As a fan of the movies, a couple different things come to mind when I envision playing a game based on the John Wick franchise. I would be a near unstoppable killer, touring the underground world of assassins while finding creative ways to eliminate everyone who stood in my way. What I didn’t quite imagine was a strategic top-down shooter that’s almost masochistically difficult, reminding me that I probably wouldn’t cut it in the world of assassination. That’s what John Wick Hex turned out to be – an ongoing exercise in having my butt handed to me by hordes of killer minions and occasional boss characters.
Yet, somehow the game manages to pull off an experience that keeps pulling me back in.
Killing time with John Wick
John Wick Hex technically isn’t a very long game. It’s made up of seven stages, each divided into multiple levels, with a boss character waiting at the end of a linear path. But the difficulty ramps up quickly with health and ammo levels carrying over from one connected level to the next. Players guide the title character through a series of maze-like levels, shooting, dodging, and punching through approaching enemies. The trick is — every move costs time.
A shot may take a second or two to line up, depending on the weapon type. Likewise, dodging, fighting, and moving around eat up precious microseconds that could mean the difference between taking a bullet or making it to the exit alive. Players have to make the right moves at the right time while also keeping in mind ammunition, health, and focus, which is needed to pull off special moves such as dodge rolls and melee takedowns.
In a way, John Wick Hex plays similarly to tactical strategy games such as XCOM but with its own unique flair. The game pauses when enemies are first spotted or when they spot you, giving you the opportunity to make your next move. Usually, it’s to shoot enemies in the face or to duck into a space to break line of sight.
One aspect that isn’t prominently featured is stealth. Although you might get away with one or two takedowns at the start of a level, subtlety isn’t really John Wick’s thing. All enemies are eventually alerted to your presence, and they home in on you like Wick-seeking missiles. Although you can walk or duck behind obstacles to break line of sight, you can never truly shake an enemy from your tail.
To make matters worse, new enemies continue to enter levels while you traverse them, often appearing from sections you’ve already walked through. With Wick’s limited sight range, it can feel like enemies are streaming in from nowhere to ambush you from behind. This amounts to a kind of craziness that’s both thrilling and infuriating at the same time, mainly because Wick can’t do a lot of the things you’d think a top assassin would do.
Firstly, John Wick doesn’t believe much in reloading. You might carry an extra clip for your custom handgun at the start of a stage, but that’s ditched once you run out of bullets. From then on, your only source of ammunition is picking up guns from fallen enemies while ditching old ones. There’s no stuffing your pockets with magazines or carrying more than one weapon, which might seem very un-Wick like.
Likewise, bandages (health packs) are practically nonexistent. Aside from one or two that are available during the tutorial stage, the majority of the game challenges players to use only the two bandages Wick carries with him at the start of the stage. So, you’re pretty much forced to restart an entire stage if you use them both and still end up with low health on the boss level.
Still, these strange limitations somehow work in John Wick Hex. Perhaps it’s because they fit so well into the highly stylized gameplay and art, or maybe it’s the thrill of challenge. A big part of me enjoyed taking on the game’s challenges.
The art of assassination
If it’s not clear by now, the John Wick in the game isn’t necessarily the same one seen in the movies. There’s no sense of improvisation, turning objects found in the environment into weapons. There’s also no prolonged prep sequence where Wick outfits himself with a bespoke bulletproof suit and loads up with a ton of guns before heading out.
Instead, players are presented with a skills list where they spend coins to select specific skills to get them through a stage. They include better aim over long distances, using fewer points to dodge, and more. However, you only get this screen at the start of the stage and I was usually only provided with enough coins to buy one or two skills, and the currency doesn’t carry over to other stages.
In fact, if it weren’t for the cut sequences and voiceover narration from Ian McShane and Lance Reddick, who reprise their roles as Winston and Charon, it would be hard to tell that this game is based in the John Wick universe at all. The story takes place sometime before the start of the movies, when Winston and Charon are kidnapped and held (but not gagged) by a rival crime organization that’s aiming to upend the High Table. The narrative is fairly compelling, but it’s too obvious that it’s the only connection John Wick Hex has to the films.
Meanwhile, the gameplay involves a ton of backtracking and walking around in circles to break line of sight, pick up weapons, and hopefully keep from being surrounded. The last thing you ever want to do is get surrounded. For me, that meant certain death.
Despite the time-based gameplay, Wick isn’t especially good at chaining moves together, which is why getting surrounded is so deadly. You can’t use enemies as human shields and they don’t block line of sight, so being pinned by one or more melee brawlers leaves you wide open to being shot in the head by ranged enemies. Running low on focus can be the kiss of death, since it means you can’t pull off special moves to get out of sticky situations.
But the main problem I had with the game is when certain moves failed. For instance, trying to melee a thug sometimes resulted in Wick’s face being punched in instead, and I couldn’t figure out why. The game can also accidentally become comical, as several mindless enemies turn the same corner, get caught in the chokepoint, and add to an ever-growing pile of bodies.
Additionally, some of the boss characters are insanely overpowered. For instance, there’s one that carries a high-powered assault rifle, which can be aimed almost as fast as Wick can level his pistol to tear through his health. As if that weren’t bad enough, the boss always knows where you are, appears to be melee resistant, and there’s always a 40 percent chance to hit her even when Wick is standing three feet away.
I’m usually up for a challenge, but this was too much for my taste. It took numerous retries and what seemed like endless walking around in circles to fight this boss.
Becoming the Baba Yaga
Although I felt the challenge became a little too high too fast for my liking on “normal” difficulty, I still feel that John Wick Hex is a highly compelling game. There were plenty of times when I rage quit out of sheer frustration, (Why does it take so long to aim a stupid revolver?) but the feeling never persisted.
I’m not usually a fan of extremely tough games like Dark Souls, but John Wick Hex is a different matter. It’s likely the strategic time-based elements, which lead me to believe that I can outthink my way out of any deadly situation. This fundamental difference distinguishes Hex from more action-oriented games and kept me coming back to try again.
At its best, the formula works magically. Timing each shot and step to avoid damage is practically an art – one that’s worthy of retrying to perfect.
So, even though John Wick Hex isn’t the Wick-themed game I was hoping for, it is certainly one that’s well worth playing.