Hotline Miami is a top-down twin-stick shooter that creates a fast and furious blend of stealth and combat, designed up front for quick, satisfying showdowns with a large number of intensely lethal enemies while simultaneously requiring the player to very carefully manage their path through the level, lines of sight, and noise level to avoid being overwhelmed.
Hotline Miami views the player from a top-down perspective much in the style of older games like Grand Theft Auto or Die Hard. The player has independent control of both the character’s movement and aiming direction as twin-stick shooter implies. The goal of almost every Hotline Miami level is to kill every enemy on the current floor before moving to the next one. A variety of weapons can be collected in levels either as drops from enemies or just found lying around, these range between different melee weapons to various firearms. The game is extremely lethal, one strike from a melee weapon or bullet will kill most enemies and the player as well. Most floors are designed to be relatively short and should the player die they have an instant reset with no penalty except time.
Combat in Hotline Miami is tuned to be quick and lethal. Every enemy is assigned a melee weapon or firearm. Enemies react quickly to the player’s presence, rushing in to bludgeon or shoot the player. To defeat enemies the player must attack preemptively in the window before they can attack and never be caught off-guard by an enemy they do not expect. The depth in Hotline Miami comes from the variety of means players have to approach, disable, alert, and kill enemies versus the tendencies of the AI to quickly overwhelm the player if fought in numbers or not taking them by surprise.
Players are given the base option of punching enemies. This knocks enemies down, which also forces them to drop their weapon. Punches are quick, but have a limited range. Once an enemy is knocked down, they can be executed by getting close to their body, pressing space, and mashing attack until they are dead. Executions can be lengthy, giving other knocked down enemies time to get up and kill the player, and cannot be canceled once initiated. Melee weapons vary in range and speed, almost all of them kill enemies in one hit, and allow you to execute knocked down enemies with them. Ranged weapons vary in magazine size, fire rate, bullet spreads, and whether they fire automatically. Knocked down enemies cannot be killed with ranged weapons. Ranged weapons make a loud sound that alerts enemies in other rooms, while all melee weapons are silent. All held weapons can be thrown, knocking enemies down, forcing them to drop their weapons which can also knock down other enemies. Some bladed melee weapons will kill enemies when thrown.
Levels are designed like floor plans for buildings as viewed from a top-down layout. Enemies are positioned in levels either in a standing position or patrolling around their assigned room. When enemies become aware of the player, they will approach the player regardless of where they are in the level and attempt to use their weapon to kill them at the earliest opportunity. If they have a melee weapon this is shortly after they enter melee range, if they have a ranged weapon this will be almost as soon as they have a line of sight. This short delay in reaction time gives the player an opportunity to move in on the enemy and kill them before they are killed. Additionally, enemies that are facing away from the player or that are further away from the player will be alerted to the player’s presence less quickly than enemies that have a direct line of sight to the player in their neutral or patrolling state.
The tendencies of the enemy AI and the level layouts mean that players must carefully consider and manage when enemies become aware of them so that they can have the widest window with which to disable them. Because many enemies patrol, this creates cycles in which they may or may not be able to observe the player, allowing the player to get closer around corners. Levels are also built with doors and windows which affect the visibility and access of enemies. Doors can block bullets and the visibility of enemies, but can be freely moved through. When a player opens a door it can knock down enemies if it hits them. From the right angle, doors can also shield the player and allow them to fire or melee attack through it. Windows function like walls that allow enemies to view the player through them. Bullets ignore windows, hitting their target on the other side, so a common feature of Hotline Miami’s level design is a far off gunman that can see the player through a window. Or placing melee enemies as bait for a gunman on the other side of a window.
Hotline Miami‘s main enemies are mobsters equipped with different melee or ranged weapons, but also features a few special enemy types. Most commonly these are Dogs and Thugs. Mobsters and Thugs have police equivalents in chapter 13. Dogs patrol levels and rush at the player when they spot them. Thugs are larger than other enemies and walk slowly at the player, punching them to death when they get close enough. Both of these enemy types require weapons to kill. Dogs can be killed with melee and ranged weapons, but not knocked down or executed. Thugs are similar, but only ranged weapons with enough ammo can kill them. Thugs frequently have a synergy with other enemies in the level because of how much time they take to kill and the requirement that you make noise with the gun to kill them, so it can be preferable to take out the enemies around them before attacking them directly and being very careful of alerting them with noise.
To play Hotline Miami with efficiency requires assessing every room ahead of you: How many enemies are in it? How many will be alerted if you move into the room? Does your current weapon let you take out all the enemies that will be alerted before they can take you out? Can you disable some while taking down others? Can you lure any of the enemies using gunfire or vision to chase you to a choke point or corner where you can fight them without worrying about being overrun? Which weapons would be ideal? What weapons will you gain from beating each enemy? Because all the patrol cycles are asynchronous, will this put another enemy set out of cycle, making them harder to fight? Is the ammo currently in the gun worth more to you fired at enemies, or would it be more effective to throw the weapon instead? Will using gunfire lead to getting overrun by large numbers of enemies in adjacent rooms? Working faster tends to yield better results because enemies have a slower reaction time when completely unaware, but in turn this requires the player to plan much quicker and more efficiently. Playing Hotline Miami is like rushing across the razor’s edge, playing fast makes enemies more forgiving but blinds us to sudden changes in enemy patterns and requires simultaneous planning and action.
Worth noting is, though AI can be predictable, Hotline Miami is a very random game. Things that vary randomly include enemy reaction time, bullet spread patterns on guns, enemy follow patterns, which enemies are alerted by gunfire, whether the player can survive a bullet, what weapons enemies drop when knocked down, what weapon pickups are present in levels, which way their weapon is thrown on knockdown, how many times they need to be bashed in the execution animation, and their search patterns through levels.
Regrettably, Hotline Miami is not without its faults, enemies can easily be lured by loud guns into choke points allowing them to be easily dispatched with melee weapons. This is a slightly more risky proposition with only a gun as it will eventually run out of ammo. This behavior could have been solved more elegantly by having specific solutions for choke points and corners, like staggered assault waves that pan out around the corner instead of blindly rushing around it, and having some enemies refuse to rush into choke points. Or refuse to be drawn by gunfire at all. Another issue is the small detection area for locking on to perform executions. The space bar isn’t used for anything else, it’s not like a small hit detection area prevents accidentally doing another action. Frequently, executions simply can’t be done for no visible reason, and you simply have to wait for the enemy to get up before killing them.
I typically have a bias against random elements in games, despite this the large number of mitigating factors and predictability of the enemies makes Hotline Miami more pliable to me, and helps keep variation in repeated playthroughs of a floor, while still allowing the player to strategize around the level design and enemy patterns. It’s generally the right mix of improvisation versus reliable determinism and it meshes well with the short level length. The asynchronicity of patrols and high sensitivity of guards to when and where they detect the player also helps create more variation in the enemy patterns that can be learned, anticipated, and reacted to.
The player can unlock different masks that are chosen at the start of each chapter where Jacket is controlled. These masks have different effects, making some approaches better than others. The most effective mask is probably the Tony mask, which makes the player’s fists capable of killing enemies, while the Carl mask offers players a chance to challenge themselves with the unique drill weapon, one of the two melee weapons that cannot kill, but has a special execution animation. The Nigel mask reverse the controls, and Zack makes combo length longer so score multipliers are easier to rack up, to provide two more examples. These masks offer different play experiences on repeat playthroughs and can significantly change the dynamic of some levels, or simply make the game easier by providing more ready access means of killing. Also unlockable are different weapons that begin appearing as random drops or pickups after scoring high in the appropriate chapter.
There are a number of boss fights in Hotline Miami, which vary between barely irregular enemies, such as the producer and police chief, and more contrived set pieces that don’t really fit the standard gameplay, such as the battle with Biker and the Mob Boss. The more standard encounters with the producer and police chief don’t end up feeling very unique relative to the rest of the game, though the producer is a good introduction for the thug enemies in later levels. Set pieces like the SWAT team in chapter 9 and the limousine driver in Chapter 11 feel more unique while blending with the core mechanics better, because the enemies involved in those encounters have more standard sets of actions applicable to them, detecting and attacking the player in ways they’re familiar with while presenting minor twists.
The boss battles with Biker and the Mob boss feel completely unlike the rest of the game. Biker does not follow standard enemy detection rules and follows Jacket in a way that hadn’t been taught previously while also attacking using thrown knives that must be dodged and punished, another canned action not learned previously. The battle with the mob boss involves going across the room to pick up the only weapon available, attacking panthers that can take two hits, not following the normal dog pattern of attack, needing to be baited out and separated. Then they need to quickly kill the ninja girl before she either slices them to death or throws a ninja star at the player. After executing her, she drops throwing knives which need to be thrown at the mob boss, who will very quickly kill the player with Uzis. Both of these fights rely on the player to quickly and accurately perform under circumstances they’re not familiar to. Relative to the flexible approaches through most levels, these fights rely on players executing their specific solution almost like a puzzle. These factors in combination make these fights frustrating for new players trying to figure out what to do, and boring for experienced players as there is only one real way to do them with a small to insignificant amount of variation.
Overall, Hotline Miami is an enjoyable game. It creates variation through sensitive enemies, quick decision-making, and clever AI patterns mixed with level designs that bring out the risk in tangling with them. Despite having some irritating set pieces, Hotline Miami delivers a lot of its core content across its 19 chapters with extremely polished level arrangements that scale up the core concept of enemy awareness and threat range to their logical extreme.