We had an interesting problem when the John Wick Hex review came down the pipeline a couple weeks ago. Several members of the USgamer staff are big fans of Keanu Reeves' excellent action series, but they were all busy, so it was left to me—apparently the one person on the team who hadn't seen the films.
But what I lacked in experience with John Wick, I made up for in my love of tactics games. And by lucky chance, all three films were available on a recent flight to the U.K., which I marathoned over the course of 12 hours. When I was finished, I felt thoroughly prepared for John Wick Hex, intrigued by the potential of a tactics game that captured the verve of the films. But what I found instead was... kind of boring... which are not words I would ordinarily associate with a series in which the protagonist is able to take down villains using, among other things, a really sharp pencil.
Set before the puppy-killing that sends Wick on his roaring rampage of revenge, John Wick Hex is a pastel-colored tactics game in which the eponymous assassin lumbers down a series of claustrophobic corridors gunning down nondescript men and women in suits. It was developed in part by Mike Bithell, who once designed the standout indie puzzle-platformer Thomas Was Alone, and Hex similarly has its share of good ideas. But it lacks the energy, the clever setpieces, and the sheer fun of the films. Once you get the hang of the mechanics, it becomes clear that it doesn't have a ton of good ideas beyond its core concept.
At base, John Wick Hex is a turn-based tactics game with a point-and-click interface; one in which every movement consumes a unit of time, during which enemies also move, aim their weapons, and attack. Playing as Wick, you have access to pistols, SMGs, and shotguns, as well as a very handy dodge roll. If enemies get too close, you can use a takedown attack to quickly dispatch them, or just punch them until they go down.
To make up for the lack of multiple party members, John Wick Hex piles on systems intended to add depth to the combat. Accuracy is impacted by crouching, and there's a focus gauge that governs the ability to roll and use takedown attacks. You can manipulate line of sight by crouching behind cover, which is essential for resetting the countdown to when an enemy will open fire. At the start of each chapter, you can frequently seed areas with guns and bandages, similar to the way in which John Wick prepares for a mission in the second film, as well as take certain stat buffs.
You will need to be aware of all of these systems, because John Wick Hex can be quite unforgiving. Chapters are comprised of multiple maps, some of them very lengthy. You only get a finite amount of health per chapter, so you have to be judicious in how you approach encounters. Similarly, while enemies will drop plenty of ammo, a single clip doesn't contain that many bullets, and it can be difficult to rearm during a firefight. All of this incentivizes a deliberate pace in which you very slowly map out each room, uncover enemies, and either shoot them or bait them in for a melee takedown.
It's interesting comparing John Wick Hex's battles to those of the movies, which are often praised for their energy and creativity. The battle in Wick's house from the original film, the one in which we get to see his skills in action for the first time, seem to have had the strongest influence on John Wick Hex. In that fight, Wick is like Batman, repeatedly emerging from the shadows to take down armed gunmen before they even realize what hit them. At its best, John Wick Hex captures that feeling quite nicely as you sneak up behind foes for takedowns, roll out of the way of incoming bullets, and return fire.
But the films don't rest on that one sequence. John Wick's action steadily evolves over the course of three movies, the most recent featuring battles on horseback and in the New York Public Library. John Wick Hex, by contrast, struggles to capture the audacious energy of its source material. In fact, it barely changes from one level to the next, its biggest wrinkle being progressively strong enemies.
As you might expect, this gets tiresome. After awhile John Wick Hex's stages start to blend together, the enemies all falling into three broad categories: gun person, melee person, or boss. I often continuously use takedowns because they're efficient and deadly, building an ever-growing pile of bad guys, graphical glitches leaving their limbs twitching at awkward angles. It can be cheap too, with additional enemies often sneaking up from behind while in a firefight. Either that, or you might blunder into a pack of enemies lurking just beyond the fog of war, which usually results in dying and having to restart from the beginning of the map. Several of the boss fights are especially trivial: you wait until they get close enough for a takedown to break their invulnerability, then put a clip in their head.
Breaking up the monotony are Ian McShane and Lance Reddick, who reprise their roles as Winston and Charon respectively. They serve to narrate your adventure, occasionally ruminating on the politics of the High Table with the villainous Hex, who is holding them hostage. Along with the stylized graphics, and the thumping (if understated) electronic soundtrack, they do the most to give John Wick Hex the splash of color it so badly needs.
All things considered, John Wick Hex isn't a bad game, but it doesn't do enough to evolve beyond its otherwise promising premise. It could probably use beefier RPG elements—some degree of customization that allows John Wick to grow while affording the opportunity to make more interesting decisions. It's also missing destructible walls, hazards, vehicles... anything that might vary up the core gameplay.
Probably the best thing I can say about John Wick Hex is that it got me to finally watch the movies, which really are a lot of fun. They start from a simple premise—a retired assassin takes revenge on Russian mobsters—and build into a sprawling action epic with tons of memorable characters and lore. When the fourth film inevitably arrives, I'll be there.
I wish I could say the same for the game.
John Wick Hex has a solid enough foundation, but it largely fails to build on its core concept. It's a one-dimensional tactics game that moves at a glacially slow pace and features few unique wrinkles. It offers a slightly deeper look at the lore, but otherwise it adds little to the burgeoning John Wick-verse.