If you were to really dissect the action scenes in a John Wick film, you’d see a number of stand out elements and notable patterns. John Wick is human – he’s not a muscle bound action film monster who does physically impossible things. His actions and movements are exaggerated for sure but it’s not supernatural. He covers his corners – he bounces from wall to wall, zig zagging with his gun raised, always having the angles covered, making sure he’s in a position to get a shot off before anyone in his way. He’s not infallible – he gets beaten up, stabbed and shot. At least once in every movie, he gets caught from behind and strangled. John Wick Hex is a game that’s created around the tenets of the Baba Yaga’s action sequences in a way a traditional action game just couldn’t. John Wick just wouldn’t work as a third or first person shooter. Instead, Bithell Games have created a time based strategy game that celebrates the unique brand of action the boogeyman pulls off in his movies.
John Wick Hex is an original story set before the first film, before the titular character “got out” and, as the game puts it, “before Helen”. The Continental’s owner Winston (Ian McShane reprising the role) and concierge Charon (by the excellent Lance Reddick) have been kidnapped by a shady character called Hex (voiced by emerging talent Troy Baker – you might have heard of him). The High Table has instructed John Wick to investigate the disappearances. Told via comic book styled vignettes that bookend each chapter as well as the occasional soundbyte during missions, Hex describes the journey John has been on to try to find Winston and Charon, leaving more than a few bodies and bullet casings in his wake.
The plot, while not groundbreaking, is quite interesting and well written. After each completed chapter, you learn more about Hex, his motivations and his links to the lore and organisations from the John Wick movies. All the vocal talent on hand really lean into their roles, providing just the right amount of exposition to Wick’s journey and the wider story.
Each of the game’s chapters is made up of self enclosed areas that are linked via an overworld map. Excluding those areas that contain a boss battle, the idea of each of these levels is to get from the entrance to the exit while assassinating everything that tries to stop you. Before each chapter begins, you can spend coins in a “Planning Phase” to place weapons and helpful items or upgrade your suit to give you abilities.
John Wick Hex is played out like a real-time X-Com where both Mr Wick and his foes move simultaneously across pin points equidistant apart across the level’s floor in a carefully laid pattern. The game flows according to a timeline presented at the top of the screen. Each action Wick can perform has a specific time cost. Once you’ve chosen what you want to do from your almost-but-not-quite-viewpoint – say by picking a spot on the floor and directing John to move there – that time is committed to the time line. Once that action is completed, the game pauses and you get to choose your next move. Shooting (which requires an unbroken line of sight), reloading, close quarters attacks, kneeling or standing back up, throwing your gun, picking up items and simply walking have their own time value that will play out once chosen. The only time this action is interrupted – triggering a pause – is when a new foe enters John’s line of sight.
This is when John Wick Hex really comes to life. When you’re facing off against an enemy, their timeline is added below John’s. You can see what action’s they’ve committed to and how that stacks up against what options you have. Say you round a corner and walk straight into the sights of a minion. If they’re armed, they might make a break for cover or take aim if you’re in range. The player than has choices – do I move Wick to cover? Do I crouch to increase my chances of my shot’s hitting the target? Do I slip between covers and try to get in close to do melee attacks? Do I just shoot on sight? The strategy of the game involves gauging what your foes are planning to do while balancing your health and amount of bullets you have.
When multiple enemies descend upon you, it highlights how well this game mimics the way John Wick fights in the movies. Only one enemy timeline is displayed on the screen at any one time but if you hover your curser over a target, you can see their timeline, what health and “focus” (more on that in a second) they have and what weapons they’re carrying. Surrounded by combatants, you’re got to asses who are the biggest risks and what order to kill them in without losing too much health. Shoot the guy with the pistol before he can take aim. It’s your last 2 bullets but he has already spotted you. Bang bang. He’s down. Crouch and roll to cover before another pistol wielding goon comes into your line of sight. Pop up and wait until the martial arts specialist rounds the corner. Take him down before throwing the now empty pistol into another guy’s face, disrupting the shots he’s about to take. Strike the martial artists to kill him then dart back for a gun you left in a corridor. Pick it up, turn and double tap. Both shots land. Move on. It’s a fascinating series of interlinked mechanics that’s really quite thrilling despite it playing out at your own speed between actions.
John and some of his more deadly enemies have something called ‘Focus’. This is a limited resource that enables things like Takedown melee attacks that can drop weaker foes in one manoeuvre or rolls, which can quickly get you from one point of the map to another. John can refill his Focus but much like everything else in the game, it requires a time commitment. When facing off against enemies packing their own Focus gauge, especially bosses, you can’t just gun them down. They can pull off the same abilities as Mr Wick, rolling away from your shots and causing you to waste precious ammo. Melee attacks can reduce the Focus of an adversary, however. So begins a dance of Strikes, Pushes and Takedowns as you attempt to whittle down the opponent enough to bring your trusty guns back into play. Again, this is a fascinating mirror of the way John Wick’s movies play out. Henchmen are usually a double tap and move on while bosses and right hand men/women usually require a brawl before they’ll fall.
The art style employed in John Wick Hex is quite eye catching. The use of bold, solid colours and cell shaded character models give it a distinctive look (something Bithell Games have become very adept at). Most of the chapters have their own unique style and carry their own primary colour. This does mean that some of the chapters feel like they get short shrift. The harbour chapter, for example, uses greens and greys to great effect – but it’s often so dark that a lot of the details get washed out. When the colour schemes are bright, it’s a far more enjoyable game to play as it’s easier to read.
There’s a couple of other small gripes I have with this game too. In most levels, there are doorways that allow new enemies to enter the fray, more often than not straight after you’ve walked past them. In understand their inclusion – there’s always a moment in a John Wick film when he gets caught unawares of someone walking through a doorway – but there’s a small issue with these doorways. John will spot an enemy – pausing the game – before the enemy has entered the room. The new enemies silhouette appears long before they’ve entered the room and if you’re in the sight line, you’ll know they’re coming. They walk out slowly and don’t react to the world until they’ve reached their first floor pin point. These moments feel like wasted opportunities for tense hand to hand moments. Instead, they become minor inconveniences where you make your way to the door way and take down the new challenger before they’ve even registered their existence in the room. The other gripe is to do with waiting. Hovering at a corner waiting for someone to walk into your trap is a tried and true tactic in John Wick Hex but the “Wait” option commits a very short amount of time. If you’re ready to pounce and the enemy is some distance away, you can end up pressing ‘Wait’ repeatedly. It would have been nice to be able to stack these options in the timeline to save unnecessary fiddling around.
John Wick Hex isn’t your traditional movie tie-in game. Whereas so many others take a franchise and shoe horn it into a genre, Bithell Games have taken John Wick under a microscope, examined its DNA and gamified the essence of it. It’s an ingenious take on what it means to be the Baba Yaga, an efficient killing machine that’s as human as the next guy but fights like an assassin savant.
The plot, being a prequel, has a predictable end and there’s a few niggles here and there but John Wick Hex is a triumph in terms of concept and design.
John Wick Hex is available now on PS4 (review version) and PC.
Developer: Mike Bithell Games
Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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