John Wick felt like a film series that was destined to end up being a mediocre video game. I imagined some AAA studio would snap up the license to either make some adrenaline-fueled FPS that completely cheapened the character, or some Telltale-esque story game that completely dumpstered the feeling of epic, deliberate gun combat. Instead, plucky indie/AA-ish studio Bithell Games has decided to break some moulds and work on capturing what makes the John Wick universe fun – being a methodical murder man.
To emulate the true John Wick experience, Hex focuses on the moment-to-moment actions that make ol’ mate the terrifying slayer of men that he is. Navigating the game world in a pseudo hex-like environment (see what I said there?), you can choose to interact with enemies and objects via an action menu, with each expected outcome progressing time and chewing up your ‘focus’. As an example, you can choose to move to a location, encounter an enemy and then fire upon them. This translates into walking (during this time all enemies can move) pausing to consider your action (which freezes everything/everyone in place) and then taking your action (which again allows enemies to move and act). It all feels very XCOM in some regards, though it’s not turn-based in the slightest (and you can actually shoot your enemies when you need to).
Feel the fury of the patented JOHN WICK DICK KICK™
I have encountered similar systems in tabletop games, and I am sure other video games have had a system like this – but for a John Wick experience it truly shines. The simple act of entering an unknown space, seeing an enemy a few feet from you and quickly pivoting to throw your gun at them and snatch theirs off the ground to shoot another bloke sounds fantastic in theory, but in execution it can be a little clunky to realise your contract killer dreams. Genuinely any gameplay experience you go through will be a case of stopping routinely and weighing up your actions – which doesn’t feel very John Wick-y, but the payoff comes at the end of a level, where the game offers you to watch a real time replay of what you just wrought.
These replays play in real time, without any pauses. That radical moment where you took two steps, STOPPED, shot a guy, STOPPED, picked up his gun, STOPPED, threw it at a guy, STOPPED, then crouched and rolled into another dude to take him down? You see it all happen without the stops you took to pick your nose and think it over, complete with dynamic camera angles and butt-rock music.
He’s breathtaking, even when taking lives
Where this all comes crashing down, however, is when it shines a particularly brutal spotlight on mistakes you might have made. Remember that time you combat rolled into a Chinese diner, shot two people and then got into a fist fight with the third? Yeah that looked awesome – right up until you combat rolled into a wall, stood up, then crouched again, realised you didn’t have the focus to roll, so you stood up and did a little headshake to regain focus rolled back into the middle of the room, realised there was no more enemies so you stood up and walked back out of the diner to continue your day? Yeah, looks decidedly less badass than you may think.
The gameplay itself can feel a little like chess, where you can actually enjoy the freedom to change your strategy as the situation evolves.
These moments at least get alleviated as you progress through the game and your personal player skill increases, but unfortunately no amount of skill can add polish to the stiff animations within the game. By virtue of being a very ‘methodical’ game, it means that characters feel a little like marionettes. Animations don’t especially flow into each other, because each is sort of…queued to take place. Even with the live playback, you can still see each point where you chose a particular action, because the game’s engine involves you stopping what you were doing to start the next thing. For a product of an indie studio (I still say it’s a little AA, given the license) it is admirable, but you start to wonder what some real powerhouse resources could have done for the game.
The narrative is par for the course when it comes to John Wick, with an evil sounding baddy (Hex) recounting how he has done everything in his power to be a big criminal guy and now John Wick is coming to ruin his day. To make this exposition more fun, Ian McShane and Lance Reddick reprise their roles from the films to banter off Troy Baker’s Hex, and build up the impressive legend of John Wick. The storytelling is done in-game in a pseudo comic style, with characters appearing in dynamic panels that frame them as they speak and highlight action-packed stills that progress the story.
It appears you are playing a murder simulator – need a hand?
The gameplay itself can feel a little like chess, where you can actually enjoy the freedom to change your strategy as the situation evolves. Your standard actions are to shoot or punch people, with success rates displayed based on your location and environment, but then get a little deeper when you take into account your stance, movement, etc. Some blanket ‘benefit’ actions, such as reloading, bandaging and regaining focus can be done amidst your moment to moment experience, but the trade-off is that all of these take place in real time, so your enemies will take the shots they need while you are recovering.
Environments also play a fun part, as any particular area is effectively a hidden grid, with the areas you can traverse highlighted via mouse over. You can take into account sight lines of both yourself and enemies, lying in wait for them – or even crouching to fire behind low cover to reduce enemies chance to hit you. This is particularly fun when you make use of your focus-driven combat roll to make your hit box nice and small as you move from cover to cover – something that feels entirely John Wick-esque, like you are in one of the film series’ titular sequences.
Just occurred to me that the van in this image looks absurdly small
John Wick Hex is a triumph of clever ideas being used to give players the agency to really feel like the badass they saw in the films, to try and best translate exactly how they’d take care of business if they were Keanu Reeves. For its development pedigree, it is precisely as developed as you may expect and presents players a fun little skill curve that rewards in-depth thought for those that want to put in the hard yards, and a neat distraction to those that just want to throw guns at bad guys’ heads and listen to Ian McShane hang shit on Troy Baker.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher