The PAX East demo of Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number doesn't waste time. It only lasts two levels, but still tells us plenty about what's in store in the follow-up to the best murder simulator and ultimate gorefest of 2012.
As always, the pace is dizzying. One single misstep, and your brain and skull will likely paint a pretty pattern on the floor. The visuals are now even more explicit and grotesque. The style is the same primitive, simplistic (and, one could argue, deliberately ugly) 16-bit salute as in the first game, but it seems as if Dennaton have reached an even higher level of mastery when it comes to their pixels, and that means extra brainspatter, guts, gore, blood and other good stuff.
The story's also likely to be just as mysterious and cryptic as in the first game, and the demo makes no attempt at explaining any kind of context. Instead, we meet five guys wearing animal masks who are bored out of their minds at some party, decide they want some action, check whether their guns are in the car, and proceed to roll out and brutally end the lives of faceless gangster types.
At the entrance to the first mission, we find the first significant change. Whereas Hotline Miami was the tale of one dude's bloody, mysterious and disturbing killathon, the sequel is about a whole group of people. As such, you no longer choose what mask to wear at the beginning of a mission like before - instead, every mask is tied to a character (or two of them, in one case), each of which has a distinct playstyle.
Corey, the zebra mask, is described as "fast & agile", which means he moves faster than the others and can roll to avoid hits and gunfire. Tony, the tiger mask (what else could he possibly be called?) kills people with a single punch, but can't use weapons. Where things really get different is with the swan mask-wearing duo Alex & Ash. You control the former, who carries a chainsaw, while your partner loyally follows you. He's equipped with a gun that you fire with the right mouse button, and he'll pick new guns automatically if he runs out of ammo.
And so, Alex & Ash becomes a sort of melee and gun combo-duo, both giving the player more options and raising the amount of things to consider and plan for.
Finally there's Mark, who wears a bear mask and comes equipped with two machine guns. As standard, he'll fire them whereever you aim, but hold down the right mouse button and he'll aim them to the sides, sorta like that longhaired doofus in Boondock Saints, and if you hold down shift as well, he'll turn 90 degrees, thereby point one gun in front of him and the other behind him.
To put it mildy, firing in two directions simultaneously is a difficult mechanic to use properly, but with enough skill and finesse, it's almost guaranteed to create spectacular results.
Besides that, most things are as we're used to - Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is frantic, blitzingly fast, ruthless, and you're back in the thick of it as quickly as you're killed. It's still about getting an overview, coming up with a plan of attack and executing it, and the sensation of clearing a room of baddies (or victims, depending on what's actually going on) in one swoop is still exhilerating.
In the second level, the Hotline Miami 2 demo surprises again, as the player character changes. We take control of a guy washing his hands in the bathroom of a diner, and as he leaves, he greets the waitress (he talks, wtf!?) while lamenting the rough nature of his job - only to drive over to a retail store and viciously murder all the armed thugs inside. We never get his name, but he seems to be a tough dude, as he's able to survive a single gunshot from enemies. When both floors of the store are cleared, it's back to the car - but an army of police officers are waiting outside the store, guns drawn. The moment you step outside, the demo ends with a sharp cut to a screen of static.
And so, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is, as expected, reluctant to tell us anything about what the hell is going on, and like its predecessor it builds a mood of nothing being quite what it seems. The demo provides almost no answers - but reassures us once again that Dennaton knows exactly what they're doing. We can't wait for the full game.