John Wick Hex Review: XCOMmunicado

John Wick Hex is an original idea, but it doesn't quite stick the landing.

When John Wick Hex was announced, it seemed like a bizarre way to bring the popular Keanu character into the world of video games. The John Wick movies were always about intense gunfights, snappy hand to hand combat, and secret societies where everyone from a hotel manager to a homeless person could be a highly trained assassin. So, to give this franchise to Mike Bithell, the developer of indie minimalist platformer Thomas Was Alone, and to make it an XCOM-esque turn-based strategy game was a perplexing, although not necessarily unwelcome move.

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After all, it would have been really easy for whoever is behind the John Wick IP to hand it off to EA or Activision to make a generic third-person cover shooter. But instead, they tried something different, and while it doesn't truly succeed, John Wick Hex is an interesting way to play as the Baba Yaga.

No Keanu, But They Got Al Swearingen

John Wick Hex is a prequel to the movies, as John Wick is still in the killing business, and hasn't even met the woman who will drive him to retire. A mysterious man named, Hex, has kidnapped both Winston and Charon, the notable characters from The Continental Hotel, and surprisingly voiced by both Ian McShane and Lance Reddick, respectively. As a result, Wick has been sent to track down and rescue them, and put a bullet in Hex while he's at it. In fact, that's exactly what's going to happen as the entire story is told as if everything has already occurred, and Winston and Charon seem less like hostages, and more like kids waiting for their parents to pick them up from school.

McShane and Reddick help carry the entire narrative, as does the actor who plays Hex. Sadly, Bithell Games didn't quite have the kind of Cyberpunk money required to get Keanu to reprise his role, so he's mostly silent. Aside from the comic book-style cutscenes with the drawn likenesses of the Wick-verse characters, there isn't much of a Wick-ian feel to this game. It does have a bit of that colorful neon glow from the movies, but I would have liked to have seen more of the weirdness from the films.

Kill Like Wick, Move Like Neo

When it comes to playing John Wick Hex, it is easy to see how a strategy game fits the character. You start on a map, and there are little points to send Wick to. As you move, you'll inevitably run into various baddies and henchmen. From there, you can shoot them from a distance, or get in close to beat 'em up and do a nice judo takedown, or push them out of the way so you can get into a better position. You can also just chuck your gun into their face, which is a nice way to stun them.

Just like in other strategy games like XCOM, positioning matters. You can take cover by moving behind walls or objects, and both you and your foe need a good line of sight to open fire. You can also crouch, which can get you out of an enemy's view, and also gives you access to a tactical roll at the cost of making you unable to do melee attacks. On top of all that, you need to keep track of your health, ammo, and your focus meter which is basically your stamina bar.

In practice, going through a stage and figuring out the most efficient way to annihilate every fool standing in the way was incredibly satisfying. Making this a strategy game was a clever way to get into the mindset of John Wick, as before each skirmish, he probably goes through a similar thought process. I do wish that the gameplay had changed things up a bit more, as progressing through the game does become a little repetitive, but John Wick Hex definitely offers a unique tactical experience.

Tick Tock, Mr. Wick

The game's biggest gimmick is the way time moves. Everything is set upon a specific timeline, and every action moves time ahead, similar to the way things work in Superhot. So, one step forward may take a second of in-game time, while firing a gun or healing may take more time.

I actually found this to be a very exploitable system. You could go around a corner and get spotted by an enemy, and then wait for them to come to you for an easy takedown kill. The enemy A.I. isn't all the bright, so being able to outfox them wasn't hard. This also goes for the boss battles, which are supposed to be tough, but all you need to do is lure them in by abusing the timeline, and then just beat them down endlessly with strikes and takedowns. Then it's a few shots to the head, and the bosses are dead.

On one hand, this does make logical sense, as these are the idiots who are trying to fight against John Wick. On the other hand, it started to feel like shooting fish in a barrel. It's authentic in that John Wick would slaughter all these schmucks, but it wasn't challenging.

Sometimes A High Bodycount Is A Bad Thing

That being said, it did sometimes feel like the difficulty was being artificially raised through other means. You start each level with the same amount of ammo as you had in the previous one. So, if you got into a particularly heated firefight just before you reached the exit, have fun trying to fight in the next area with one bullet against three armed goons. Plus, there's no way to go back, meaning you have to tough it out, and if you can't win, you have to restart the whole mission.

The game will also just spawn several punks all at once in the later levels, and you can find yourself overwhelmed as you have nowhere to take cover, and no gun to use because you're out of ammo. It takes time to pick up a gun, and if a bunch of guys have rifles pointed at you, it might not be so easy to grab another weapon.

The one part that's quite disappointing is the replay of each level. In Superhot, one of the coolest features was watching all the badass stuff you did play out in real-time. Unfortunately, John Wick Hex's animations aren't exactly impressive, and watching this Keanu doppelganger stiffly rotate around and awkwardly shoot people doesn't give you a sense of being an awesome action hero. To be fair, this game likely wasn't given a massive budget, so they probably didn't have the time to perfect the character movements. Still, that is one of Hex's biggest downfalls. While you get the opportunity to do cool things, it never really looks all that cool.

Close To The Continental Treatment

In terms of licensed movie games, John Wick Hex should be lauded for trying something unique and not going straight for an easy cash-grab. It's not the first idea that people would have jumped to when it comes to a game based on these hyper-violent pieces of cinema, and I truly appreciate Mr. Bithell running with a creative idea.

But in the end, while there are some thrills to be had, John Wick Hex isn't a deep enough experience to fully recommend. The core gameplay loop starts to drag as you go along, the enemy A.I. is easy to manipulate, and it never tries to tell a story that goes to the kind of oddball places that the movies do.

It is as of right now the best way to legitimately feel like a gun-toting Keanu Reeves, which might be enough reason to check it out, but isn't enough to call it the definitive John Wick experience.

3 Out Of 5 Stars

A PC copy of John Wick Hex was purchased by TheGamer for this review. John Wick Hex is available on PC.

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