At first glance, John Wick Hex is everything you don’t want in a game starring the new old face of American action cinema. How, many will wonder, can this deceptively slow, low-energy tactics game hope to compete against a two-hour date with Wick at the movie theater? Leave it to the cinematographers and stunt coordinators for explosive on-screen chaos, but for an authentic experience in the shoes of the stylish hitman extraordinaire, trust in Mike Bithell and his team at Bithell Games. Don’t let the stigma of tie-in video games keep you away from one of the year’s best tactics titles.
What John Wick Hex has chosen to capture is the tense moment-to-moment decision-making that naturally comes with putting yourself in the line of fire. Eagle-eyed John Wick is a focused man and no less is expected of the player, especially if they plan on taking down the nefarious (and incredibly suave) villain known as Hex, voiced by Troy Baker. To rescue Winston and Charon, the player, as John, has to shoot through seven areas broken up into 6-7 levels each. Between each one, players get to enjoy Troy Baker reminding everyone how cool he is before jumping back into the fray.
These story bits are careful to stay out of the way of the player’s blood-fueled rampage, as do the visuals. Yet, presentation is a John Wick staple—visual flair is in its DNA. On this front, John Wick Hex strikes a perfect balance between flashiness and function with its cel-shaded, minimal visuals. Accompanied by a bold, but non-disruptive color palette, the game accomplishes its sleek, neo-noir look while effectively communicating vital information to the player. And let’s not forget the work being put in by the soundtrack’s roaring guitars and slick synths in bringing these environments to life.
The “Hex” refers not only to the big baddie himself, it hints at the 6-direction movement through which John navigates said environments. The gameplay shares many similarities with turn-based tactical games, but in John Wick Hex, both sides act simultaneously. Between each action, time freezes as you plan the next move. Each action the player takes, regardless of type, eats up a certain amount of time. This is also true for the enemies. The goal then becomes getting the drop on enemies before they have time to react and giving yourself enough time to reposition before additional threats overwhelm you. 0.1 s is the temporal unit of choice, fitting for a quick-minded hitman with even quicker hands, but if decimals start getting the better of you, a comparative timeline towards the top of the screen tracks the moves of the player and the enemy they are currently engaged with.
The hitman’s toolkit comes fitted with an assortment of lethal techniques. Each area starts John off with two 15-round magazines, which I quickly expended. Weapons can also be thrown to stun foes—especially useful when time is against you. Close up, all of John’s techniques are brought to bear. Strike, takedown, parry, dodge, and push all have their own situational uses, stunning and damaging players and/or helping John reposition. However, everything save for strike comes at the cost of Focus. When Focus is drained, players need to spend an amount of time recovering, similar to reloading a weapon. The same is also true of health and bandages. While crouching, players are limited to shooting and rolling, but it is well worth the cost to keep John out of harm’s way.
The trek through every area is truly a battle of attrition. Health and ammunition only refill between areas, not levels. Playing methodically, remaining on constant alert, staying resourceful, and wasting no movements—now players are thinking like a professional. Certain weapons are plucked off of fresh corpses not for their cool-factor, but because they were best suited for the task at hand. Every takedown is performed after having thought several moves ahead. And at the end of each intense chess game, players are granted the option to watch their sweep through the level in real-time. Replay mode comes with its own special camera angles as well, even if the player’s position at certain points in the level can lead to some unsavory perspectives.
Watching those replays, it’s hard not to be in awe of the depth behind a relatively small pool of actions, even if it does also highlight John’s extremely repetitive animations. The game constantly presents new and exciting situations over its 6-8 hour runtime for the player to deal with through the combination of ranged and melee enemy types as well as the timing between enemy spawns. On occasion, a rather frustrating combination of melee brutes can quickly swarm John. With limited Focus, oftentimes the only thing a player can do is spin around dishing out strikes and stunning enemies for what feels like a minute straight. But these are edge cases that don’t mar the overall experience in any noteworthy way. Also worth noting is that, while there is a seemingly fixed number of enemies, it’s common for their positions and weapon ammunition count to vary between attempts. While this is definitely an annoyance if you’ve taken the time to devise a rigid route to victory, it’s a constant reminder that being adaptive is the most valuable skill worth mastering during play.
There’s no additional content beyond the story missions, but some tough challenges and myriad approaches to combat incentivize at least a few extra playthroughs. The optional Expedited mode delivers a faster-paced experience by introducing a five-second timer between actions. While this mode is certainly not for me, those hungry for additional challenge will find plenty of thrills. The suitable ebb and flow of inter-level challenge creates such an addicting gameplay experience that kept me clearing area after area, again and again. The gameplay is undeniably what kept me coming back long after the credits rolled. What else will? The character of Hex slowly breaks apart, souring an already basic narrative’s second half. But, I’d wager that listening to your standard villain-type spew their philosophical drivel is never the most memorable part of most combat-oriented games anyway. Why John Wick is on yet another Gun fu killing spree is of little importance, so gear up and just enjoy the mayhem.
John Wick Hex
A graceful dance of lead and fists through some lovely set pieces and a whole lot of unsuspecting thugs. Nurturing quick, adaptive thinking, John Wick Hex is an excellent distillation of the franchise.