Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number opens with the credits for a movie called Midnight Animal. It is a slasher movie adaptation of the events of the first game. In the tutorial, you play as a very large man in a pig mask as you go through a house and kill some teenagers. Just as you proceed to commit a truly atrocious act on a teenage girl, a director yells, “Cut!” It turns out that everything that just happened was being shot for the movie. Or was it? The perspective immediately shifts, and when you play as the Pig Butcher again, it becomes harder to tell if everything he’s doing is for a movie or real.
The game is bigger and nastier than its predecessor, which is no small feat considering the aftermath of a level would have mutilated limbs, severed heads and gallons of spilled blood thrown about the floor. It’s also a lot more ambitious with its narrative. The first game was simple: you get a phone call, go to a location, murder the hell out of everyone inside the building and leave. There were a few twists near the end of the game, but it was relatively easy to follow despite the hallucinatory atmosphere and warping reality. In this game, the perspective you’re seeing things happen from is constantly changing. There’s a group of people called The Fans, vigilantes who were inspired by Jacket, the protagonist of the first game; a police officer who deliberately gets to locations early so he can kill all the thugs there; a journalist who is trying to write a book about Jacket’s crime spree and doesn’t enjoy killing; a hitman who wants out from the business; the aforementioned Pig Butcher; a soldier who is fighting a fictional war with Russia down in Hawaii; and a few other surprises that I won’t spoil.
Each person or set of people has their own story thread that is told in fragments. Each one intersects at some point and by the end it’s clear that each one is related even though it’s not entirely clear how. This storytelling decision works for the most part. Each thread follows interesting characters and it’s fun to see how everything connects as you keep playing. To say too much would be to spoil a lot of the surprises, but I will say that the narrative does shed some light on the first game, as well. Something else that the first game did well was comment on the nature of fictional violence. It was a major theme that was subtle but present throughout. In this game, there’s a more focused story, but the theme of violence creating more violence is strong as ever. One thing to note is that the entire ending sequence is entirely off the rails and the ending itself is thematically appropriate, although I can very easily picture people getting mad about it.
This heavier focus on story comes with a price. In the first game, the gameplay was fairly simple. You choose a mask that grants some sort of perk (ie take an extra bullet without dying, dogs won’t attack you, etc.) and clear out the cramped, confined buildings. In this game, your abilities are dictated by the character you’re using. For instance, The Fans have several masks to choose from (and choosing a mask actually chooses a different Fan to play as). One mask lets you perform a dive roll to avoid gunfire, while another lets you dual wield SMGs. However, there are only five to choose from, which means you need to change your play style accordingly. Other characters don’t even have special abilities. The police officer can perform takedowns on grounded enemies without dropping his gun and that’s about it. Meanwhile, the writer doesn’t actually kill enemies. Instead, he goes all Batman on them and knocks them unconscious. Perhaps the most interesting but baffling playstyle is the soldier. At the beginning of his missions, you can choose a gun (you eventually unlock five of them altogether). You need to choose carefully, because the one you choose is the one you’re stuck with for the level. If you run out of ammo, you can refill at ammo boxes scattered around the environment (although they only refill a small fraction of the gun). Alternatively, you can pull out a knife and melee enemies. There’s a lot of variety in play styles here, but the kicker is that you are limited to who the game lets you play as.
This feels like a step back from the first in some ways. I kept asking myself why the soldier couldn’t pick up enemy weaponry, or why the journalist had no ranged option aside from throwing weapons. After all, the gameplay is at its best when it lets you plan a strategy, then watch as nothing goes the way you expect it to and improvise on the fly. It’s strange that the game so often forces you into one particular play style. It would have been neat to see a feature that unlocks after beating the game that allows you to choose form the entire roster when you beat the game, but sadly, there’s no such luck. At least, there isn’t yet.
For those that don’t know, the gameplay is essentially a top down Contra. You use melee weapons and guns to kill enemies while avoiding taking damage yourself. You see. One hit from anything kills enemies, but one hit from just about anything can kill you too (I say just about because certain guns require two shots to take you down). If you die, you have to restart at the beginning of the room or floor you’re on. You eventually work out a strategy, get into a solid rhythm and before you know it, you’re the only person left alive and everything is dead silent. It’s simple, it’s addictive and it’s gruesomely enjoyable.
The gameplay is more or less unchanged from a mechanics standpoint. In this one, you still clear out a building filled with baddies and try to avoid taking damage. However, the levels are decidedly much bigger in this game. In the first one, there were maybe one or two levels where you couldn’t see the whole floor by looking around. In this one, that’s a common occurrence and it’s a problem since enemies with guns can often see you even though you can’t see them. It leads to some frustrating moments, especially since the AI is still fairly inconsistent (you kill an enemy with a shotgun and his buddy won’t come running, but someone three rooms away will). While the first game encouraged recklessness, it’s much tougher to do in this game. Floors are much bigger, so sometimes you’ll be killing small army of enemies. When you kill everyone on the floor except one guy you can’t see who is sporting a shotgun, it’s pretty frustrating.
Still, even though I was often mad at the game for placing an enemy just out of my line of sight, I never rage quit. I hammer the “r” button and try again. This is because the core gameplay is still so strong and addicting. When you get in a groove and memorize a level, few other games are able to match the feeling of euphoria you get from successfully clearing out a floor of murderous thugs. The graphics and sound help a lot with this.
The pixelated graphics are more or less unchanged, although there are a lot more animations and death poses now. Plus, there are tons of little details in the environments that are important to pay attention to for story pieces. The music is as excellent and unconventional as the first. From party beats, to disco type tunes to more unconventional sounds like discordant guitar strings, the soundtrack to the game is uniformly great and involving.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is not a perfect game. The decision to yank choice away from the player is a baffling one, and the more open level design makes things more frustrating than they should be at times. Still, it’s tough to hate the game when it offers more of the addictive gameplay that made Hotline Miami so great. Plus, the story is more focused and offers up tantalizing mysteries until the ending. The graphics and sound are as top notch as ever, and there’s even a hard mode for players who fancy themselves as masochists. It may not quite reach the same heights as the first, but once you pick the game up, it’s nearly impossible to put down.
+ Intriguing story that follows multiple people and sheds light on the first game while also giving a fitting end for the series
+ Better animation, and as strong a soundtrack as ever
+ Offers up more of the same bloody, addictive gameplay as the first
+ Offers up a hard mode, which adds to the already high replayability
- Sometimes the bigger level design leads to frustration
- Lack of player choice in playstyle can feel stifling