Back in the day, you could usually write off any game based on a film or TV show as a cheap cash-grab piece of garbage.
But in recent years, what with Alien Isolation, Friday the 13th: The Game or South Park: The Stick of Truth, it’s been proven that an existing IP can (sometimes) provide a good jumping-off point for some half-decent games.
John Wick Hex is an action-strategy game from Mike Bithell, the creative mind behind indie darlings such as Volume and Thomas Was Alone. Based on the hit action film franchise starring Keanu Reeves, this new game aims to recreate the intense action and signature fighting style of John Wick. It must have been quite a challenge because indie shooter SUPERHOT already did that pretty effectively, and it feels like John Wick Hex is straining with the effort of trying not to rip it off.
I’d only seen the first of the three John Wick films when I picked this game up for review, and I’m pretty sure I remember watching it in the bath. It’s not something I would normally have chosen to rewatch, but in preparation for this review I sat down to catch up on the first two films, and I actually really enjoyed their pure shooty fun. So when the time came to jump into John Wick Hex, I was pumped up and ready for some gun-fu action.
Straight away, I liked the game’s aesthetic. It goes for a cel-shaded art style, and its colour palette of deep purples and blues accented with striking neon pink is reminiscent of the iconic nightclub scene from the first film. John Wick Hex is presented from a top-down viewpoint, with the player guiding Wick through each stage on a hex-based grid. I understand there are many reasons to use a hexagonal grid instead of a square-based one, but the only apparent benefit here is getting to see John zig-zig through the levels like a violent drunkard during the instant replays.
Enemies are only visible if they are in Wick’s line of sight, with the rest of the map hidden in shadow. This means you probably won’t see an enemy until they’re right on top of you, keeping up the pace of the action as you’re forced to deal with each threat quickly and efficiently. Different weapons have different rates of fire, accuracy and damage, so there is a lot to consider if you or your enemy is holding a 9mm pistol or a revolver, a carbine or an SMG (unfortunately there are no pencils).
Ammo, focus and health also need to be managed carefully to succeed, and stats are carried over between each level in a single location. To help plan things before you jump into a new area, you can purchase a limited number of healing items and weapons to be stashed in levels you think you might need them, or you can choose to buy more expensive upgrades that last for the entire mission.
The core of the gameplay is the timeline system, which structures the tactical combat in a way that sets itself apart from turn-based games like XCOM. In John Wick Hex everyone is technically moving at the same time, but everything pauses in between each action you take, allowing you to consider your options and react to the situation strategically. Yours and the enemies’ actions are all displayed on bars at the top of the screen, so if you see that a henchman will shoot at you in two seconds, you can use these timelines to work out the best way to retaliate. Trying to shoot him back might take too long, but perhaps throwing your gun can stun him before he gets a shot off – or maybe you’re close enough to cover that you can duck behind it and re-evaluate your options.
It does take a bit of getting used to, but after the first couple of levels it starts to click and actually feels like a really intuitive way to do strategy gameplay. It’s a far more compelling game than it would have been had the films simply been adapted into a generic, obvious shooter; this method actually manages to capture the essence of John Wick action in a way that feels genuinely skilful and precise. As I mentioned briefly above, once you’ve completed a stage you can also watch a real-time instant replay of your run, letting you see what it would be like if you actually did have the reflexes of the world’s greatest hitman, rather than a chronically fatigued sloth who only had a fighting chance thanks to his ability to halt the passage of time.
This is where the comparison to SUPERHOT becomes most obvious, because it did the instant replay thing too, although John Wick Hex had the brains not to ruin these cool moments by repeatedly chanting its own name in a robotic voice. Outwardly presenting like a first person shooter, SUPERHOT‘s “time only moves when you do” gimmick transforms it into a much more strategic experience (and seriously, play it and tell me that a simple re-skin wouldn’t make it into a spectacular John Wick game). It was unfair of me to imply Hex is a rip off of SUPERHOT – it’s more like if SUPERHOT and XCOM had a baby. But that doesn’t make it unoriginal, because what is a baby? It’s something unique, created by combining a particular blend of DNA that has never existed before… and oh my God, it looks just like Keanu Reeves!
The game’s story isn’t particularly earth shattering, but at least it stays faithful to the source material in that respect. A John Wick film will generally split its runtime pretty evenly between Keanu Reeves being a badass, and people listing previous instances of Keanu Reeves being a badass. Wick himself remains silent throughout John Wick Hex, which will be a disappointment to those who wanted Reeves to reprise the role. Let’s be honest though, our Lord and saviour Keanu does his best acting when he’s got no lines to worry about – so I think if any action hero should be a silent protagonist it’s John Wick. Hex is a prequel, so we aren’t getting the burdened and broken Wick we know from the films; we’re getting the unstoppable, emotionless boogeyman that terrified mobsters swap stories about in hushed whispers. As cool as this sounds, it unfortunately makes him about five thousand percent less interesting as a protagonist.
I understand that when you’re making a video game prequel to a popular film franchise, you’re probably kept on a tight leash that doesn’t allow you to do anything crazy with the precious canon. The world of assassins that Wick inhabits is just so expansive and compelling that it feels like a huge wasted opportunity not to explore those background characters and tell some of the other stories that must exist in this universe. As it stands, the plot of John Wick Hex is simply Wick trying to find out the location of Troy Baker’s titular villain, Hex, and his captives (Ian McShane and Lance Reddick) by murdering his way through the entire criminal underworld.
Watch the video version of this review below:
I’ve got to say this was quite disappointing, because the story and writing in Bithell’s games are usually some of their strongest points. Thomas Was Alone took a simple coloured block puzzle and elevated it with a charming narration from Danny Wallace, and his bite-sized adventure game Subsurface Circular is comprised entirely of conversations on a tube train. John Wick Hex has a fun, original gameplay loop that works well, but in terms of narrative and context it’s a complete flatline.
Perhaps I’m just a victim of my own expectations. There are plenty of games that get away with minimal plot and an uninteresting protagonist, I just never expected to count a Mike Bithell game amongst them. The important thing is John Wick Hex has an abundance of intuitive and original ideas, and it’s fun and engaging to play. It’s certainly worth your time if you like strategy games, and if you also happen to be a fan of the films then that’s just the icing on the cake.
John Wick Hex is available on PC.