friend. I know, it really has been a while, hasn’t it? Thanks for stopping by. Come in from the cold, I’ll take your coat. Why not take a seat by the fire? I’ll just pour you a brandy from my mahogany drinks cabinet, and we can get down to the dirty deed that is reviewing Indie titles.  

Pictured: Me

Let me ask you a question, friend. When was the last time you felt truly badass in a game? Deadly, unstoppable, call it what you want, it’s always immensely satisfying when the effort/reward is balanced so it feels like you, the player, is the real badass, kicking your enemies in the nuts so hard that they end up coughing testicle fragments for weeks and weeks.

Incidentally, I really hope that can't happen.

If done properly, developers can make players feel badass in different ways. Some games overpower the character for a short time as a set piece of the game. Think of any of the tank sections in the Halo series, or the souped-up gravity gun at the end of HalfLife 2. Not particularly challenging, but incredibly fun as a brief and satisfying contrast to how you struggled with certain enemies and situations earlier in the game. Any decent RPG will achieve this feeling as follows:
1) Enemy is too powerful to beat, blocking progress and making you an all-round sad panda.
2) You decide to train your anime characters/ capsuled animals/ wasteland psychopath until you reckon they’re strong enough to overcome said obstacle.
3) The ultimate “Fuck You” moment as your foe, once unsurpassable, falls helplessly at the helm of your now giant balls.

Other games (like Batman:Arkham City), achieve this by continually requiring you to master new game mechanics to effectively employ what is, at its core, an extremely efficient and rewarding combat system. In other words, if you can learn to play them well then you’re pretty much unstoppable, and it feels awesome.

Here are your options: 1) Fuck you, I'm Batman. 2) Fuck YOU, I'm Batman.

Let’s talk about the last of these. It’s not massively rare to find games that do this to an extent. Many games have a functional difficulty curve and changing mechanics to adapt to new situations, and yeah, it feels good once you get the hang of it in the majority of cases. However, it’s rare that you find a game that puts you in a position of utter vulnerability and worthlessness to begin with, and then repeatedly obliterates you for that one little moment of monumental satisfaction and badass-ness that compels you to continue. Games that spring to mind include (the well chartered by 103% title) Dark Souls, SuperMeat Boy, and now Hotline Miami, my favourite example to date.

Hotline Miami is an 8-bit, ultra violent top-down action game developed by indie developers Dennaton Games. Receiving stellar reviews across the board, and selling over 300,000 copies since its release in October last year (Mac release 20th March), it’s likely you’ve already heard of this game, and I’m probably a little late to the party, the party of course being a celebration of this gruesome masterpiece.

It's just a real shame you invited the guy from Hotline Miami

Playing as an unnamed, rubber mask-wearing protagonist, the game takes place over four chapters (not including bonus segments). Your goal is incredibly simple. After receiving various phone calls from a mysterious source, you travel to locations (which you usually find inhabited by Russian gangsters) and murder everyone. I cannot stress this enough. Everyone. There were points in this game where characters were at my mercy and, seasoned by typical modern bullshit in games, I assumed I had some kind of moral decision to make. Next, after a bit of eye gouging, I’d be proven delightfully wrong.

For all the over the top 8-bit violence, it’s alarming to discover the game actually has a rather challenging story, a brilliant soundtrack, and a unique visual style. It’s gruesomely charming to repeatedly smash the heads of thugs with your boot while wearing one of those hilarious rubber horse masks.

I am, of course, referring to these silly things.

However, easily the most enjoyable feature of the game is the combat. Enemies, for the most part, are extremely easy to kill. The downside of this is that you, too, are as equally as screwed if someone hits you with a pipe or decides to shoot a bit of your head off. No regenerating health here. You have to smash heads, hurl weapons, and fire bullets with pinpoint accuracy and lightning speed to have any chance of advancing through the game. While there are minor stealth elements to the game, you will often find yourself overwhelmed and without time to think about what you’re doing, and nine times out of ten you’ll be killed. However, with an instant “try again” button for each checkpoint, you’ll be unable to stop trying until you’ve beaten it. 

As a result, you often end up doing each level in bursts. For instance, you learn over several failed attempts to clear out one room before another, then kill a guard dog with a weapon you pick up from that room, then burst into the last room, guns blazing, to kill armed guards before they know what is going on. Each encounter with enemies lasts no more than a few adrenaline filled, dizzying seconds, during which you will shout swears at your monitor that would make Hunter S. Thompson blush.

Just when you're beating your fists against the keyboard and cursing the name of your respective God for putting you on this earth to be tortured by such cruel devices (the game gets incredibly challenging at points), you'll find you've beaten a chapter. At this point, you are required to traipse back through the jungle of fresh corpses to your car. Do you feel badass? You betcha. 

It's often so much more, bearded mysterious co-character.

The shooting mechanics of the game are rather poor. Some enemies will kill you instantly with impossible speed and accuracy, while others won’t be able to hit you. It is also possible, if you’re stuck on a section, to sit by a door, alert the attention of your enemies, and pick them off as they come. However, a scoring system that “rewards variety” is good at penalising for this kind of thing, preventing you from getting unlockables such as new masks.

For lack of a better description, it’s quite honestly unlike anything I’ve played before. It isn’t a particularly long game; you’ll most likely rattle through it in one or two intense sessions, as I did, but for the love of god, play it. It's the ultimate fix of video game badassery. 

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