When John Wick Hex was announced, it was hard not to raise an eyebrow. Anybody who’s watched a John Wick movie knows it’s all about the kickass choreographed action, yet we were being given something turn-based, where the action was going to be stop-start. Why would you want to attach a turn-based clamp to John Wick?
Then there was the pairing of designer Mike Bithell (Thomas Was Alone, Volume) with a high-profile IP. Mike Bithell hasn’t got a huge back catalogue of games, but if there’s anything that connects them, it’s his signature dialogue and ability to create worlds. Why would he jump into somebody else’s world, then, when he’s so good at constructing his own?
It feels like a dirty marriage, but John Wick’s yet to be in a bad movie and Mike Bithell’s yet to have a bad game. If you were going to stick a couple of Continental Coins down, you’d bet on them nailing it.
If you’re used to turn-based strategy games, then John Wick Hex immediately pulls the rug from under you. It was always going to give you control of lone-wolf Wick rather than a squad, but it didn’t stop it from feeling alien to move one solitary unit around a map in a turn-based tactics game. Turn a corner to find yourself ambushed and there’s no one else to cover you’re back – you’re going to stay ambushed. Find yourself low on health, and there’s no opportunity to push up a different unit. John Wick Hex forces you to own your mistakes, and you will make plenty of them.
Mistakes are regular because John Wick Hex is heavy on the fog of war, perhaps because Keanu’s mop-top obscures his field of view. Pillars, corners, balconies, warehouses full of crates: they make John Wick Hex a game of Ambush Simulator, and your ability to anticipate and get out of them is half of the skill. Bithell has also employed a procedural troop placement, so every replay (or death) will stick the enemies in new locations in the level. If you plan to learn the spawns, you’re going to be disappointed.
The other way that John Wick Hex upends traditional turn-based games is the way it handles actions. Most games of this type will play around with action points and turns: your troops or your team get to perform a number of actions before pressing ‘End Turn’ and handing control over to the enemy. Fair play to John Wick Hex – it knows that turn-switching would hardly make for balletic combat, so it ditches it. In its place is a timeline, combining Wick’s and the enemy’s actions into a single chronology. Want to shoot that enemy? Sure, but it will take you four time units, and the enemy is going to shoot you in three time units. If you want to dodge that bullet, you might want to consider a dodge behind a pillar or a roll. The fog of war will hide you and you can make your next decision.
It’s a bewildering system at first, and the game knows it, crushing you under walls of text and menus that make no immediate sense. It’s worth persisting through these opening levels, as Wick’s actions – and which situation they most benefit – soon get a little clearer. It does take some time, though, and we only felt like we were in full flow by the halfway point. Some of the least attractive looking options are the most powerful; who knew that ‘throw gun’ and ‘wait’ could be so effective?
At its best, John Wick Hex can have you pirouetting from enemy to enemy, shoving elbows into faces and firing quick pistol bursts into their knees. It feels good to be ahead of the curve, getting a bullet in moments before an enemy, and then leaving enough time to anticipate the attack of someone else. The time management system makes this possible, visualising what your opponent’s next three or four moves are going to be. That’s a lot of information to be given, and it’s how John Wick and you can feel untouchable, as you anticipate everything and work the battlefield like a game of chess.
At its worst, it can feel like a snowballing crapfest. Turn a corner and there’s every chance that the game has plonked three goons in your face. The randomised troop placement, and the way enemies can cheaply spawn from nearby doors, means that this happens, and happens regularly. John Wick may be a beast, but he doesn’t have a roundhouse in his locker that can take three people out at once. You will regularly be behind the curve rather than ahead of it, with punches staggering you and bullets ripping into you, and there’s no real comeback from these situations. You’re as good as dead, and it won’t always feel like your fault. Sure, it’s realistic, but it makes for random moments of frustration.
The answer, particularly in later levels and difficulties, is to be tentative, spamming your ‘Wait’ button while on your knees, grappling enemies as they come to you. It’s effective, but not particularly ‘John Wick’, and I found myself wishing that I could manage a room full of lackeys in the same way Keanu does. This tentativeness only increases once you realise that guns, health and bandages persist to the next level, so your failures will be carried with you. Often it’s better to die than progress.
The John Wick-ness evaporates in the animations, too. There’s a brilliance to the movies where Wick will move from enemy to enemy in a kind of dance, but then there’s the violent payoff as fists and bullets crunch into bad guys. In John Wick Hex, the models are too simplistic, the guns too splashy, and the animations too stop-start (by necessity: this is still a turn-based game) to feel anything like the source material. You look nothing less than a dorky action figure, waggling its arms about. There’s an end-of-level feature that lets you see all of your actions condensed into a movie, but it only serves to highlight the naffness of the animations. You’ll not use it more than once.
There’s so much innovation in John Wick Hex, and it’s mostly in service to making you feel like John Wick, but it always seems to come with a downside. The oppressive fog of war allows you to slip into the shadows, BUT it leads to cheap deaths. Persistent health across levels means that you gather scars like John Wick, BUT it can mean you’re effectively stuck on harder levels with no means of progressing.
The double-edged sword applies to the narrative as well. Mike Bithell tells his story from the perspective of Hex – the villain of the piece – recounting why Wick is on his trail. You can see why, as it makes Wick into a boogeyman, someone he clearly fears but hasn’t encountered yet. That theme runs throughout the movies, so it feels natural here. But it makes the story completely static; for most of the levels, it’s Hex talking in the same room, with no possibility of Wick saying much. Wick’s progression through the levels is about as fully developed as Super Mario’s, too. He gets to a kingpin’s ‘castle’ in search of what he wants, but what he wants turns out to be in the next castle. It’s a bit rubbish really and, for a master of narrative, it feels like Mike Bithell drops the ball with Wick’s narrative framing.
But for all of the initial frustrations, the caginess with which you have to approach some levels, and the wonky animations, there is still that wonderful feeling when things click into place. The various combat systems synchronise wonderfully, the enemies suddenly feel fair in how they approach you, and you’re making the right decisions at the right time. Sure, you might catch the odd bullet, but that’s true to the movies, and there’ll be that moment where you take stock and realise that you’ve downed a platoon of people. You can tell it’s these moments that the game was designed for, and you wish they could have happened slightly more often.
You’ll emerge from John Wick Hex on the Xbox bruised and a little scarred, but ultimately satisfied. It ambushes you with more randomness than you might like and then kicks you while you’re down, but you’ll dust yourself off and get into a flow that makes you feel like a badass. It may not be the game you expected from the John Wick universe, but it’s got enough peaks to make it worth a shot.