Hotline Miami was a game that caught me by surprise. Brutal combat, a primal 80’s-synth soundtrack, and a fascinating use of gameplay mechanics to convey theme, it was a game that dared to make me face my innermost gaming demons.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number hits many of those same notes, but comes across as much of the same. The soundtrack is still amazing, and even better than its predecessor, and the gameplay is still as fast and ultra-violent. The changes that have been made, however, left me feeling like I had done it all before, and I didn’t really want to do it all again.
Wrong Number widens the lens and focuses on several characters, in short vignettes that form a larger story taking place both before, during and after Jacket’s killing spree in the first Hotline. The protagonist of the first game has been jailed, but his story of vigilante justice and mysterious phone calls have become infamous, spawning both a movie adaptation and a following from a group of fans, anxious to enact their own version of Jacket’s murders.
There’s no more single character with many masks, but rather many characters you play as. Most of the time, you’re forced to play as specific characters, except in the few levels you get to play as one of “the Fans.” Each character has their own quirk or specialty, like the writer only using melee weapons and dumping out the clip of any gun he picks up, or the hitman who starts the level with a silenced pistol.
There’s even a duo, the Swan-masked Alex and Ash, who work in tandem; one wields a chainsaw while the other backs him up with firearms, creating an interesting dynamic of managing two characters at once. In one level, I busted down a door and was executing a guard with my chainsaw when two more rounded the corner. While still sawing into the guard, I shot the other two with my second Swan and picked up their shotgun, and then proceeded to clear the rest of the room in a hail of chainsaw slashes and buckshot.
This kind of brutality is adrenaline-inducing, pulse-pounding fun, but it’s the exception rather than the norm. Most of the time, you’ll find yourself frustrated at the strange fixation on guns this game has compared to the first, and struggling with levels where you’re forced to make-do with subpar characters for story reasons. You’ll often die to enemies you can’t even see, shooting you through a massive window that just happened to be in the right place, and then be forced to start over. The levels are not very small, either; a death in Wrong Number often means a lot of lost progress, and having to perfectly retrace your steps just to correct the mistake later.
Each room and building in the first Hotline Miami felt like a puzzle waiting to be solved. You’d gauge the sight lines, see where all the most dangerous elements like dogs and big guys were, and carefully execute your plan. When you died, it was due to an error in planning or execution, rather than the annoyance you get from the deaths in Wrong Number.
A lot of what made the first Hotline special is here again regardless, but it has lost some of its effect along the way. The sombering “walk of shame” after every level, where the music drops and you walk over the bodies of all the guards you’ve slain, was sobering in the first but little more than a nod in the second. It’s strange, but in a game meant to criticize the player for enjoying so much violence, that somber reminder of your deeds is the least impactful moment after having seen it so often previously.
As the story goes, it is a leap from Hotline Miami. There’s a lot of focus put on Richard, the enigmatic vision of a man wearing a rooster mask who comes to people in visions, as he is the main thread between many of the cast’s stories. They all gradually weave and intersect in some way, and there’s some cool backstory you discover about Jacket and Rider’s pasts from the first title. Some of it falls short, though, and some characters like “The Fans” or the movie actor get very little time to breath before their time is up.
The soundtrack, however, is fantastic. With a plethora of songs that still manage to perfectly fit each level, a consistent theme of pumping bass and dirty, pulsating synth that still manages to keep it fresh, this is a game soundtrack fanatic’s dream. When you’re flying through rooms, flinging machetes, firing bullets down hallways, absorbed in it all, that’s the Hotline experience, and it wouldn’t be possible without the incredible soundtrack pulling you in and not letting go.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number manages to be more of the same, and pushes players of the first to step out of their comfort zone and master the game’s mechanics to complete the levels. That can get very frustrating, but if you’ve finished the first and have that craving for more, then this is right up your alley. Wrong Number doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s still a by-the-numbers follow-up that doesn’t ruin any of what made the first game special, but it doesn’t do anything beyond that either.