At the end of Hotline Miami 2‘s tutorial, your playable character rapes a woman. It’s not a “real” rape, in the sense that moments too late a director just off-screen calls out “Cut!” and you realise you are just an actor in a film. But it wouldn’t be a “real” rape anyway in the sense that “you” are not the “actual” instigator of your various crimes throughout Hotline Miami 2; your character is. This is obviously the point: a deliberate, ambiguous blurring between actor (player) and character. Yet, as Cara Ellison noted when she first played a preview of the game nearly two years ago, this neither excuses nor justifies what ultimately feels like a gross, empty scene run purely for the shock. It feels unnecessary when a simple execution of a mob boss (a horrific act much more inline with Hotline Miami 2′s themes) would have sufficed. It’s emblematic of Hotline Miami 2 more broadly: as long as it sticks to what the original game did best, it’s fine; when it tries to branch out—either thematically or mechanically—it falls apart.
For a while, Hotline Miami 2 does manage to both recapture what was special about Hotline Miami and also expand on the original in a way any sequel should. Most people thought the first game was trying to be a deep musing on virtual violence, for better or worse. Some saw it as a really insightful reflection on the messed up shit we do in videogames. Others saw it, much like Spec Ops: The Line, as a developer absolving themselves of wrongdoing while putting all the blame on the player, like how companies go “Hey, it’s what the customer wanted”. For me, however, it was the game’s superficiality that I appreciated. I don’t think it was trying to say “something” so much as I think it was unabashedly committed to not really saying anything and being okay with that. It felt less ironic to me and more ambivalent. “Yeah. This is fucked up. Whatever.”
For a large part, I feel like Hotline Miami 2 manages to do the same. There’s not a whole lot of places a story can go after the end of Hotline Miami, and so the game doesn’t really try to advance it. Instead, the player jumps from character to character (practically always men) and vignette to vignette. Some of these characters are getting the weird phone calls, other seem to be the ones making those phone calls. Others still are just detectives or actors killing a bunch of people. I haven’t finished the game (and for reasons detailed below I probably won’t) but as of yet very few of the stories have hinted at any interrelationship. For the most part they’re all just kind of happening and you’re not entirely sure what it going on and that’s okay.
It’s style over substance. Hotline Miami was always style over substance. It’s all neon and music and rhythm and pulsing and swaying and splatting more than any attempt at a deep, thought-provoking story. But of course style versus substance is a false dichotomy and Hotline Miami‘s substance is in its style. It’s substance is that glorious, satisfying blend of music and violence. It’s the hypnotic backgrounds and the way the camera tilts around as you move and the really satisfying *crunch* of a baseball bat against a skull. It’s in the really quite remarkable detail squeezed out of so few pixels. Hotline Miami is much more concerning with being satisfying for the body than for the mind, and that is entirely okay.
So. Hotline Miami 2 is a sequel. It can’t just do the same thing as the original. It should be commended, I guess, for the ways it has tried to mix things up. For the most part, the core vocabulary hasn’t changed: hold one weapon at a time, melee weapons and guns kill instantly, throwing weapons or punching knocks enemies down for executions. Most stages take the exact same vocabulary as the original game and try to twist it to write sentences the first game never expressed. It’s a commendable approach to creating a sequel, but not one the game is entirely successful at.
Levels are larger, and more enemies are armed with guns. As such, it’s often less strategic and more twitchy than the first game and, consequentially, loses the magic from the first game to instead feel like a frustrating and pretty but ultimately bog-standard twin-stick shooter. Most frustrating, enemies have a longer viewing distance than the player, often able to shoot you from way off screen. The words that Hotline Miami used are all there, but they just don’t go together well.
But worse still than the general failings of the level and puzzle design are those stages that try to change that base vocabulary. One mission sends you off to the jungle for a particularly bland series of stages. Here, you character has a gun and a machete, and is incapable of dropping weapons for new weapons. Worse still, you are incapable of picking up extra ammunition for the weapon you are unable to drop, since the game was never built for an undroppable weapon. So you run out of ammo and then are stuck with this machete you can’t even throw (Update: turns out there are ammo crates around the level! That was not clear at all.). Any attempt at interesting strategy goes out the window as you stand behind a door and peek out to convince baddies to run at you one at a time. Instead of the satisfaction of rushing around a stage painting it with corpses and blood, you end up with a comical pile of twenty corpses behind a door.
A later level swaps you between characters on different floors of a building. Whereas the first game gave you a range of masks to choose from, each with its own skill and demanding a particular approach to that level, this later stage forces you to use a different masked character for each floor. One floor has you controlling a character with deadly punches but, again, incapable of picking up weapons. An enjoyable alternative way to play, perhaps, but not something I want to be forced into.
Thematically and mechanically, Hotline Miami 2 tries to differentiate itself from the original game and in each it comes up short. Just as its superficial, ill-conceived, and offensively flippant engagement with sexual violence jars completely with the otherwise enticing rapid-fire hyperviolent vignettes, every attempt to change up what made the first game so hypnotic and intoxicating instead makes the game frustrating and banal. Hotline Miami 2 is, ultimately, a sequel that has failed to convince me it needed to exist.