Hotline Miami (2012)

While playing through the calm and slow-going Stardew Valley, I felt like I needed to quench my thirst for action. And there is no better way to fulfill that desire than Hotline Miami. What makes Hotline Miami stand out from many other indie action titles is how intensely satisfying it is in every regard. Every factor of this top-down shooter feels tailored to making beating the hell out of enemies feel just right.

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In an age where violence in video games in being condemned by the media, Hotline Miami revels in its violent nature. It is not afraid to go all out, and that is partly makes the game so gratifying, as sometimes you just need to play something intense. Another one of the factors that makes Hotline Miami so satisfying is how brutally brisk and quick it is. One shot is one kill. Many other action games suffer from bullet sponges and enemies that take entirely too long to take down. In this game, however, if you hit an enemy with a weapon, they are immediately dead. Of course, this works in the reverse as well. All it takes is one hit to take down the player. The unforgiving nature of this system is what keeps the game so fast-paced. Just a careless step by the player leads to death. Being able to blast through enemies with just a single hit from a bat or one bullet makes every action much more meaningful and satisfying. There is a real sense of “oomph” when you bash someone with the bat or blow them across the screen with the shotgun.

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A game with such a small margin of error requires great level design in order to keep it from being aggravating. When a single stray bullet can lead to your demise, the levels need to be specifically designed to avoid cheap and unsatisfying deaths. That being said, you are going to die in Hotline Miami, a lot. Luckily, just a quick button press and you are back at the start of the floor, there is not even a break in the music. Since a game like this is reliant on its level design, it is a good thing that Hotline Miami is phenomenal in that regard. Small sectioned-off rooms make sure you do not have to tackle too many enemies at once. Every floor is designed in such a way that it is advantageous to go fast, and slowing down could be a death sentence. It is critical for you to get the first shot off in every encounter, which is a result of the “one shot, one kill” style gameplay. Every obstacle and enemy is clearly displayed to the player. Enemies are not hidden off-screen or sniping you from across the map. There is maybe two points in the game that I was shot by an off-screen enemy, which was definitely frustrating, but those moments are few and far between.

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Every level in Hotline Miami feels like an intense and violent puzzle. Which mask and ability would work best, which rooms should I hit first, should I attempt to be stealthy or go in guns blazing; these are all questions I asked myself at the start of every level. Of course, any strategy that you might have quickly gets overridden by your desire to just run in and kill some Russian mobsters, and the game rewards you with bonus points for doing so. Enemies mostly have set patterns, but often deviate just a little bit so repeating the same exact actions over and over may yield different results. Most of the time in Hotline Miami, you just have to rely and your killer instincts in the heat of the moment.

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Now that it is established that Hotline Miami is fantastically brutal, fast, and bloody from a gameplay perspective, we need to talk about its other aspects. The psychedelic and neon-soaked visuals of Hotline Miami perfectly depict the drug fueled city of Miami in 1989. You are dropped into the bizarre life of Jacket, who constantly has surreal visions and begins to receive phone calls that instruct him to perform massacres on the local Russian mafia. As the game progresses, reality and Jacket’s identity become warped and distorted. In some in-game sequences it becomes difficult to tell what is real and what is Jacket’s mind imagining violent scenes and imagery. Jacket’s identity is also perverted as time passes, he always wears a mask during the killings, but certain dreamlike sequences reveal that he is conflicted and confused. The player shares these emotions with Jacket, as unraveling the mystery of Hotline Miami is quite the task. Many questions are asked, and it starts to make sense as you reach the end of the game. Unfortunately, I felt like the ending was a little bit lackluster, but ultimately for a game that I was just playing for some violent fun I was pretty impressed by the narrative elements.

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You cannot talk about Hotline Miami without mentioning its soundtrack. Thumping synth filled songs, like M.O.O.N. – Paris, are blasting when you slaughter floors upon floors of Russians. Deep and distorted guitars, from Coconuts – Silver Lights, play in the surreal sections of the game. And no song is better matches Jacket waking up from a drug induced slumber like Sun Araw – Deep Cover. Hotline Miami is full of great tracks for all different situations, and some of the songs are downright addictive.

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One last thing I want to touch on is the ability of the developers to show restraint. Many of great games are brought down by the fact that they just drag on too long and become repetitive, to the point of being exhausted with the game. This is certainly not the case in Hotline Miami. The game is relatively quick, it only took me about 5 hours to complete it. I rarely revisit a game immediately after I beat it, but with this one I went right back in and replayed some of my favorite levels. The gameplay of Hotline Miami is definitely addicting and fun, but I feel like if it went on too long and overstayed its welcome, it could have quickly gotten grating. Luckily, Hotline Miami knows its limits and does not overdo it.

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As a whole, Hotline Miami knows what it is and plays to its strengths. Quick, violent action with distorted storytelling and arcade-esque visuals. Hotline Miami has mastered the art of making everything intensely satisfying. This game is certainly not for everyone, and if you are not interested in violent games or games that require quick reaction time I would stay away from this title. But if you are looking for a blood-soaked, fast-paced action game, look no further than Hotline Miami.

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Metal Slug 3 (2000)

Metal Slug 3 is often considered the pinnacle of the series, and it is clear that the developers really poured their hearts into this game. This was the last Metal Slug game that was developed by the original Nazca and SNK team before they went bankrupt, were bought by another company, and disbanded. This installment is longer and has substantially more content than its predecessors, and it is evident that this was the developer’s last hurrah before having to split up.

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Metal Slug had realistic environments and enemies, and Metal Slug 2 ventures into the land of the outlandish, Metal Slug 3 cranks up the level of absurdity. For the vast majority of the game you are fighting fictional creatures instead of standard enemy soldiers. Each level’s theme, environment, and monstrous boss battle make them extremely memorable. The other big addition to Metal Slug 3 is the variance in the vehicles. Seven new playable vehicles were added for the player to use and enjoy. Another new feature is that most levels have multiple paths to complete the level. This adds a factor of replayability as well as exploration. Metal Slug 3 is often touted as the best in the series and even the paramount run-and-gun game. While I can see how this is definitely a logical and sensible opinion, I have one issue with this game that holds it back.

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My personal issue with Metal Slug 3 is its final mission. While the first two Metal Slug games are about an hour each, the final mission of Metal Slug is 35 minutes long just by itself. That is an absurdly long time for a single arcade game level. To be fair, there are distinct portions of this level that completely change the environments and enemy types, but I feel like those distinct parts should have been split up into a few different missions. When I saw that I had gotten to the final mission, I thought that I was almost done. It was really jarring to think that I had almost beaten the game, but then the final level just kept going, and going and going. This was compounded by the fact that Metal Slug games are very tiring for your fingers as you have to mash the shoot button for nearly the entire game. The other irritating factor of this final mission was the difficulty spike that occurred. The beginning levels of Metal Slug 3 had difficulty levels comparable to the first two games in the series, but the final mission can get ridiculous at times. I accrued far more deaths in this final mission than in every other level of this game combined.

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If it were not for the final mission, I could easily say Metal Slug 3 was my favorite in the series. Do not get me wrong, it is still a fantastic game with great action and artwork, but I cannot help but feel like it the last level dragged on for ludicrous amount of time. Combine the length with tired fingers and a sharp difficulty spike and it is a recipe for an exhausting mission. That being said, Metal Slug 3 is definitely a fantastic run-and-gun game that I thoroughly enjoyed. The pure variety of weapons, vehicles, enemies, environments, and maps make Metal Slug 3 a game that is worth of being remembered as one of the premier run-and-gun games.

Mass Effect (2007)

While some believe Mass Effect to be outdated and clunky, it is the necessary starting point for a legendary series. While the original Mass Effect definitely has not aged well, I believe it would be an injustice to the series and yourself to skip over it to play the more refined sequels. Mass Effect is a space action-RPG (role-playing game), and while the “action” and gameplay is dated, the RPG aspects are still top-notch and make Mass Effect a game worth playing. Deep lore, emotional decisions, strong story-telling, and an intriguing plot are the factors that make Mass Effect successful.

One of the major elements of Mass Effect is the depth of its lore and its expansive universe. Codex and journal entries are available to the player if they ever want to learn more about the missions they are doing or the lore behind the universe. Various entries on the different alien species, including their physiology, galactic presence, and their history. Everything in this game has an explanation and background info if you are interested to learn more about something in particular. Knowing the backgrounds and the relationships between all the alien species definitely adds depth and a factor of validity to this game.

The characters and the story are the defining factors of Mass Effect for me. You play as Commander Shepard and are in charge of the space vessel Normandy and her crew. Most of the time you will be interacting with your “squad” as they are the ones that you can bring along with you to combat. It is definitely a rewarding and almost cozy feeling as you build up your squad and add new members to it at the beginning of the game. Throughout the course of the game you talk with them, get their input on certain situations, build friendship, help them complete certain personal quests, or even romance them. What sets Mass Effect apart from other shooters is the reliance on this squad both on and off of the battlefield. Other games suffer from the protagonist doing everything while other characters just sit around, but in Mass Effect your squad is a massive part of the game. It adds a sense of legitimacy and realness to the game. This is why certain decisions and choices that must be made are so emotional. You build up this squad, fight with them, train them, and interact with them, so when a squad mate gets killed off in the story, it is a devastating blow.

The story of Mass Effect is full of mystery, intrigue, and emotion. The basic premise is that you must figure out what happened to an advanced alien species that died off 50,000 years ago, and you must prevent the same fate from happening to humans and their allies. The game feeds you piecemeal clues as you progress through the story. Seemingly unconnected events and plot-lines all come together by the end to form a cohesive and alluring plot. The story was paced well, there is never any downtime and I was always wanting to see what happened next. There are plenty of individual decisions and choices that you must make in this game. Some choices are minor, while others play a huge role in whats to come. You get to decide the fate of many lives and species. My only issue with this was that it was a little too rewarding to be the “nice guy”. There is rarely any downside going with the games heroic “paragon” options. I wish there was more incentive to be neutral or even go with the “renegade” option. There were a few points in the game that did this right, but for the most part the paragon route is the most rewarding option by a long shot.

While the RPG aspects of Mass Effect are clearly masterclass, the gameplay is definitely clunky and unsatisfying. Enemies often times have tons of health and shields, and some take minutes to take down a single basic enemy. This is compounded by the fact that the guns that you are using do a pittance of damage and overheat frequently, so you are forced to stop shooting for long stretches of time. There is no jumping or hurdling objects, so you have to slowly navigate even the smallest of obstacles. Constantly re-equipping your squad of 7 members with 4 types of weapons, upgrades for those weapons, and armor just gets tedious. Your squad mate’s special abilities often feel underwhelming as there is no big audio or visual cue when they are being used. For some reason, you can only sprint in combat, but not out of combat, which is when you really want to be sprinting so you can get around faster. There is an excessive amount of loading screens and elevators, which just waste a ton of time. Travelling from planet to planet is also tedious. Realistically, getting around anywhere in this game is just slow and draining. Driving the Mako vehicle is easily one of the worst driving experiences in any game that I have played. It goes extremely slow, defies physics, is tough to handle, and it does not even shoot where you aim it. This is made even more frustrating by the fact that you often have to scale cliffs with this abomination of a vehicles. Some of the biggest gameplay problems stem from the sidequests. They often drop you off in barren worlds, leaving you to drive the Mako across a vast nothingness for a few minutes. Then when you finally reach the building where the quest is located, you realize that it is the same exact layout as every other sidequest in the game, so you essentially repeat the same firefight that you have done many times before.

While the gameplay of Mass Effect could be categorized as clunky, repetitive, and tedious, it is still a worthwhile game. Not only to set up the legendary sequels, but also because the characters and story can keep you playing despite the tedium. The biggest improvement that should be made from Mass Effect for its follow-up titles is that it definitely needs to be streamlined in places. Trim off the banal tasks and clean up the controls and overall movement to make the game less monotonous and burdensome at times. All in all, it is worth sticking through the mediocre gameplay just for the RPG elements. And if you avoid doing sidequests you will skip over a lot of problematic sections altogether. Mass Effect might not be perfect, but it is still worth a play through. I am very excited to see what Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 have in store for me, and if they could solve the issues of Mass Effect.