The first thing to know about Hotline Miami - while other 'action' games use morality or competition to justify their violent acts, this is about the excitement of brutality for brutality's sake, not heroism.
The second thing to know about Hotline Miami is that even though you're playing a stone-cold killer it'll make you feel infinitely cooler than all those epic sagas of taking down the bad buys put together.
The third thing to know about Hotline Miami is that it is not mindless, trigger-happy carnage - this is highly tactical, even stealthy, and beating it requires putting nary a foot wrong.
The fourth thing to know about Hotline Miami is that it has the soundtrack to end all soundtracks.
Hotline Miami is a top-down action game, which sees you, as an unnamed protagonist in a sports jacket and a selection of sinister animal masks, methodically clearing building interiors of all life. It's set in the 1980s, it owes an awful lot to the recent cult movie Drive, and it is unforgivingly difficult. It has many guns in it, but it is not a shooter.
Most of your kills instead occur by hiding on the other side of a closed door, watching enemies patrol, picking your moment then bursting in and beating or stabbing them to death before they realise you're there. The action happens in heartbeat, because even a single hit taken means death and pressing R to Restart the level. So you swipe and throw and dodge and grapple desperately, only knowing if you've been at all successful once it's all over. If you can't react fast enough, if you hesitate before acting, it'll all be over.
It sound punishing and infuriating, but in practice it's a thrilling pursuit of self-improvement - seeing the level as a puzzle to be solved by killing its inhabitants in a specific order and in specific ways. Guns create noise so are best avoided until you're sure you have the upper hand, but on the other hand doors can be lethal weapons if opened onto someone at speed, while throwing your weapon at an enemy can stun them for long enough to reach them and finish the job before they can shoot you. Strategies blossom organically based on the resources available to you, and you will try and fail at the game's near-20 levels again and again before you perfect your plans. It's breathless, every single encounter drenched in tension but with a pay-off of extreme, irrepressible pride when you do pull it off.
It's all accompanied by a pounding synth soundtrack which seems impossibly in tune with the beat of the action, and drives you forward to entering the strange state of absolute focus necessary to achieve success in Hotline Miami. You'll hear the same dozen-odd tracks again and again, but they never become tiresome - rather, they're boundlessly effective motivators to try, try, try again.
Stitching this high-speed, high-stakes, high-strategy action together is a dreamlike story which only ever implies what's going on, and never explains it. It adds to the lucid dream/waking nightmare atmosphere the game depends upon, but if you need answers or even well-defined characters you're in for a disappointment.
Rather than telling a story, Hotline Miami makes you want to feel a certain way, and in the combination of its faux-retro aesthetic, the extreme brutality, that insistent music and the picosecond action it's infinitely more successful at creating mood and scene than any number of high definition, CGI cutscenes possibly could.