Hotline Miami is a top-down shooter where you murder everybody you see. You require nothing more than an answering machine message and an address to butcher each and every soul within the game's pixelated, 2D walls. But you're never given a reason for your psychotic actions--the focus is on the joy of murder, and though Hotline Miami can be frustrating at times, its frantic gameplay and slick presentation make for some gloriously satisfying bloodshed.
The game opens with the nameless protagonist standing in a room. And, mysteriously, there are three men wearing animal masks making cryptic comments about your identity and actions. Is this real, or some drug-induced fever dream? You're not given much time to contemplate it. The screen fades to black, and you awake in a filthy apartment in April 1989. A bloodstained shirt lies in the hall as an answering machine light blinks on and off. This is the setup for most of the 19 chapters that make up Hotline Miami. A short message asks you to "clean up" or "visit" a certain address, which is followed by a trip to a building full of supposed criminals that you must slaughter floor by floor.
You move around using the keyboard, while the mouse controls the direction you face and where you shoot. You can expand your viewing radius to spy further into the levels--an important factor, given that even a single distant gunshot can kill you. If you're trying to be stealthy, you can opt to throw your weapon, allowing you to knock over and disarm an enemy. You can then stand over your downed foe with a tap of the spacebar and several clicks of the mouse will finish them off to brutal and nauseating effect. It's a clever system that lets you react quickly to the twitchy gameplay, which is just as well considering Hotline Miami currently doesn't support a gamepad.
Before the start of each level, you choose from a selection of animal masks, most of which have useful perks. For instance, if you wear the Tony the Tiger mask, you have faster executions, while George the Giraffe allows you to see farther. They're a neat companion to the combat system, which initially sees you taking down enemies with your fists and with a selection of melee weapons that you pick up, such as baseball bats, iron bars, knives, and swords. Enemies die with a single blow, as do you, so not being overrun by a group of bloodthirsty malcontents is key to making it through a level alive. Mixing up the weapons you use and the order in which you move through the rooms is just as important, as is getting into a close position for a brutal takedown. The environment plays its part too. Doors can be used to knock over enemies, while certain walls can be shot through. This variety ensures the action is consistently engaging over the course of the game.
If you choose to go in with guns blazing, there are lots of shotguns, automatic rifles, machine guns, and silenced pistols on offer. Gunshots attract the attention of nearby enemies, who quickly come to investigate the disturbance. And while you often find yourself shooting wide of targets, your enemies have fast trigger fingers and always hit their mark. Despite that, enemy actions are largely dumb and predictable, but this works in the game's favour, With death always a second away, manipulating and herding baddies into your gunfire is very enjoyable. It may also seem odd that dead bodies often go unnoticed, and they sometimes stand so close to your character that they can't hit him. But the action is so frenetic and entertaining that you barely have time to notice.