Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat
Licensed tie-in games used to be a dime a dozen before the age of mobile gaming. It seemed like every time a gigantic blockbuster film was coming out, there was a publisher releasing a hastily thrown together title to coincide with the film’s release. While there were certainly exceptions that showed excellence (The Chronicles of Riddick comes to mind), most people aren’t lamenting the lack of movie games in the modern gaming landscape.
You can still find these games on the mobile market, but the ones that do make the jump to consoles and PC tend to be of a much higher quality than before. Either made with respect to the source material or by a group of developers passionate over the project, officially licensed and backed movie games are uniformly in a better place than they’ve ever been.
John Wick Hex understands that, too. Instead of quickly throwing the now-iconic character into some hodgepodge shooter, developer Mike Bithell had a real understanding of what made Keanu Reeves’ role so interesting. He’s taken those elements and created a tactical strategy game that many wouldn’t have even considered.
While not perfect, the end result is one of the best movie tie-in games I’ve played in quite some time.
John Wick Hex (PC)
Developer: Bithell Games
Publisher: Good Shepard Entertainment
Released: October 8, 2019
The plot in John Wick Hex acts as a prequel to the entire series. Sometime before John met his wife Helen, he was one of the most prominent assassins for the High Table. Always killing his targets and rarely taking scratches, the man is practically a legend among the underground assassin community. A villain, known as Hex, has grown jealous of the man and seems to blame him for his father being banished from the High Table.
Looking to seek vengeance on John, Hex has captured Winston and Charon and is holding them hostage in his club. Since they have some time to kill before the Baba Yaga arrives, Hex recounts the stories he’s been getting from his men about the rampage John is waging to save his friends from Hex’s grip. It’s not the deepest of plots and doesn’t shine too much on John’s personality (or anyone, for that matter), but it’s an absolutely perfect set up to create action sequences similar to those seen in the films.
Setup it does, too. Starting off with John skulking around back alleys, the game slowly works in its different mechanics in simple arenas before handing over the reins to the player. You’ll learn how the HUD works, what actions John has available to him, how to control your character, and what Hex is all about before you’re up against the first boss. It can be a little intimidating, but any information the player needs is laid out clearly before them. Once it clicks, you stop focusing so much on how detailed it is and you start thinking like an assassin.
John Wick Hex plays similarly to something like X-COM and Superhot. You’re moving in an almost turn-based fashion, but the entire world moves when you do. The reason for this is to give players the opportunity to assess the situation at their own pace, making decisions that John does in a split-second. When you click on a foe, a series of options will drop down with a short description and a percentage of effectiveness next to them. This lets you weigh the choices before you instead of blindly clicking shoot and missing, which could result in your untimely death.
Since time is frozen while deciding, various meters at the top of the screen show you how long you and your opponents’ options will take to complete. This is done to help you further weigh the odds of making a particular choice. While crouching and rolling away may shield you from further damage, it may take too long to avoid the immediate threat, for instance.
The HUD explains this beautifully. At the bottom of the screen are meters for your health, your gun’s current amount count, and a meter called “Focus.” Focus allows you to perform flashy actions, such as rolling for doing takedowns. John will need to shake himself off a bit to restore this meter, which requires time. Bandaging yourself after taking damage will also require time, which is shown in seconds at the top.
For weapons, you’ll start with a custom pistol that has an extra clip, but you’ll need to eventually replace with a gun from your foes. This leads to different firearm types, all with unique properties to them. It mirrors how John performs in the films, which further immerses you into the mindset of a killer. Like I said, it can be a little intimidating at the very start.
It would be a problem if John Wick Hex was shoddily built, but that’s not the case at all. Despite the middle portion of the game feeling a little similar in theme, each arena provides a brand new experience for players to dig into. It reminds me of the pacing Capcom did with Resident Evil 4, throwing the same enemies in different combinations and level designs to constantly test the player’s knowledge of the mechanics. John Wick Hex exploits its various systems to the fullest extent, never feeling stale or boring as you progress onward to each boss encounter.
The bosses stumble a bit in execution. The very first one is quite the challenge, forcing players to constantly be moving and dealing with secondary threats while the boss runs around. After that, they can all pretty much be exploited by walking up, parrying their attacks, doing a takedown, and then shooting them. The final boss, in particular, is an absolute joke and one that I took down in less than a minute. The AI seems to be unable to deal with John being straight in their face.
There are a few other instances during the main campaign where the regular AI does this, as well. John Wick Hex has a fog of war effect over the battlefield, so you and your enemies won’t be able to spot each other when the screen is greyed out. While this is meant to push you forward and into unseen dangers, you can also have John duck behind cover when an enemy is gearing to shoot him and have him pop up immediately after. It forces the AI to move a bit and then allows you the chance to shoot at them without fear.
Small little quirks like that don’t ruin what is a thrilling game, though. The plot may not be deep, but it’s executed in the same style that director Chad Stahelski uses in the films. The main cutscenes play out with static frames like a comic panel, but some levels have Winston and Hex monologuing while the player is taking out thugs with John. Thumping music punctuates action beats and gets you into the rhythm of tackling foes like a master assassin. I swear that Lionsgate could adapt this into a prequel and it wouldn’t feel out of place with the current trilogy.
What really cements this title’s greatness is its length. Just when I felt like the story was reaching its apex, I was told there was one final area to work through before getting to the final boss. It’s amazing how perfect the length is, clocking in at just under five hours. You get a sense that Mike Bithell knew precisely when Hex had accomplished its task, which makes starting up a second time on the harder difficulty very enticing.
There are some other extraneous details I’m leaving out (a staging area map allows you to place items at certain checkpoints to help yourself), but John Wick Hex really is something you need to experience yourself to understand. It doesn’t really invent a genre of gaming, but it works unlike anything else I’ve ever played. There are parallels to other titles, for sure, but Hex is incredibly unique.
It’s also a fascinating way to adapt an action-heavy property. Most people would have been content with a third-person shooter, but Mike Bithell had an understanding of how that wouldn’t do John Wick justice. Since players can bumble around like idiots, making a shooter would allow for situations where John isn’t in control, which is completely counter to his character. With the way Hex plays out, he’s always calm and collected. You may get him killed, but at least he looks graceful doing it.
I could almost make an analogy between John Wick Hex and its titular character. As we see in the films, John isn’t completely impervious to damage. He sometimes gets shot or stabbed, becoming more bloodied as the film moves on. He always comes out in the end, his mission completed and the next chapter looming in the distance. Hex is sort of like that. It executes its task with ruthless efficiency while faltering a little in some areas.
It’s not a perfect game, but John Wick Hex still lives up to its premise and creates a new blueprint for how to adapt a film property. Hopefully, it does well enough for a sequel because I’m dying to step back into the shoes of John Wick.
[This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.]