The age of movie franchises is upon us, offering the same movies over and over in a different skin. One series that has risen above the rest for me though is the John Wick series, offering excellent fight scenes and interesting world-building. A few games have tried to capture the fun gun-fu action of John Wick, but to varying degrees of success. The latest game to throw his name around isn’t any FPS game though, and how well it works outside of that genre is what intrigues me. This is John Wick Hex, and it’s time to live life diagonally.
John Wick Hex acts a prequel to the series, showing a day in the life of John back when he was working. Charon and Winston have been kidnapped by Hex, a man who kept a low profile up to this point. John Wick is now on the case to find Winston and Charon, with a trail of bodies following behind him.
John Wick Hex wants to provide a mixture of John Wick action and strategy gameplay. While this sounds insane at first, I believed for a while it could work better than most other genres. I don’t think the FPS genre can capture the martial arts side of the movie (though Superhot comes pretty close), but I can picture in my head a strategy game that captures all aspects of the action as well as the fast-thinking choices John has to make. I can see a strategy game that captures the lightning-in-a-bottle that is John Wick perfectly, but this game isn’t it.
To explain what goes wrong, I have to explain how this game plays out. The level is on a hex-based grid, and everyone moves from hex-to-hex. At the top of the screen is a bar that represents how much time each action is going take, and it will compare it to how much time it will take your opponents to do an action. Actions you can do include move, shoot, throw gun, multiple forms of melee attacks, reload, bandage up, crouch, roll, or wait, and every move takes a certain amount of time to do. Some of these moves cost focus points, which takes a second to recharge. Ultimately, the game is about judging your time bar and the time it takes to do actions compared to the enemy’s time bar and making choices based on that.
I think the time bar mechanic is cool, and I can’t think of any games I have played that has done something like that. Unfortunately, it also highlights and creates a lot of problems. John Wick action is all about being smooth and fast-paced, but every move in this game feels clunky. Most actions require about a second of waiting before they can be done, and seeing Wick aim his gun at an enemy and do nothing for a second (maybe longer, depending on the gun) is awkward. When multiple enemies get involved, things start to get messy. All moves can only be done to one enemy at a time, which sucks because I can think of many action scenes in the films where John has a bad guy pinned with one hand and shooting a guy with the other. Only dealing with one enemy at a time makes multiple enemy interactions awkward, and the best strategy I could find is to constantly run away from their line-of-sight and wait until one shows up into my line-of-sight. I don’t think this is bad gameplay, but I also don’t think it belongs in a game with John Wick in the title.
One thing the game does that I appreciate is stop you when an enemy is spotted. If you have set a path for John to walk and an enemy spots him, he will stop, and you can choose to do whatever by that point. It helps for the most part, but there are some flaws to this as well. If I am trying to melee attack an enemy who is going to shoot me, and they are going to shoot first but I am fine with taking the damage, the bullet hitting me will cancel out my action. This didn’t come up too often, but often enough to be annoying and noticeable.
Along side the bigger issues are plenty of smaller ones that add onto my frustration with the gameplay. There are multiple enemy types and weapons, but only half of the weapons are worth using and some of the enemies can take a while to melee kill. There is one type of enemy with a lot of health that only does melee, and I had multiple encounters where I have to spend some time constantly doing the melee actions to them, which got annoying fast. Speaking of melee, if enemies surround John, they will wait their turn to be hit by John instead of all attacking at once. There are enemy spawners throughout each level, but the ones that do spawn enemies spawn them too fast, which would halt my progress through a level. All bosses can be easily cheesed, and the final boss only took me a minute or so to complete. Rolling, a great maneuver for getting out of sticky situations, can only be done by crouching, and melee actions can only be done standing up. The end of most levels usually involves throwing a lot of enemies your way, which is frustrating considering it’s the end of the level. You can’t control how many bullets John shoots, and shooting six bullets for an SMG wastes both ammo and time. Finally, for a professional, John Wick sure misses a lot of shots.
Missing a lot of shots (especially with the SMG) sucks, but that plus another element leads to a larger, more troubling issue. Depending on weapon and distance, each shot has a percentage chance of hitting, which makes sense. Also, this game has a mix of placed enemies and random enemy spawns, which could be argued as a way to add replayability. These two elements together, though, adds too much luck to a game that should almost feel like a puzzle game. Similar to how people consider Hotline Miami a puzzle game, I think having static everything would turn John Wick Hex into a game about trying to find the best route instead of trying to get the best spawns. The game is fine with random spawns, but I think it would be better without.
John Wick Hex is also doing some unique stuff outside of the gameplay as well. For starters, it has a neat art style and color palette that isn’t perfect, but is still fun to look at. The game actually got Lance Reddick and Ian McShane from the movies to voice their own characters, though I wouldn’t say their performances are the greatest. The gameplay consists of levels within an area, and your health and ammo count is remembered through each level in the same area. It’s a neat gimmick and it makes sense, but only having so much health through seven levels made it hard to experiment when I had to worry about the levels ahead of me. Before the start of each area, you get continental coins to spend on upgrades like increasing the chances of enemies missing while moving or using less focus points on rolling. They are small but meaningful ways to tailor the experience to your liking, and I don’t think it hurts the experience with or without them. There is a more difficult mode that gives you five seconds to make moves, which I think is a smarter way to add difficulty to the game compared to increasing enemy health or taking more damage from enemies. Finally, there is an option at the end of each level to watch your replay but with cinematic camera angles, but all it does is highlight the clunky nature of the game.
In conclusion, John Wick Hex was not the John Wick game I was looking for. I can picture this game working well, but this game fumbles the ball with clunky, frustrating gameplay. Even removed from the movie property, this game has some neat ideas that needed a lot of polishing. I can’t recommend this game for those looking for a John Wick experience, and I would recommend other strategy games before this one.