BY NICK McCOY
In 2012, the gaming world was graced with “Hotline Miami,” produced by two-man team Dennaton Games. Its distinctive art style, surreal storytelling, high level of violence, crushing difficulty and iconic soundtrack made it famous amongst both the mainstream and independent video game market, and it is often considered one of the greatest games of all time. Despite its difficulty, Hotline Miami is still one of my favorite games.
Given its success, a sequel to Denneton’s classic top-down shooter was inevitable. So, in 2015, having worked with fellow company Abstraction Games, they released “Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.” The big question was, how would this sequel fare against the original? Would it become an all-time indie classic, or fall into relative obscurity?
Well, while “Hotline Miami” was met with widespread acclaim, “Wrong Number” was met with a more lukewarm reception. It received plenty of praise and rightfully so, but many fans of the original weren’t too happy with some of the changes made and was considered by some to be inferior to the first game. Now, where exactly do I stand on this second installment?
Well, I think it’s a fantastic game, but it has some problems. “Wrong Number” still contains the high-octane, brutally challenging gameplay that made the first game so much fun, while also expanding on it in some ways. It also still contains its amazing art style, minimalist story and themes. At the same time, many of the criticisms aimed at certain aspects of the gameplay are, unfortunately, valid.
“Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number” was first released on March 10th, 2015, for PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita. It was later ported to the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One as part of the Hotline Miami Collection, along with the first game, in August 2019 and 2020, respectively. At first glance, “Wrong Number” just seems like more of the same from “Hotline Miami 1;” it’s played from a top-down perspective, features an instantly recognizable pixelated art style, and an egregious amount of gore. However, there are some key differences between these two games.
Easily the biggest difference is the playable characters. “Hotline Miami” contained two main playable characters: Jacket, who you play for the majority of the game, and Biker, who is playable during the epilogue. “Wrong Number,” on the other hand, contains 13 playable characters. These characters include The Fans, a group of five war veterans (Corey, Tony, twins Alex and Ash, and Mark) who act as masked vigilantes trying to replicate Jacket’s actions in the first game; Police detective Manny Pardo, who harbors a streak of misconduct; Martin Brown, a psychotic actor using his new movie as a way of releasing violent desires; Evan Wright, a writer trying to write a book about the events of Hotline Miami; Beard/The Soldier, a soldier in the US army fighting Russians in Hawaii; Jake, a violent natalist working for the same organization Jacket was in the first game; Richter, a reluctant assassin for the aforementioned organization; The Son, a Russian mobster trying to honor his father’s legacy; And finally, The Henchman, The Son’s right-hand man struggling with his line of work. All of these characters have their own story arcs, and some last longer than others. Each character is interesting in their own way, and their ends are either shocking, tragic or a combination of both.
Now, if you had trouble following “Hotline Miami’s” story, then you won’t be prepared for “Wrong Number’s” story. Like its predecessor, “Wrong Number’s” storytelling is incredibly surreal and minimalist, and adds to the confusion factor by jumping between three different time periods. Overall, the game follows events before, during, and after “Hotline Miami,” with the bulk of the game taking place during Jacket’s trial for his violent actions.
Each time period has its own cast of characters to play as, with their own distinct levels. “Wrong Number” contains six chapters with five parts, making for a total of 30 levels (in comparison to Hotline Miami’s 16 chapters). Each level features its own character, and some chapters are entirely devoted to one specific character. You get to watch as each arc comes to an end in different ways, and throughout the entire journey, you’re going to be doing one of two things: scratching your head or looking on in shock. The ending to “Wrong Number” genuinely caught me off guard, and I had trouble even comprehending what had just happened.
Many themes present in “Hotline Miami” are all here in “Wrong Number,” and thanks to the larger cast of characters, are expanded upon. The characters each represent something different story-wise, while the overarching theme of “Wrong Number” still involves violence in media. It specifically talks about how often the media over-exaggerates things for the sake of attention and shock value, and the excuses people use to justify their violent actions in the gaming world.
For anybody who has played the first game, this is nothing new. For anybody completely new to “Hotline Miami” and its sequel, this may seem hypocritical considering the amount of violence present. However, “Wrong Number” asks some truly interesting questions, especially as the characters you play as, the ones you feel the need to route for, all commit increasingly vile actions. It’s good food for thought, and the different themes and what the characters represent are something you should experience for yourself.
The gameplay of “Wrong Number” is, again, nothing new for fans of the original; you are set in several different stages with only one goal – kill everyone inside. You can use a variety of different weapons, ranging from baseball bats, pipes, shotguns, assault rifles, and your own fists. Every single item you can pick up can also be thrown, and environments can be used to your advantage.
For example, doors can knock down enemies and they can be shot through glass. You’re also rewarded for maintaining high combos by killing enemies in quick succession. Getting high combos and varying the weapons you use is crucial to getting high scores. The same brutal challenge present in “Hotline Miami” is here, and it is an absolute blast; but unfortunately, the newly expanded roster of characters actually hamper this in a way.
This may sound silly, but hear me out. In the original, Jacket was the sole playable character for the majority of the game; Biker was there but he didn’t add anything worthwhile gameplay-wise. Despite this, there is a surprising amount of variety to Jacket’s gameplay, thanks in large part to the animal masks players had access to. These masks granted special perks and abilities, such as expanding your combo window or increasing your line of sight.
This type of variety is present in characters such as The Fans, with each member having a distinctive ability; Corey can perform a roll dodge which makes her invincible for a short time, Tony’s fists kill instead of knock out (at the cost of not being able to pick up any weapons), and Mark starts off each stage with dual machine guns. Alex and Ash are unique in that they’re actually two characters, with Alex being the one the player controls; She wields a chainsaw, while Ash runs behind her carrying a variety of different guns. At the beginning of the levels featuring them, the player can choose one of the members to play as. The Fans were definitely meant to pay homage to the original, and it does work in that regard.
The other characters, however? With some exceptions, the majority of them play exactly the same. Jake and The Son do offer different abilities like the Fans, but besides a few unique skills for each (Jake makes throwing objects lethal and can start with a nail gun, while The Son can start with a sword and a roll dodge), their other abilities are just taken from The Fans. Easily the most unique characters in the game are Beard and Evan. Beard can choose from a few different starting weapons that he is stuck with for the rest of the level, while also being able to switch with a knife. Evan is by far the most stand-out character in the entire game, as by default, he doesn’t kill anyone. Every swing from a bat or a pipe doesn’t kill enemies but rather knocks them out, and he can’t even use guns; Instead, he unloads each gun he picks up, adding to the combo multiplier.
If the player chooses, Evan can enter “Rage Mode”; While standing over a downed enemy, players can hit them more than once, which ultimately kills them. Kill enough guys this way and Evan can carry guns and kill enemies like everybody else. However, not only does that make him less interesting gameplay-wise, it also gives you fewer points. So, playing Evan the default way by not killing anybody is easily the most unique part of “Wrong Number’s” gameplay.
The rest of the cast does not have the luxury of variety. Manny, Martin, Richter and the Henchman play the exact same way. The Henchman, who only has one level where he is playable, does start off with a pistol, but the second it loses ammo, he’s every other character. The main loop of these characters is knocking out and finishing off enemies, and using various melee weapons and firearms to kill everyone you see. Don’t get me wrong, the gameplay is still incredibly fun, fluid, and fast-paced. I just wish there was more variety in the game that Jacket brought to the original.
Another part of the gameplay I feel is worth criticizing is the lack of improvisation on many levels. The first “Hotline Miami” emphasized improvisation and quick thinking. You could try and be methodical and cautious, but the most fun came out of just going in guns blazing. Rapidly swinging a fire ax across a room full of enemies worked more times than you may think. Plus, changing your weapons and continuing your combo helped your final grade a lot. “Wrong Number,” on the other hand, doesn’t have this kind of luxury. Some levels just straight-up punish you for trying to improvise. A lot of times, the only way of keeping a good combo going without dying is just shooting people with guns. This is a shame, because a lot of the fun, at least in my eyes, comes from just rushing enemies up close.
That brings us to the part of “Wrong Number” which I think deserves the most criticism: the level design. “Hotline Miami” is certainly no cakewalk; in fact, it’s probably one of the hardest games out there, and its level design definitely helped in that regard. At the same time, there was rarely a moment where I thought the game was unfair. Sure, I could get frustrated, but all of it was down to not being quick enough or not paying attention. The level design in the original was smart and, for the most part, fair.
“Wrong Number,” on the other hand, can be downright sadistic with its level design. For one thing, the maps are often a lot bigger than they were in the original. This not only means more enemies, but more chances to take you off guard. One of the main gameplay features of both games is the ability to move the cursor around to scope out the different areas. In “Wrong Number,” the maps are so large you probably won’t be able to see several enemies unless you actively go to that area. And unlike the original, where there is a mask that allows you to see farther, no such mask is here.
Plus, Dennaton really seems to be a fan of glass; keep in mind, while you are able to shoot enemies through, they can shoot you as well. Plus, enemy placement in some levels is beyond cheap. So, be prepared to get shot out of basically nowhere a lot. On top of that, “Wrong Number” also adds a new hard mode: this not only makes enemies tougher and leaves every gun with only half its bullets, but also inverts the map. This can throw you off way more than you can imagine, and when you account for how cheap some of the level design is, it just makes it worse.
The worst offenders of these problems are easily Beard and Richter’s levels. While both Beard and Richter’s stories are really interesting, their levels are absolutely horrid to play through. Beard’s stages truly suffer from being way too big, with enemies often out of seeing range and constantly patrolling, making it really tough to tell where enemies are located at all times. Richter’s levels, on the other hand, throw literally everything at you, and suffer from absolutely terrible enemy placements.
As an example. Richter’s second level throws two guys with melee weapons, along with a shotgun-wielding goon and a thug, a special type of enemy that can only be killed with guns. In order to get past the first part of the level, you must knock out the melee enemies, grab his weapon, kill the guy with the shotgun before he kills you, and take out the thug…all in a matter of seconds. It’s so stupid and I don’t know how the developers thought it was a good idea.
While the game will be tough no matter what, it won’t really matter to those just trying to get through each level normally. But to those like me who wanted to get an A+ on most levels, it is an absolute nightmare. It’s not easy in “Hotline Miami,” but in “Wrong Number” some levels feel downright impossible without superhuman reflexes. Richter’s levels are, again, the worst when it comes to this. Its levels are the shortest of the bunch, and because of this, have the most enemies charging toward you. If you aren’t keeping at least a 10x combo throughout, you can kiss your A+ goodbye. The level design in “Wrong Number,” especially for certain characters, makes going back and getting high scores just a chore. But again, to those who don’t care about this sort of thing, you’ll still get plenty of challenges, but won’t have to worry about going back and replaying those nightmarish levels.
If there’s one thing that everybody can agree is great about “Wrong Number,” though, it’s the soundtrack. “Hotline Miami 2” brings back the iconic synthwave soundtrack present in the original. Artists such as Perturbator, Scattle, Jasper Byrne and M.O.ON return for the second game’s soundtrack, with the addition of new artists such as Light Club and Magic Sword. The pulse-pounding, heavy synth beats the artists bring to the table add so much to the game’s aesthetic and feel, and will forever be an integral part of “Hotline Miami” and “Wrong Number’s” identity.
At the end of the day, I do think some of the major criticisms aimed at “Wrong Number” have a decent foundation, especially compared to the original. Despite this, “Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number” is still a fantastic game all around. Its story and themes, and many aspects of the gameplay are, in fact, great, and only build off of everything that the original did so well. While there are rougher edges to it, “Wrong Number” still delivers the frantic, high-octane gameplay that fans of the original love so much. If you’re looking for a fast-paced shooter that brings a hefty challenge, “Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number” is certainly worth checking out.