We are in the middle of the Keanuissance. Yeah, that’s right, move over McConaughey; we’ve got Neo now! While we’ve seen the ultimate blank slate audience surrogate actor take over action cinema by storm with the John Wick films, we also know he’s dipping his toe into the digital realm with spring’s Cyberpunk 2077 (which looks rad, by the way). But what about that aforementioned series, John Wick, where Reeves plays the titular assassin? Where is the video game for that blistering actionfest?
Whelp, John Wick Hex is here. In the game, which is a prequel back to when John was working regularly, we play as the man himself, now turned into a strong-and-silent type. Yep, that’s right, I’m gonna rip that band-aid off now: Keanu is not in the game. Not a peep from The Boogeyman. We do get Ian McShane and Lance Reddick reprising their roles from the film though, so that’s nice. Additionally, we have famous voice actor Troy Baker as Hex, the antagonist who has taken our two celebrities hostage. Baker does an admirable job as a despicable, whining, entitled gangster hellbent on getting what he wants.
There isn’t much of a story here — it’s mostly static cutscenes with voiceovers, but then again, you don’t go to a John Wick feature for the storytelling. You go for some action, yeah? Well, the action in John Wick Hex is more akin to Superhot than anything else. Time only moves when John does. When he’s lining up a shot on a guy? Time moves. When he’s punching said guy after shooting him? Time moves. When he ducks behind some cover as a goon takes a shot at him? Time moves. But, when you’re deciding to do all of those things? Everything is still in the night. It’s a welcomed change of pace for a film-based game. It’s always a treat see not just another first/third-person shooter for once.
Time is the most important resource here (aside from bullets and bandages); the main mechanic comes in the form of a timeline that takes up the top part of the screen. There’s no turn-based X-COM action, as everybody’s actions happen concurrently. It can get chaotic to keep track of, but luckily, every enemy gets their own section on the timeline, and when hovered over, the game points John in the direction of the goon in question.
Every action takes its own amount of time; throwing a gun at an enemy is quicker than aiming and shooting at him, and different guns take varying amounts of time to aim and shoot. Some actions cost focus points to perform as well, like a flippy takedown as opposed to a normal punch, or a somersault roll into cover from a crouching position. Some of those actions also take “focus,” a renewable resource of internal strength and energy, to complete, such as those aforementioned somersaults and flip-floppy takedowns.
There’s a lot to manage in the fast-paced life of an international assassin. Who knew!
That being said, that’s about all there is to John Wick Hex. There are seven same-y areas, each containing six or seven levels. You beat your way through a handful of different kinds of enemies, ranging from basic brawlers and security to beefier martial artists and mercenaries. There are eight guns, four hand-to-hand moves, and as I mentioned, you can throw your empty guns. Unfortunately, a few mechanics are underutilized. You can never find more ammo for any gun, and you can only reload your starting custom handgun once per larger area, which makes me wonder why reloading is an option in the first place. John just scavenges guns from recently-dispatched enemies otherwise.
You can upgrade your suit in between levels, but the upgrades don’t stick for some reason; you have to re-buy previously acquired traits to use them again. It’s labeled as “Bespoke Tailoring,” too, so does John change suits between every level? There’s a random level right in the middle, as well, where you don’t get to purchase upgrades. You can choose to plant a gun or an extra bandage on certain levels too (for a price), but the upgrades are much more important, because, if you’re quick enough, you shouldn’t need any extra health.
Upgrade points are predetermined and are completely removed from your level-to-level performance. While there are criteria for high scores, they don’t actually seem to unlock anything or provide any sort of reward. There really isn’t any incentivization or progression in this game, and the lack of leaderboards doesn’t do it any favors. Normally I’d complain about no New Game Plus, but there really isn’t anything to “Plus” in the first place.
The standard gameplay loop, too, starts off fun and fresh, but becomes monotonous rather quickly. Don’t get me wrong; in the first few sections of the game, chaining together a few hand-to-hand takedowns and pulling off a well-placed shot immediately after felt kinda cool. I definitely fist pumped and muttered “Yeah!” to myself a couple of times. There’s just not that much to it after a while, though, and it’s odd that you can only use guns or your fists. What happened to the John Wick that killed three people with a pencil? The lack of any sort of environmental interaction is baffling.
In the latter half of the game, any lingering cool factor or pretense of genuine “strategy” is pretty much evaporated. Fights basically turned into a weird game of Duck, Duck, Goose. I found the best way to avoid the later game mercs — who spawn in with machine pistols or SMGs — is to break line of sight by running around a pillar, which will invariably draw the simplistic, beeline AI over close to me, where I beat the snot out of and stun-lock them. Rinse, repeat. You kind of have to cheese some of the later levels, too, where nigh-infinitely spawning goons make taking the time to shoot just unrealistic. Not to mention, some of the guns, like the revolver, in particular, take so long to aim and shoot that they’re almost genuinely useless.
When engaging in physical combat, no other enemy can punch or interrupt you. If you get shot, yes, of course, it’s interrupted, but I often found myself surrounded by three or five heavyweights or martial artists with nary a gunman in sight and just repeatedly clicking the “punch” action over and over again. Repeated actions do less damage, and heavyweights have extra health to begin with, so you just have to punch, punch, punch — the repetition sinks in quickly. The game’s definition of “difficulty” is seemingly to just throw more and more enemies at you without making you think differently. It’s quite the letdown.
There are only two, maybe three, animations per attack, and there are no smooth transitions, so if an enemy is on the ground after a takedown and you try to punch them, he’ll just teleport to a standing position to take the punch. It’s sloppy, janky and cheap-looking. This doesn’t look or feel like the John Wick we’ve known on the screen for three films now. There’s a definite and apparent lack of polish throughout the entire experience.
John Wick Hex‘s best attempt to live up to the cinematic flair the series is known for comes from the replay option. After you clear a level, you can elect to sit back and watch John run through it, complete with proper cinematic framing and angles. This should be a film nerd’s dream. However, due to repetitive animations, lack of flowing movement, and poor, nonadjustable camera framing that’s often blocked by level geometry, I wound up not even bothering with this feature after the first few levels.
The art style, too, leaves much to be desired. The cel-shading doesn’t pop, the color palette isn’t as bright as one would expect, and some of the character models look strange, even in this more-cartoony world. John’s got weird chicken legs that don’t do the dude’s massive quads justice.
To be honest, I didn’t find the game difficult, just kind of obnoxious at times. There isn’t much strategy required — compared to something X-COM, which is obviously a source of inspiration — nor is it fluid and fast-paced like SUPERHOT. When I saw people walking around with their mysterious John Wick Hex swag at E3 this year, my interest was piqued. Hearing it was a strategy game got me extremely excited. But actually playing it let me down pretty hard, especially when taking into account the short run time and lack of replayability.
All in all, John Wick Hex doesn’t do enough to live up to its big-screen counterpart. That isn’t a knock against indie games — just look at my 400+ hours in RimWorld — but this just really didn’t do it for me. While there is an additional difficulty mode (where you only have five seconds to choose your next action), I don’t much care to go back and try it out. I feel like I got everything I could out of the game. Maybe pick this up on sale down the line. Until then, just rewatch the John Wick trilogy and imagine being that cool instead of failing to do so in John Wick Hex.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by Good Shepherd Entertainment.
John Wick Hex tries to get you into the mind of an assassin. However, the execution falls flat, and it quickly devolves into a repetitive slog, with little content, polish, or much of that strategy the developers were aiming for.