Featuring heavy doses of intense and tactile hand-to-hand combat in addition to absolutely over-the-top shootouts, the John Wick film franchise would seem to be absolutely tailor-made for a video game adaptation. Watching the movies, it’s extraordinarily easy to envision gameplay centered around pinpoint aim - Max-Payne style slo-mo and acrobatics - yet, Bithell Games (the studio behind Thomas Was Alone, among others) has chosen to take an entirely different approach in designing John Wick Hex. Opting instead for a tense game of tactics, they have created something owing more to the XCOM franchise than John Woo. On premise alone, John Wick Hex is definitely an interesting experiment, making for an experience that is tough-as-nails, fun to play and rewarding to learn. However, it’s also very much let down by its rather limited gameplay options and lack of scope, ultimately producing a product that is more of an entertaining diversion than a memorable experience.
It all starts with presentation and story and, on this front, Hex is a bit of a mixed bag. Graphically, the game is almost what could be described as cute: character detail is sparse, yet endearingly cel-shaded. The beady eyes of the character models aesthetically match constant bursts of neon color-bright purples and pinks saturating the screen, but never overpower the dull grays and browns that make up the game’s rather by-the-numbers environments (an alleyway; a nightclub; a tanker ship, etc.). At its best. John Wick Hex could be described as “readable” - enemies are clear, sightlines are obvious and the action never obfuscates players’ available decisions. Granted, John Wick likes to revel in its absurdism, an otherwise realistic setting betrayed by a barely underground network of assassins that rule the criminal world. In its lack of variety, though, John Wick Hex never really takes advantage of its overarching setting. Storywise, there isn’t really much to write home about, either. While the game features great voicework from talented performers such as Lance Reddick and Troy Baker, the plot is quite a bit of nothing, largely consisting of men in suits sitting in a room talking about how awesome John Wick is as he slowly makes his way towards unceremoniously shooting them to death.
Where Hex certainly does shine, however, is its core gameplay mechanics. While navigating environments, players move on an octagonal grid-system, and every action considers the concept of “time.” Each action the player takes, whether that be firing a gun or rolling into cover, requires a certain amount of inaction to complete On the default difficulty, the action is always paused until the player takes action, applying to both Wick, whom the player controls, and his enemies. Both player and enemy actions are displayed on an easy-to-read timeline at the top of the screen. It shows proposed actions and how long they will take to be performed before the player actually chooses to execute on them.
The rub is that an action performed first on the timeline interrupts actions and the movement of others. In all earnesty, it’s a system that only fully makes sense after some hands-on time with the game, but the following is a proposed scenario: an enemy takes aim at John Wick and attempts to fire their gun; the player looks at their options and thinks of firing back, but sees that the enemy would get the shot off first; not wanting to be interrupted in their shot, the player chooses to throw their gun at the target, which performs just a tad faster than the enemy firing their own weapon.
The above scenario would play into the game’s core mechanic, interruption. The enemy would be hit first and temporarily stunned, unable to take their proposed action. While John Wick, in this instance, has avoided death and dealt a modicum of damage to the enemy, but is now unarmed and still several paces away from the aggressor. And so, therefore, the question becomes: what does the player do next?
It all makes for a great game of power dynamics where who is in control of any given situation is rapidly shifting back and forth between the player and the artificial AI. The most serious problem with John Wick Hex, above all else, is that it fails to take full advantage of these otherwise engaging mechanics. There are really only two enemy-types: those armed with guns and those coming in close for a fist-to-fist attack. Sure, the rush of melee troops might force a panicked player out of cover, but it still makes for a gameplay experience that is rather binary. Enemies close to the player should be meleed, while enemies far should be shot. Once the player clicks with the gameplay flow, there is really not much stopping them for shooting down enemy gunners at range and simply waiting for brawlers to approach and be easily taken down - it’s the optimal strategy, really. The game does occasionally attempt to shake things up with boss encounters, but to little success. Boss actions can’t be interrupted with gunfire until their focus (read: stamina) is depleted via melee attacks. What this really results in, though, is gunning down enemies surrounding bosses and then rushing in to stunlock the big bad with a series of fisticuffs, hopefully avoiding the seemingly infinite spawn of mobs behind them. Not once did these encounters ever result in anything other than anti-climax.
All this being said, John Wick Hex is a fun experience, but one that woefully fails to deliver on its premise. Nothing really demonstrates this more than the ability to play back each completed mission in real-time. The idea of watching all of your methodical, turn-based actions playing out in cinematic, gun-fu action is certainly tantalizing, but actually manifests as watching janky, eight-way movement alongside strange collision detection, limited animation and questionable camera angles. With the immense talent behind it, John Wick Hex could have been something much more than a fun, yet missable movie tie-in game under different circumstances, but as is, those real-time segments are the perfect microcosm for the game as a whole: an interesting idea brimming with ambition, brought down by the limits of execution that so often accompany reality.