Written by Thomas GJ Sharpe
In revisiting the world of Hotline Miami, I assume Dennaton rubbed many chins and temples as they decided on where to take their viciously slick surprise hit. Design, presentation and gameplay choices will, and have, divided fans of the original. I sit fairly happily in the positive camp, believing the direction taken to be a deliberate departure, neither for better nor worse, simply differently enjoyable and differently flawed than the first title.
If this more langourous and slow, more intricate and obtuse game had appeared instead of the original, I honestly feel that it would not have had the same impact. The first Hotline was a pitch-perfect exercise in psychotic combo stacking, on-the-edge, twitch gun n' runnin', with a disturbing and oblique narrative, and spot-on soundtrack. It's success lay, for me, in the flippancy of the violence; once killed, you threw yourself back into the level as if each attempt was a feverish nightmare of your character, meaningless, with only the successful run being the reality. Married to infallible controls, Hotline Miami is one of my favourite titles.
Wrong Number handles differently for many reasons, but most notably, it is the overall scale of the thing. Tight levels are replaced by longer sequences and a singular protagonist is expanded to an ensemble cast. At first, these seem logical and positive things, but the risks associated are game breakers for some. Personally, I adore the expansion of the world through larger arenas and bigger character list, primarily for the story and atmosphere. From movie sets, nightmare-scapes, to Platoon-esque jungle scenarios, to open-road Lynchian cutscenes, Wrong Number delivers a more distinct, dramatic and thorough world.
Taking control of narrative sections will infuriate some, perhaps seeming like padding between the viscera, but taking an active role in the story generates a better understanding of the world. This is especially helpful as the storyline is delivered without hand-holding, through flashback and forward, dream-reality blends, drug-induced episodes and all without explicit exposition. To me, this is a fantastic prop to the action during the levels. It asks more investment, but not so much that it detracts from the missions.
On that note, the gameplay during the missions is, sadly, the weaker element. All of the vitals remain; door kickin', knife flingin', executions (more varied and vile, this time too) and frantic kill-sprees, so much dynamism in so few pixels. Due to larger areas, however, some of the original spark has been lost. On the whole, the action takes place in a convincing way, but the sequences of areas require more enemy pattern learning and more patience than before. Some levels feel less “natural” (if you could apply that word in this title), with conga lines of goons, ruining any sense of a real place. I always enjoyed surprising enemies on the toilet. There is something cold and unatmospheric about them marching around. A small gripe, but representative of the direction Wrong Number has taken.
It wouldn't be right to not give the music its own paragraph in this review. The music is incredible. Scaling itself against the content of the levels, each track is a joy. Nuff said.
In the end, Wrong Number has tried my patience more than the original Hotline Miami did. A couple of the levels in the last act are too long and too reliant on learning enemy patterns, which defuses the thrill of on-the-spot decisions and wild murder. Apart from this, sadly fairly large, design issue, Wrong Number delivers an evolution of the original. A bit bloated? Only in comparison to its ancestor. The essence of the game is bigger, bolder and more revealing than before.