John Wick Hex

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment
Developer: Bithell Games
Release Date: Oct. 8, 2019

About Tony "OUberLord" Mitera

I've been entrenched in the world of game reviews for almost a decade, and I've been playing them for even longer. I'm primarily a PC gamer, though I own and play pretty much all modern platforms. When I'm not shooting up the place in the online arena, I can be found working in the IT field, which has just as many computers but far less shooting. Usually.


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PC Review - 'John Wick Hex'

by Tony "OUberLord" Mitera on Oct. 9, 2019 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

John Wick Hex is a fast-paced, action-oriented strategy game that makes you think and strike like John Wick, the professional hitman of Lionsgate's critically acclaimed film franchise.

The expected response to, "How would you approach making a game set in the John Wick universe?" has a pretty short list. You'd expect it to be an action game of some sort, probably third-person and borrowing heavily from games such as the Max Payne series. You would not expect it to be a strategy game that involves chance to hit and resource management, nor would you anticipate that the piece of software that it borrows the most from would be something like Adobe Premiere. John Wick Hex is just so refreshingly different, but it results in a game that possibly fits the universe more than a mere action game could have.

Anyone who has seen the "John Wick" movies knows that the titular character is a methodical, purposeful assassin who doesn't waste any time or movement while dispatching his foes. He's either surgically picking them off one by one or keeping some off balance while finishing off others first. To peek into the character's mind and see his thought process would probably show that he's constantly analyzing the situation and figuring out the best course of action from what he has available.

It couldn't have been easy to translate this part of John Wick's persona into a video game, but John Wick Hex does a pretty good job. You control John in a top-down, isometric view in a world that is made up of hex-shaped tiles. At the start of every level, you are stationary, and time is paused. Time only flows as you either move or take an action, such as shooting at an enemy or executing a takedown move. Sometimes, you may see an enemy directly in front of you at the start of a level, but other times, you must first move out and seek them out.

Once you find an enemy, you have several options available to you, and at first blush, it's a simple enough course of action. You can shoot an unarmed enemy, but you could also choose to move closer and take them down in melee. The difficulty comes when you are engaging multiple enemies at once and must figure out your best move. If a guy with a handgun is about to shoot you but another is about to hit you in melee, how do you know what to do?

A big help in this regard is the timeline represented at the top of the screen, which shows the previous two seconds' worth of actions in labeled chunks and the next two seconds' worth of actions yet to come. These timelines appear for your actions as well as those of any enemy you can currently see.

Every action takes time, and the game communicates this info to you via various tooltips. Moving from one hex to another takes a specific amount of time, as does shooting, striking someone in melee, using a takedown move, or parrying an attack. These tooltips also show information, such as the action's chance to hit, what damage it does if successful, or how much focus it takes to execute. It's up to you to figure out which actions are best for the situation that you find yourself in, and that can change rapidly from one moment to the next.

In the above example, you have one enemy in melee about to hit John and another enemy looking like he is about to raise his weapon to shoot at John. One course of action might be to parry the person in melee, which knocks them off balance for a short duration, then get a shot off at the enemy at range. Then again, neither option might buy you enough time; you might need to push the melee enemy in a direction that blocks the ranged foe's line of sight. That might give you enough time to finish one off before having to deal with the other.

In addition to time, you must carefully manage other things that are in short supply, such as ammunition, focus and health. Shooting an enemy is the fastest way to dispatch them, but you might need those bullets in a pinch later. Reloading takes time, and you only have one spare magazine before you must start picking up guns dropped by enemies. Bandaging your wounds takes time. Shaking your head to regain your focus takes time.

It can be difficult to manage everything you need to give yourself the best chance of success, and while each level's layout is predefined, the enemy positions are randomized even between retries within the same run. Levels are played through in groups, with John's status at the end of one level carrying over as-is to the next. You don't want to enter a new level without bullets, so you must think ahead.

Before a string of levels, you get a set of coins to spend. These can be used to either purchase upgrades that apply to all levels in the string, or it can be spent to stash extra weapons or bandages in a level. The coins aren't saved, so you should feel free to spend them all, but how you spend them is up to what you think might be most beneficial to you.

There is a point to John's battle, as there always is. This time around, the events are set before the first movie. John is on the war path after a man named Hex (voiced by Troy Baker) has kidnapped Winston and Charon (voiced by the actors that played them in the movies, Ian McShane and Lance Reddick, respectively). Hex has ties and a bone to pick with The High Table, and while Hex monologues like a proper villain, Winston and Charon steal the spotlight in most cut scenes. After all, why should they care if they've been kidnapped? Hex has pissed off John Wick, and that rarely works out well for anybody.

The art style of the game is nearly as refreshingly different as the gameplay. Its overall look is akin to cel-shading, and while most of the game uses muted colors, the blood and other accentual things are various shades of neon pink. The animations are hit-and-miss at times, mainly due to a lack of variety and a downright wonky parry animation, but it rarely matters when your viewpoint is so far overhead during normal gameplay.

After completing a level, you can watch a replay, which plays the events you just took out in real time. It can be cool to see how you walked into a room and took down one enemy before picking a gun off the floor and dealing with another foe in rapid succession. Sometimes the camera angles get screwed up and the animations are wooden, but that's not the point. After a hard-fought level, it's nice to be able to watch what amounted to a few seconds of real-time action presented as your own personal movie.

As a fan of the movies and a fan of creative approaches to games, I've had my eye on John Wick Hex since the day it was announced. Its bizarre approach works satisfyingly well in the context of how John Wick would think in the same situations: risk versus reward, careful observation and planning, plays and counter-plays. It is a simple game to understand yet rewarding to attempt to master. It also makes a compelling case of how great movie-inspired games can be if developers really think outside of the box.

Score: 8.8/10

Reviewed on: Intel i7 4790k, 32 GB RAM, NVidia GTX 2070 Super

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