The debut of Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, the sequel to last year's neon-hazy, ultra-violent game from developer Dennaton and publisher Devolver Digital, was one of the few actual surprises at last week's E3--and it wasn't even at the show in any official capacity.
We got our first look at the game in a parking lot across the street from the LA Convention Center. We were in a trailer, actually, watching live gameplay footage at a show where polished, scripted demos are de rigueur. It was the perfect venue for a game that features a meta-commentary about its own fans and questions a lot of industry standards.
Crossing the threshold from the blistering LA heat to the air-conditioned trailer, a wave of gentle music (Beams by Tape) wafts out alongside the chilled air. Great soundtrack (again): check.
And then, with little ceremony, it's time to murder people. So many people.
Sadism without the sugarcoating
The "violence in games" debate has raged for years now, starting in earnest with 1976's now-laughable Death Race--a game where you ran over pedestrians (though the developers claimed they were "gremlins").
Hotline Miami was surprising, however, because it existed on both sides of the argument. On a surface level, Hotline Miami is one of the most egregiously violent games in years. The game is naked in its mechanical goals: kill, kill, and kill again until the floor is cleared. Make a mistake and you're dead, forced to start from the beginning and learn how to kill more efficiently. All the while, a blaring electronic soundtrack is telling you, "Yeah, this is good. This feels right."
In other words, it's exactly the type of game your favorite anti-games politician would cite to prove developers are transforming kids into a Clockwork Orange nightmare.
And yet, with "Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA played by Reagan's presidential campaign" levels of irony, Hotline Miami provides one of the most compelling anti-violence arguments of any game in recent memory.
Finish your murderous spree and the bombastic music drops out, leaving a dull, grating hum to accompany you out of the building as you survey your handiwork--and summarily feel sick to your stomach.
One character late in the game outright asks, "Do you like hurting other people?"
It's the type of question that makes you stop playing at three in the morning, breaking the half-delirious adrenaline trance brought on by the music, to wonder, "Do I? And if so, why?"
Is an answer like "it's only a game" even feasible? Or is the real answer, "because it's fun," more horrifying than the virtual violence you're perpetrating?
A sequel enters the ring
Where Hotline Miami was neon pink, Wrong Number is acid-washed blue. Other than that, the difference in aesthetic is negligible--and that's a good thing. Even in a market saturated with pixel art games, Dennaton's art style is unmistakable. It's grim, evocative, and somewhat sinister.
The mechanics are also relatively unchanged, with the same start-restart-restart feedback loop that made the first game so addictive. When Hotline Miami works it's because of the fluidity of combat. Nail a sequence of moves and you feel like the ultimate contract killer.
To help you become the best killer possible, Dennaton revamped the sequel's tutorial. It features a character called the Pig Butcher, later revealed to be the star of an action film in the Hotline Miami style, and should help explain more of the game's systems to newcomers, some of which were glossed over in the original.
Hotline Miami 2 also lets you customize your experience for a more difficult game; during our demo we were able to disable the "middle-click-to-lock-on" ability, providing a renewed challenge for those who mastered the combat in the first game and blow through the new content.
But while the mechanics of Hotline Miami are satisfying, so far what we've seen is just more Hotline Miami. Don't get me wrong: that's reason enough for me to check the game out.
However, it's the narrative elements I'm far more interested in. While the original game made me stop and ponder violence in games, Wrong Number looks like it's taking those themes to a much darker, more prominent place.
In Hotline Miami you spent most of the game playing as one character, before switching to a new character for the last few missions.
The sequel puts that element right up front. You'll play missions from a variety of different factions, each with a unique set of enemies, motivations, and tactics. In the bulk of our demo the protagonist was a member of "The Fans," a group obsessed with the main character from the original Hotline Miami.
The Fans are a meta-commentary on the people who want the sequel to be more Hotline Miami, but bigger. For instance, The Fans are the only ones who get to wear masks still--used in the first game to hide your identity (narrative) and to provide your character with different powers (mechanics). As a member of The Fans you'll basically execute street rabble as an homage to your twisted idol.
Our crazed protagonist ran from room to room, killing one guy by smashing his head into the ground, another with a knife, another with a kick to the face. Standard Hotline Miami moments.
When we got to the end of the mission, however, we joined up with our compatriots to finish off the "boss." This wasn't the manipulative crime lord-type from the original Hotline Miami. This guy was obviously drugged, drooling and raving and begging for mercy. Our character hit him in the face with a bat. Then he started screaming that he "just wanted to go home." Our character beat him until he died.
I felt incredibly uncomfortable during this demo. I've murdered probably hundreds of thousands of virtual entities in my gaming career, and for the first time ever I was happy when the demo ended and the violence stopped. It's been a week since that virtual man was murdered, yet it still haunts me a little bit.
On some level I am incredibly excited to play Hotline Miami 2, and I know I'll have fun doing so. The original is one giant adrenaline rush, and the sequel seems no different.
But on an entirely different level, I'm afraid to play it. Afraid to see what it reveals about me. Why do I enjoy hurting people, even if they're just virtual representations of people?
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number drops sometime later this year for PC, Mac, and Linux.