John Wick Hex Review
John Wick Hex is a fast-paced, action-oriented strategy game that makes you think and strike like John Wick, the professional hitman of the critically acclaimed film franchise. Created in close cooperation with the creative teams behind the films, John Wick Hex is fight-choreographed chess brought to life as a video game, capturing the series’ signature gun fu style while expanding its story universe.
Publisher: Good Shepard Entertainment
Reviewed on: PC
Also available for: Mac
Cast: Troy Baker, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick
Developer: Bithell Games
Written and Directed by: Mike Bithell
Design: Steve Lee (lead), Nic Tringali, Mike Bithell
John Wick films are the best action films we’re getting at the moment. I adored John Wick 3: Parabellum which released earlier this year and the thing about the John Wick films is they’re pure adrenaline. So how do you adapt adrenaline and the smart action that is portrayed in a John Wick video game? A question I’m sure Mike Bithell, the lead at Bithell Games discussed when making John Wick Hex. His answer is a smart one, and better than simply an FPS that could be made as a cheap tie-in to the films. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hit all the marks to be a true John Wick experience.
In the films, John Wick moves pretty constantly and strikes with precision as he takes down his many, many enemies. John Wick is a seemingly unstoppable force and to portray that Bithell Games have created something that sits somewhere between an XCOM game and Superhot. It is a strategy game, but every decision you make for John is broken down to the millisecond, and your enemies move at the same time as John. With each level playing out on a grid it means you can get a Superhot-like effect happening by having John move forward and back between two squares and watch the enemies close in around him.
You can order John to move forward to the end of what appears to be an empty room and he’ll follow that action unless he’s interrupted by either being shot at or by spotting an enemy hidden behind the fog-of-war. This pause in action allows you to hide behind cover, or be the one to shoot first and initiate combat. Of course, you can attempt to be stealth in most levels to a point, but John Wick isn’t exactly the quiet type.
All of your actions are laid out at the top of the screen and it’s not your typical strategy timeline because everyone and everything is happening at the same time. It may seem confusing when you start the game and are been given what seems like an overload of tutorial messages, but it’s rather simple when you boil it down to the two important parts. The top line of the timeline is John and his actions, so if you select to shoot someone it’ll show you in 0.2-second intimates how much time that action will take in a red block. Below that is the enemy’s timeline, with a line per enemy you are engaged in combat with. Their actions will be also presented in red. To make it easiest to understand: if you click shoot guy, does your action take place before they’ll manage to shoot you? If not, maybe look into getting behind cover, or throwing your weapon which is often a much faster action than shooting.
Each stage starts John with his custom pistol which has limited bullets and, in keeping with the films’ realistic take to weaponry, if you choose to reload the clip — of which you only have one extra — you’ll lose the remaining bullets in the first and, of course, reloading does take several seconds. You can pick up enemy weapons which in the later levels range from an assortment of pistols to several shotgun variations and automatic weapons. You can only carry one weapon though.
John’s back up, much like in the films, are his deadly hands which are weapons of their own. When you get involved in a fistfight it becomes some of the more complicated timeline stuff to keep track off. Taking on three enemies at once and choosing whether to go for a takedown, a fast hit or retreat to a better position while tracking all their incoming hits can be complicated. Doing that while enemies are lining up to shoot you from a distance in the later levels lead to a lot of deaths for John Wick as I struggled to plan my actions effectively.
I enjoy this combat system and it makes a lot of sense for a John Wick game. You feel like you’re playing a game of chess in tandem with your enemies and even one wrongly timed reload could be your death. The only disappointing thing is the somewhat limited weaponry available. In the films, John will use anything to his advantage so having some misc items in levels to use as weapons or shields would have been good.
Your planning and strategy go beyond the combat in each level. John Wick’s carnage is across several stages with around six levels per stage and usually ending with a boss fight which requires you to break their defences physically before you can shoot them. Nearly every stage lets you pick a couple bonuses before heading in, like reduced reload time or more health, but then you have two bandages for the whole stage. Using a bandage will refill John’s health completely, but if you use them both and there’s not one to be found through the rest of the levels that stage, you’ll be having to play perfectly. Which is why you’re better off just restarting if you take unnecessary damage at the start of any level, especially if the boss fight is at the end of it. It’s then this mix of picking the modifiers that you find most helpful and light level resource management that adds to the level of strategy needed in John Wick Hex.
You may have noticed I’ve only spoken about the games' combat, and that’s because the games' story was a bore. As fun as the games, unique strategy combat is, the story is a thin veil to get John Wick on a mission with some bodies in the way. Ian McShane and Lance Reddick reprise their roles of Winston and Charon who have been kidnapped by Hex, a big-time bad-ass voiced by Troy Baker who has a bone to pick with The High Table, the ruling power over John Wick’s assassin underworld. The games' story is all told with Hex giving monologues to Winston and Charon while Keanu Reeves doesn’t show up to voice John Wick at all. Sure, he doesn’t say much in the movies anyway, but having no one-liners for John at all in the game is felt and missed. Instead, you have Hex rambling on and he’s just not an interesting villain at all. With this game taking place before the original John Wick before Wick retired, you’d think there would be so many interesting directions to go, but instead, it’s simply a story of Wick saving Winston and Charon.
The part where zero voice acting to Wick is felt most is at the end of every level where there’s this fantastic feature to watch back the level in real-time. All those actions you made a play out in a little janky John Wick animation. It’s here where just hearing John say anything is missed dearly as it would have made these feel like John Wick short films you can create.
At the end of each stage, it tells you how long it took you to beat it in the game’s real-time. And it’s shocking sometimes to see that all those levels you did, beating that boss, and it took about four minutes in John’s time. This screen will present you with a Par time for beating the level, but there are disappointingly no online leaderboards were seeing how fast people can clear these stages would have been the most interesting.
Playing John Wick Hex feels like planning and, when done right, being the wrecking ball that John is in the movies. It just lacks the story or feel of the world presented in the movies’ world and characters to be a true John Wick experience.
(John Wick Hex code provided for review)