What could possibly drive a person to kill another human? A sense of duty? The urge to protect family or country? A desire for vengeance or something they feel they’re owed? Maybe it’s boredom with the daily grind, grasping for the tiniest sliver of control in a frustratingly unjust world? Maybe we just like violence. Maybe it feels good. Maybe violence—violence carefully focused against bad people—makes the world a better place.
These are the questions Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is fixated on. Its cast of ne’er-do-wells embarks on separate-but-connected murder sprees, al with their own motivations and intentions, like the crooked cop who slaughters mobsters and hides his guilt behind a detective’s badge or the gang of aimless punks who seek fame by emulating the killing sprees of their masked vigilante idol. While Hotline Miami’s silent killer would don different masks to enhance his sprees with new weapons or techniques, the cast members of Wrong Number mostly stick to their own individual skills, locking players into certain styles of combat depending upon which character is in focus. Tony, in the tiger mask, throws fatal punches, but he can’t use any weapons whatsoever, making stealth more important than ever. Alex and Ash work as a duo, wielding a chain saw and gun respectively, which makes it easier to take out enemies both near and far, but it also makes them a much larger target.
Limiting the player’s choices from one level to the next may seem like an arbitrary way of making the game more challenging and narrow, but it also helps to differentiate the characters and advance the story. While the previous game had an intentionally vague narrative that played off the audience’s expectations and perceptions of reality, Wrong Number’s story is nuanced and even sad. No longer relying on the shock value of sex and violence to surprise players, it opts instead to weave a complex tale of corruption, betrayal, and greed.
The soldier is wildly outnumbered in his levels for the same reason the copycats are in the dark about how deep they’ve gotten in theirs: so that players can put together all of the story’s disparate pieces while the characters remain ignorant and self-involved. There is one grand narrative being told here, and like any good conspiracy, everything is connected. If any one character knew too much or became too powerful, nothing interesting would happen. Everyone is corruptible. All the characters makes mistakes because they don’t see the bigger picture, and by the time the player does, it’s already too late. The fractured timeline and interconnected vignettes, coupled with the exploitative gore and retro aesthetic, make the game feel like a Tarantino film more than anything in recent memory.
That cinematic reverence bleeds into the look and structure. Conversations are surprisingly plentiful. Levels are referred to as “scenes” within a series of “acts,” and the level-select menu presents them as a collection of VHS tapes. Pausing the game brings up vintage Betamax distortion. As things progress and these stylistic choices persist, it becomes more difficult to discern which chapters depict actual crimes, which are hallucinations, and which are scenes from a film inspired by the previous game.
The levels themselves have gotten far larger, particularly in Wrong Number’s back half. Levels are long, at times infuriatingly so. Scenes can be four or more areas long, with enemies who won’t hesitate to shoot you from offscreen if you’re not constantly looking ahead or fire through windows if you aren’t paying attention to your surroundings. It’s no longer enough to be a remorseless thug; you need to become a perfect killer in order to survive. Again, it might seem as though this is an artless manner of upping the difficulty, but intentional or not, the constant repetition does a great deal to strengthen the connection between the player and Hotline’s murderers.
It’s the same frustrations so cleverly teased and embraced in the first game—the maddening desire for the violence to stop, for a pool of blood under your feet and silence from the gaping maws of your utterly thrashed victims; for a moment’s peace. The agitation is necessary for the numbness to kick in. Your own death means nothing, either because you come back to repeat events over and over until you get it right or because this is all just a movie and we’re shooting again—don’t forget your lines, places everybody, and action!
Hotline Miami 2 gives us what we want from any sequel: more. More blood, more guns, more style, more levels, more music. The surprises come from the things players may not have asked for: more story, more nuance, more restrictions, more head-scratching. The first game, like a precocious child, asked a simple question: “Why do we like killing?” Wrong Number, like a disillusioned teen reading Vonnegut and lighting up a spliff, asks back: “Why do we, like, kill?”
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
Developer: Dennaton Games
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
Reviewed on: Mac