John Wick rose to fame when the first film starring Keanu Reeves as the Baba Yaga released in 2014. Ever since, the franchise has grown to become known for its fast-paced brutal action and iconic fight sequences. So, when an officially licensed game was announced, the question as to how it would preserve this style was raised, and that's where Bithell Games' John Wick Hex comes in.
Featuring an original story based around Wick having to save the Continental's manager and receptionist Winston and Charon, who have been kidnapped by a criminal overlord called Hex, the title plays like a violent game of chess in an action strategy style, taking Wick across the globe looking for any piece of information that could lead him in Hex's direction. Since this is an official John Wick product, it is tied to the franchise with hints of lore, as well as using the voice talents of Ian McShane and Lance Reddick, who reprise their signature roles as Winston and Charon respectively.
The title is coined as an action-strategy game, however, it does lean into the latter more. Playing similarly to an RTS, John Wick Hex is all about decision making, where every action is absolutely vital to the success of a level. Before heading into the story mode, players are given an option of two difficulties. The first provides a challenging but reasonable experience aimed at the majority, whereas the second has been created to accommodate the really exceptional players, in a brutal mode where only a few seconds are provided for each decision.
The part defining John Wick Hex's unique genre-fusion is its timeline mechanic, removing the concept of turns. Instead what you get is a system where every action has a set 'casting time' if you will, and during this time enemies can move or engage against you. This means every single decision you make is a more spontaneous action that can't necessarily be planned far in advance in most cases, because in reality each level is played over a course of seconds and not hundreds of turns. You can probably see why the harder difficulty option is so brutal at this point.
As for how each action is used, Mr. Wick can engage enemies through either hand-to-hand combat or ranged, ballistic attacks. Firing, melee-ing, and even moving all have a casting time that is also reflected by the enemies, meaning that when you're locked in combat, making the right decision is of the utmost importance.
For example, in a combat sequence with two ranged and one melee enemy, you might decide to shoot an armed target as a priority, whilst the melee opponent is moving toward you, before taking down the melee enemy, moving around cover and dispatching another ranged target. You could do this because the enemies also act upon the same timeline system as John, meaning you can infer their actions and counter it in turn.
This might seem simple at the moment, but there's a great deal affecting each decision you can make. One point is the types of weapons on offer throughout the story, each of which has different casting times. If you use a handgun, you will be able to fire much faster than a shotgun, but will do considerably less damage, and because of this, you will have to decide whether you can or should fire a weapon without John getting shot himself. Another factor is the focus system that acts similarly to a stamina bar and determines the skilled actions John can perform before having to refocus. This mechanic means you can't get into a large hand-to-hand fight with multiple enemies and expect to take each down in one swift sequence, as you will run out of focus and likely be defeated. As well as these, there are a host of other factors affecting your decisions, such as available health and ammo, the latter of which is finite and will require you to regularly pick up new weapons.
Among having to think on the spot in a level, John Wick Hex also brings a relatively short planning stage at the beginning of each respective chapter. This system gives you a limited number of coins that act as skill points, and gives you the option to acquire upgrades or place bandages/weapons throughout the levels in the chapter. The tough part with this is you don't know the level layouts or what you will encounter, and once you accept your choices you cannot change them unless you begin the chapter as a whole, making the planning stage incredibly important to your success.
As for some of the available upgrades, these are not permanent and only work throughout the chapter, unless you repurchase them over and over again. They offer augmentations and are recognised as suit tailoring, bringing abilities such as reducing the focus cost of rolling or increasing the enemy shooting penalty when John is moving, making you harder to be hit on the go. The catch with these upgrades is they are exceptionally expensive, meaning usually you won't be able to purchase more than one in each chapter.
Another factor you have to take into account when making decisions in John Wick Hex is the variety of enemy types. Throughout the storyline you will encounter different kinds of enemies, each with their own unique attribute such as using specific weapons, being skilled in hand-to-hand combat, or having large health pools requiring more effort to whittle down. As a point of comparison, towards the beginning of the game there are a ton of brawlers, who have low health pools and can only melee, be it very poorly against John's skills. In the final points of the story, you will come across heaps of heavyweights, which are enemies who have massive health pools, approximately three times the size of brawlers, meaning you can't just take them out in a quick move.
Even more so, most chapters have bosses at some point, that are even stronger and usually cannot be hurt by melee attacks, ultimately requiring John to get up close, stun-lock them with hand-to-hand combat, before unloading countless bullets into them. Over our playthrough, we came across bosses in all but one of the chapters, and on top of this, each one of them was backed up by several regular enemies using weapons, which could take a hefty portion of John's health in one sudden move.
We couldn't talk about a strategy game without mentioning the RNG aspects behind it. John Wick Hex also features countless amounts of percentage-based actions; in fact almost everything you do is based on this. The problem behind this is when you have situations where you are standing point-blank in front of someone and decide to shoot them, thinking a 90% chance can't possibly let you down, only to find out it does, causing you to die and fail the level, which is frustrating beyond belief. Anyone who is a fan of XCOM will instantly recognise this scenario and offer their sympathy as pioneering sufferers of this statistical torment.
As a much more positive counterpoint, the replay function in John Wick Hex is absolutely brilliant. The system offers a look at the actions you took during each level by replaying it in real-time and showcasing it over a matter of tens of seconds, as opposed to the minutes it would've taken to play through (think Superhot's replays). This brings the action of the title to life by capturing the signature fast-paced action the John Wick franchise is known for over a self-created mini-movie, which also shows where you may have wasted some time, providing the opportunity to analyse and perfect your 'gun-fu' mechanics.
Now we come to our final point, the awesome comic-book styled art direction. When looking at an action-packed officially licensed John Wick title, we didn't think the art style would have been one of the most stunning aspects, but it really is. Using the style over both the cinematics and the actual gameplay, the art brings John Wick Hex to life by capturing the gritty world but by also making it digestible and not outrageously gory as the films are.
Overall, John Wick Hex is a brilliant adaptation of a franchise loved by action fans worldwide. The combination of action and strategy make for gameplay both fast-paced and continuously enjoyable, all over an original campaign that really brings Wick to life. At times the RNG mechanics can be frustrating, however, the fun and outright badass feeling the title brings really makes it a true joy to play.
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