Games based on movies are, traditionally speaking, quite bad. So are movies based on games, in fairness, so it’s not exactly one way traffic, but it’s still always welcome when something comes along to break the mould.
John Wick Hex isn’t quite a stone-cold classic, but it certainly breaks the mould. The game serves as a prequel to the three John Wick movies so far and was made in close collaboration with the movies’ director Chad Stahelski in an attempt to nail the feel.
There’s no shortage of videogame pedigree here either. Writer/director Mike Bithell made his name with the cult classic indie platformer Thomas Was Alone, following it up with stealth title Volume and the more contemplative Subsurface Circular and Quarantine Circular, all of which have received plentiful critical acclaim.
If you want to grab a copy, John Wick Hex is out now on PC and Mac for £15.99/$19.99 (as an Epic Store exclusive) but will hit PS4, Xbox One, and even Switch at some point in the future.
First things first, one thing John Wick Hex isn’t: a standard-issue first- or third-person shooter. Bithell told us at Gamescom 2019 (where it picked up one of our best in show awards) that he’d never wanted to make a Call of Duty-style shooter. Instead his first thought was a one-man turn-based XCOM-style tactical game (“boring”), but iterating on that model brought us to Hex’s final form.
The solution was to ditch turns and instead measure time. Hex still looks like an isometric, tile-based tactical title, but Wick and his enemies won’t politely wait for each other to take their turns. Instead, they act simultaneously, the relative speed of different actions determining what happens when.
Time only moves when you pick an action and freezes in between – a system that feels a lot like fellow indie favourite Superhot, though Bithell says the comparison only came up after the fact – and a set of bars along the top of the screen displays the time cost of every action, both yours and your opponents’.
Sure, that grunt over there might be about to shoot you, but if you can fire first (and second, Wick only ever shoots with a double tap) you’ll stop them ever taking that shot. If they’re going to hit the trigger first then moving to try and dodge the shot makes more sense, giving you the chance to duck behind cover, crouch for a better shot, or move in close for a melee takedown.
Against one opponent it’s a simple game of who-shot-first, but as soon as more than one mobster steps into the frame things get more interesting, as you’ve got to weigh up how quickly each enemy will act, balancing it against each of Wick’s moves. To master it you’ll have to watch that timeline closely and consider it between every move – playing thoughtlessly against more than two enemies is a very quick way to an early grave. It reinforces the idea that Wick is just a man, one who survives through planning and tactics as much as brute physical ability.
Beyond time, the other resources to juggle are health and focus. Health is straightforward enough, except that the only way to get any back is by using one of the exceedingly rare bandages – which in turn takes more time. Focus limits your ability to perform more complex moves like takedowns, rolls, and dodges, and while a shake of the head refills the bar that’s rarely an option mid-fight, forcing you to eke out Wick’s fancier techniques.
It’s a system basically designed to make you think and act like Wick would, an ethos that runs through the whole game – with unfortunately mixed results. Some touches work well: new enemies interrupt your movement to give you a chance to react, allowing you to move forward aggressively; while reloading wastes any bullets remaining in the clip in addition to taking time.
Unfortunately, as much as ducking, rolling, and hurling a pistol at someone’s face feels like the epitome of Wick, there’s plenty left that you can’t do. There are no melee weapons beyond your fists, so throw out any hopes of reliving every sword fight or Parabellum’s unbelievable knife scuffle. Improvised and environmental weapons are out – no pencil murder or horse kicks here. Perhaps worst of all, you can’t grab a guard to use as a human shield or do that one thing he does in every movie where he chokeholds a guy on the ground and spins round on the floor shooting everybody else.
Perhaps it’s too much to hope that a game on this budget and scale could recreate the inventive, improvisational combat of the Wick movies entirely. Still, Hex lives or dies based on how well it makes you feel like the Baba Yaga himself, and there’s nothing more frustrating in this game than knowing exactly what Wick would do and simultaneously knowing that the game won’t let you.
The weapons themselves are similarly limited. A 9mm handgun is the default, but along the way you can swap to revolvers, shotguns, machine pistols, SMGs, and assault rifles, each with slightly different firing patterns and time costs. One thing the game gets right is keeping the 9mm viable – for speed and accuracy it’s unmatched, and a well-placed double tap will take down most enemies in one move – but the rest of the guns don’t quite feel varied enough, and new ones dry up long before the end of the game.
It doesn’t help that uneven difficulty progression (usually in the form of ‘throw more bad guys at him’) results in some sections so tough that the only way through is to play ultra-conservatively. I repeatedly found myself calling elevators that I knew would spill out goons and so pre-emptively darting backwards down the corridor to rooms I’d previously cleared, knowing they’d be safe havens of dropped guns and handy cover. It’s a tactic that kept me alive, but it was hard to picture Keanu running away from a fight that hadn’t even started yet – Wick it was not.
As for the story, this leans more heavily into the relatively restrained tone of the first film than the almost operatic follow-ups. The big bad is crime lord Hex (Nolan North) who’s kidnapped Winston and Charon (Ian McShane and Lance Reddick, reprising their roles) in order to muscle his way onto the High Table, with Wick hired to retrieve them.
The main gameplay is framed as flashbacks, with Wick himself conveniently silent (I guess Keanu was either too expensive or locked down by a Cyberpunk 2077 contract), and it basically boils down to him working his way through all the goons in seven different areas on the way to Hex’s lair. What you don’t get is much of a look at the outlandish side of the films’ assassin society outside of the option to spend Continental Coins each level on some extra weaponry or ‘tailoring’ that grants specific buffs.
Even the bad guys are pretty pedestrian. Hex himself starts off with an interesting take on High Table society that eventually reduces to ‘I want John Wick dead’, while the game’s lesser bosses are committedly forgettable. Fighting them is worse – an attempt to elevate them above regular grunts with a few tweaks to match Wick’s own abilities basically leaves you with a simple, dull strategy that works on every boss: takedown, then shoot. Rinse and repeat.
It’s a shame because when John Wick Hex works – especially in the early hours – the feeling that you’re embodying Wick himself is hard to beat. But across its ten or so hours there aren’t enough new weapons or enemies (or any new moves) to build on that early promise, and as a result the game fizzles to a whimper just as it should be building to a crescendo.
John Wick Hex is basically a top-down tactics game with the time system of Frozen Synapse or Superhot, but it’s maybe best to think of it as its own new genre: the John Wick sim.
From top to bottom this is meant to make you feel like Keanu’s iconic assassin, and when it pulls off the trick Hex feels like nothing else out there. Unfortunately after a few hours the devs run out of surprises, and with a strictly limited moveset you’ll likely become more aware of all the things that movie Wick does that his videogame counterpart simply can’t.
The best thing that John Wick Hex does is leave you with the sense that there’s probably no better mechanical way to capture the feel of the Wick movies. The worst thing it does is leave you wishing that those great mechanics had been pushed that little bit further to live up to the phenomenal promise of the first couple hours.
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