It’s no doubt daunting as a developer to take on creating a game whose namesake is shared with a blockbuster franchise of movies. There have been plenty of cases in the past where the end product hasn’t quite captured the same success as the movie itself. Whilst we could likely spend all day naming instances like that, it’s pretty safe to say that John Wick Hex is one of the very few exceptions to that rule.
The game begins with Hex, a criminal mastermind, who has decided to take Charon and Winston of the New York Continental (if you’ve seen the films, you’ll know what that is) hostage as a power play against the High Table. In response, a contract is put out against Hex. Enter John Wick, who’s here to rain down some hurt and dismantle Hex’s organisation.
The story plays out through cutscenes between stages and occasionally through voiceovers whilst playing. The intermissions themselves typically follow the fashion of discussion between Hex, Winston and Charon in storyboard form. It blends in quite nicely with the game and doesn’t take too much time detracting from the real action. Something to note too is that actors Ian Mcshane and Lance Reddick reprise their roles for the voices of Winston and Charon respectively and it adds really well to the story setting.
The game itself takes place across various settings. To begin, you start off in streets and alleyways while the game eases you slowly into the action. Movement of the titular character John Wick and the enemies he faces off against takes place on a hex like grid denoted by white pips. It’s almost reminiscent of a game of chess, albeit with more guns and death. The game is heavily focused around strategy and making the right moves at the correct time whilst also keeping track of your inventory. John himself has a couple of basic qualities that are integral to his success, Health and Focus. Naturally, if John’s health depletes its game over and if he runs out of focus you’re equally going to have a painful time.
The aim is to move through each level towards the exit whilst unleashing Wick’s fury on the many enemies you’ll encounter. You can do this in a multitude of ways, with each potential action having strategic importance dependent on the situation. John starts off each mission with access to his custom handgun and naturally he can use this to dispatch most foes with a double tap. Here’s the zinger though, ammunition isn’t infinite. Levels are broken down into areas and ammunition is persistent. Used too much ammo in the last area? Better get making some plans on how you’re going to survive the next wave of enemies.
And this is where things get really interesting. John is naturally a one man army. When he’s not filling people full of holes, he breaks them into tiny pieces with his fists. We’ll call it John-Fu (it’s not actually called that) from here on out. Using the environment to your advantage is an unwritten rule in this game. If you want to use John-Fu, you have to close the distance on your enemies and naturally this can be trying at the best of times when they also come equipped with guns. And that is what makes it so wonderfully strategic. Running out of bullets? Throw your gun at someone to stun them and give yourself a chance to close the distance.
As John Wick, you have access to strikes, pushes, parries and takedowns. Strikes come in handy to take some health away from an enemy and leave them stunned, pushes allow you to strategically move an enemy to suit your own position (like avoiding oncoming gunfire), parries will allow you to quickly stun an incoming enemy strike and takedowns are glorious moves that take a chunk of health away and taking an enemy out for the count. Takedowns however will cost you focus, so it’s important to manage it wisely. The entire melee system just comes together so intuitively that its hard not to feel like John Wick himself, its really impressive.
You also have access to tactical commands like reloading, refocusing and changing your stance. These are crucial to success too, as managing each well will affect how you perform overall. You don’t want to be walking into a room full of gun toting criminals without bullets and equally you don’t want to be lacking focus just incase John has to get a bit more ‘innovative’. Changing stance is again important, as taking a knee will reduce the enemies view on you and limit their chance to hit when firing guns, as well as giving John the option to roll out of the way from incoming gunfire. Rolling also takes focus so you need to make sure you’re managing that resource all the time.
John isn’t limited to his own custom handgun either. As you dispatch enemies you’ll be able to pick up their weapons. What I love is that each weapon will vary in ammunition depending on how many times they’ve fired before you’ve ended their existence. It’s a small detail, but so satisfying on a tactical level.
John Wick Hex is a strategy, but it’s also a timeline strategy. Each action requires time to prepare and execute. This is shown at the top of the screen on the timeline itself. What’s so impressive about the entire system is that every action that John can use has importance specific to the situation. Every enemy you can see at any given time will also have their own section on the timeline to show what actions are coming next. It’s beautifully done because it is THE tool to dictate the moves that are best to use next. It’s all broken down into seconds too so it amps up the tension to ensure that you’re never too comfortable, even if you are a killing machine.
You’ll come across various enemy types through the games levels, including gun users, brawlers and bosses. Each archetype has particular levels to them. Your standards in the category will normally be pretty easy to dispatch, but as you make progress they’ll start getting tougher and have access to better weapons, more focus and more health. The level scaling of the enemies is actually really well done, even if at times I had to change my plans when encountering tougher enemies. The bosses that you normally encounter in the final areas of most levels also pack a punch. What’s particularly panic inducing is that in order to take them down, you have to reduce their focus. You can’t reduce their health (at least, not as far as i’ve seen) without using guns. So the best advice I can give is to lay into them, reduce focus and pump them full of lead.
When you move onto the second mission, you’ll start getting access to the planning stage. At this point you’ll have the opportunity to spend Continental Coins to give yourself an edge in the upcoming mission. First and foremost, you can stash items. As each mission is a string of areas, stashing weapons and bandages (for healing) holds a lot of importance. Depending on where you place them will dictate how many coins you use, but keep in mind that these are limited. You get a set amount and that’s what you’ll run with. Equally, you can spend coins on tailoring John’s suit. This will give him access to certain enhancements like reducing focus used on specific abilities or increasing hit chance with guns. These will be limited in earlier missions, but more will unlock as you progress.
The level design of each mission is also fantastically done. There’s plenty of the environment to use to your advantage and because a large part of your decisions will be based on what you can see, it adds an element of depth and worry to wondering what’s around the next corner. The designs of each area are plenty unique too and I always got excited waiting to see what was next.
At the end of each mission you’ll have the opportunity to earn yourself a name, just like the man himself. This will vary dependent on such metrics like your shooting accuracy, bandages used etc… and adds a nice little touch in homage to the movies. You’ll also have the opportunity at the end of each area to watch a replay in full action of the moves you made. I cannot express enough how enjoyable it is to watch a perfect run of John dispatching people following your cleverly created plans. It’s glorious.
The game is great looking too. I’ve already mentioned how unique the environments are but the visuals capture the gritty and seedy underbelly of the John Wick universe really well. It matches up with the movies to a tee, with plenty of wonderfully designed locales to feast the eyes on. There’s also varying weather effects, which just adds to the overall experience. The soundtrack is also a really nice touch, subtly chiming out in the background with action movie undertones.
Even after completion, there’s plenty to go back for. You can individually choose to replay each level you’ve already unlocked to work on getting a better name score, or even just to try a different method. There are two difficulties to try out too, ‘operative’ being the standard fare and ‘expedited’, a mode in which you have seven seconds to make each decision. So you won’t feel cheated once you’ve finished up your first run.
If I had one grumble about the game, I guess it would have to be the animation variation. Whilst John can unleash hell in close combat on his enemies, the animations lack variation and can get a little repetitive. It’s a shame that there isn’t more to it given how wonderfully strategic the game is. Admittedly though, this is a very small detail and doesn’t take anything away from the fun as a whole.
John Wick Hex was an absolute ball from start to finish. It’s pretty rare to find something with this level of strategy executed so well on a console but this kept me coming back for more and I really enjoyed my time with it.
The game doesn’t have any real flaws beyond some repetitive animations and considering its based on a movie franchise, we can definitely chalk this one up to a win.
John Wick Hex is a fantastic strategy experience that is almost as lethal as the man himself.