Imagine for a moment if somebody blended the brutal efficiency of Hotline Miami with the tactical mind play of XCOM and then wrapped it all in John Wick theming. That’s the basic idea behind John Wick Hex, which effectively puts players into the mind of John Wick himself as he analyzes each situation moment to moment, calculating the perfect moves to make in order to eliminate waves of incoming baddies and make it out alive. It seems absurd, translating the quick and precise action of the John Wick films into a slower strategy game, but somehow, it works, even if it doesn’t quite manage to reach the level of intensity of the movies it’s based on.
Set as a prequel story to the films, John Wick Hex sees the titular character in a neon-soaked graphic novel-eque world, hunting down a villain named Hex (Troy Baker) who has kidnapped Winston and Charon (Ian McShane and Lance Reddick respectively reprising their roles for the voices). It’s a rather simple story, but it’s not like the John Wick films were all that complicated to begin with. Much like the movies Wick must take on hordes of enemies before reaching a “boss,” who, in one way or another, provides him with the next destination on his roadmap where he’ll effectively rinse and repeat the process over again until he reaches Hex.
Gameplay is tactical, based on a timeline and hex-based nodes on the ground. Each action Wick takes, whether it’s moving, shooting, reloading, or picking up a weapon, takes a certain amount of time, which has to be taken into account when facing off against enemies with similar restrictions. Knowing whether to take the shot or duck out of the way is as simple as looking at the timeline to see who will act first, but the gameplay is far from as simple as it seems. There are countless tiny decisions to make at any given moment, and making the wrong one can quickly result in being overwhelmed and killed. Going for the kill on that single enemy might not be smart. But can you afford to move to the other side of the room to pick up the gun for extra ammo? A takedown might guarantee the kill, but the time it takes could be all the enemy needs to blow you away with a shotgun. You’re just one man, after all.
The difficulty really ramps up in the last few levels of the game, with some really tough encounters that will test your decision-making skills, though nothing was so overwhelming that approaching it from a different angle didn’t work. Most often when I would fail, it was because I was trying to play it like an action game or prioritize the kills, planning one step ahead when I should have been staying four or five steps ahead. There’s a brilliance in choreographing the ballet of bullets and broken bones as it’s happening, adapting to each new threat in order to complete the level while still breathing.
John Wick Hex Review – Ballet of Bullets
Upon completing an area, you’re given the option to watch a realtime replay, minus all the lengthy decision making and agonizing over choices. It’s a cool feature that tries to capture some of the directed intensity of the films’ fight scenes, but never really gets there as Wick zig-zags awkwardly to each node and engages in relatively dull and robotic shootouts. This is particularly true in later levels in which enemies can take more damage before dying, yet never seem to “struggle” with their wounds or react in a way that’s appropriate to being shot three times at point-blank range. Movements get recreated exactly as they do in-game instead of being given some fun added visual flair. It’s a small nitpick, nothing to do with the gameplay itself, but it does highlight that this is simply a stylish facsimile of John Wick and pretty soon I stopped watching the replays at all.
Part of me dreams of a world where my tactical choreography can be recreated with AI smartly filling in the gaps, removing awkward zig-zags from the movement and adding some stylish and contextual flair to turn my gameplay into a fight scene worthy of being called John Wick, something I’d want to immediately capture and upload showing off my unique completion of an area. But that simply may be asking too much. Games aren’t made on wishful thinking after all. They are made by the hard work of developers, and my visions of what I wanted may not even be feasible.
Near the end of the game, starting with the final three levels, gameplay began to really chug along, lagging and freezing momentarily, clearly taking a lot of power to simulate the AI. Perhaps it’s my launch PS4, struggling to keep up with the demands of 2020 games. Either way, the last stretch was a bit of a painful hurdle to overcome amidst the difficulty curve, performance issues, and lack of the game really evolving its gameplay all that much in that final bit. “Rusty, I guess,” Even John Wick himself isn’t perfect.
John Wick Hex is a fantastically unique adaptation of the film property, and even if it doesn’t quick stick the landing, I have to applaud Mike Bithell and his team for bravely trying something different with something as loved as John Wick. The gameplay is sharp and tight, brilliantly adapting the inner workings of John Wick’s mind into a gameplay mechanic and making you feel like a top-tier assassin when you pull it off. While a bit rough around the edges John Wick Hex is a great licensed adaptation with a bold fresh take on the existing property.
John Wick Hex review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on a PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.