One of the best sequences in John Wick: Chapter 2 sees our hero getting fitted for a new suit for a “party” he’ll be attending. As he’s being measured, the tailor asks John what kind of lining he’d like. “Tactical,” he replies. He also sees a man about a map of the area he’ll be infiltrating and some keys to open a few doors. He outfits John with a series of weapons: pistols, the “robust, precise” AR-15, a “big, bold” combat shotgun for the end of the night, and some fine cutlery (read: knives) for dessert. At the end, the sommelier offers perhaps the most memorable line in a sequence filled with them: “Mr. Wick,” he says, as John is turning to leave, “do enjoy your party.” The scene isn’t long; all told, it runs less than five minutes. But it gives you an idea of the level of planning that goes into a job in the John Wick universe, how deep the rabbit hole of this underground society goes, and what you can accomplish if you know the right people and grease the right palms with a few Continental coins.
I thought about this scene a lot as I played through John Wick Hex, the first licensed game in the series, because it exemplifies a lot of what John Wick Hex is. Hex probably isn’t what you’d expect from a John Wick game. Rather than being a traditional action game, this is a tactical title. You control John from above, guiding him through a series of grid-based levels. The objective of each level is simple: get to the exit, or kill a specific target, which appears as a unique boss enemy.
"The story is told through voice overs during missions and comic book style cutscenes, as Hex relates Wick’s progress to his prisoners. The writing is surprisingly good, as is the voice acting."
The setup goes like this: several years before John meets his wife and tries to get out of the murder-for-hire business, a gangster named Hex has kidnapped Winston and Chabon – John’s old friends from the Continental Hotel – as an act of revenge against the High Table, the ruling authority in the John Wick underworld. He believes this show of strength will win him power, and possibly a seat at the Table itself. The High Table, however, is having none of it, and dispatches Wick to find Hex, dismantle his criminal network, and take him down.
The story is told through voice overs during missions and comic book style cutscenes, as Hex relates Wick’s progress to his prisoners. The writing is surprisingly good, as is the voice acting. Both Ian McShane (Winston) and Lance Reddick (Chabon) return to voice their characters, while Troy Baker admirably handles Hex. Keanu Reeves isn’t present, however, leaving John silent, but since the narrative conceit is that Hex is telling the story, it works pretty well. Overall, it’s a pretty good plot, and listening to the characters banter is enjoyable.
The game’s visual and sound design deserve praise as well. The flat, stylized look of a comic book is a perfect fit for a game like this. John’s face is set in a perpetual scowl, and the enemy types are easily identifiable. The variety in locations helps out a lot, too. John’s journey takes him from dimly lit back alleys to thumping, neon nightclubs, with a few stops at seedy docks, minimalist art galleries, and even snowy mountains along the way. Austin Wintory provides a strong score that sets the tone for each area, and the different locations help everything feel unique, even though the areas largely play the same.
"Actions take a certain amount of time, which is tracked on a timeline at the top of a screen. Every time you finish an action or spot a new enemy, time stops, allowing you to consider your next move."
What will hook you is the gameplay. The game is tactical, but it isn’t turn-based. Instead, actions take a certain amount of time, which is tracked on a timeline at the top of a screen. Every time you finish an action or spot a new enemy, time stops, allowing you to consider your next move. Most moves take a fraction of a second, but planning can take significantly longer. The timeline shows how long the actions you can take compare to what each visible enemy is doing. Picking the right action is crucial. Take too long, and an enemy will be able to interrupt whatever you were trying to do, opening you up to even more damage.
Making the right decision comes down to learning your options. A parry, for instance, is very quick, and will usually beat most enemy strikes, but you have to be next to the enemy in question. Strikes do damage, but they take longer. Crouching can make an enemy miss a shot but limits your movement. Sometimes it’s best to just hide behind cover. You can also push enemies away from you, or perform a takedown which kills most enemies instantly and allows you to change position. Sometimes, though, the smartest thing to do is find a good spot and wait, allowing you to take out an unsuspecting enemy before they even know you’re there.
Your guns come into play, too. There’s a good variety, including semi-automatic pistols, revolvers, SMGs, shotguns, and assault rifles, though some are all but useless. Revolvers and shotguns take a long time to fire, leaving you open to getting hit even if you tell John to fire before the enemy does. Others, like the SMG, fire quickly and do a lot of damage, but fire several times, which often means you’ll be wasting ammo firing at an enemy that’s already dead. I found the standard semi-automatic pistols best for almost every situation, but stronger guns are undeniably useful against tougher targets. Managing your ammo is key because spare clips are scarce, so you’ll be picking up the guns of the dead as you progress. You always have the option to throw your weapon, an absurdly quick ability that stuns enemies, but unless you’re going to quickly finish them off with a nearby weapon or John’s fists, it’s best left for a last resort.
"The system encourages you to mix things up between guns and melee, which is a good thing. It’s also necessary for bosses, who can’t be damaged by physical strikes and have high focus. "
You’ll also have to manage John’s focus, which allows him to use advanced abilities like takedowns, dodges, and roll when crouched. Replenishing it is easy – you push a button and John shakes his head like he’s trying to sober up – but it takes more than two seconds. In Hex, that’s an eternity, so you’ll want to be careful about when you do it. Most enemies have focus as well. Someone with a lot of it will be harder to hit from range, at least until you go in and soften them up with your fists. The system encourages you to mix things up between guns and melee, which is a good thing. It’s also necessary for bosses, who can’t be damaged by physical strikes and have high focus. Beating them means beating them up first, so while the initial stages of the fight are challenging as you try to get in range, they’re stupidly easy once you take away all of their focus.
Combining all of these abilities makes for some seriously fun engagements, especially against large groups, and John Wick Hex walks the fine line between making sure you feel powerful – John is more powerful than any given enemy that’s not a boss, and they’re merely his equal – and vulnerable at the same time. Yeah, John’s the boogeyman, and there’s a reason everyone in this story is afraid of him, but he’s also just a guy, and a few bullets will kill him just as fast as anyone else. When you’re playing well, you feel unstoppable, killing one enemy with strikes before parrying another, using a takedown to put yourself out of the line of fire of a third, throwing your gun at a fourth to interrupt his shot, and then picking up a nearby pistol to put him down while he’s stunned. It’s a ballet of bullets and death, and it feels best when you’re executing it flawlessly, pirouetting from one enemy to the next in an unstoppable, relentless advance.
But it’s not all tactics. There’s strategy, too. At the beginning of each chapter – a sequence of levels built around an area like the docks, back alleys, or art gallery – you can spend Continental coins to gain passive bonuses and stash bandages or weapons in a specific level. These coins don’t carry over between chapters, so you should spend them all. You’ll always want to snag the most powerful bonuses – more health, greater chance to evade while moving, reduced Focus cost, better accuracy, etc – but it’s worth stashing some bandages and weapons, too. Things become more expensive to stash in later levels, and you carry what you have between them, so there’s no reason not to stock up early.
"Sometimes it means you’ll enter an area with a poor gun (like a revolver), little health, and no bandages. In these scenarios, you’ll have to play flawlessly to advance, which can be a little frustrating."
This can be a double-edged sword, however. Sometimes it means you’ll enter an area with a poor gun (like a revolver), little health, and no bandages. In these scenarios, you’ll have to play flawlessly to advance, which can be a little frustrating. Dying sends you back to the beginning of the level with whatever you had at the time. Enemies are spawned a little differently each time, so you can’t just autopilot your way back to problem areas. This helps keep the game engaging when you die, so it’s not all bad, but it can be irritating when a single mistake can reset all of your progress, which is often the case in later levels. That said, you can get around this by learning to restart whenever you take unnecessary damage, and Hex almost never feels unfair. Whenever I died, I knew why, and had a better idea of what to do next time.
When you finish a level, you can watch a replay of what you did in real-time. It’s a neat system, but it also puts a spotlight on Hex’s greatest flaw: the animations. They’re stiff and repetitive (there are like two versions of the strike animation, so you’ll see them a lot by the time the credits roll), and the sound effects don’t always line up perfectly with the animations they support.
The latter issue also crops up with the game’s subtitles, which appear after a character has finished speaking, causing an odd sense of deja-vu. These issues are less noticeable as you’re playing because of the game’s pause and play nature, but they become very, very obvious as John moves woodenly from square to square during replays. Replays are optional, and it would be silly to expect a video game to match the smooth, impressive choreography of a John Wick film, but it feels like they didn’t even try here. These technical shortcomings extended to stability issues, too, and the game crashed on me twice during my playthrough.
"John Wick Hex is a solid adaptation of the source material, even if the animation systems can’t always cash the checks the gameplay writes and it sometimes feels a bit unpolished."
John Wick Hex isn’t a long game. Individual levels take mere minutes if you play them well, and I’d estimate most players will finish it in 8-10 hours. There is some replay value here in completing challenges and earning higher ratings or “names” by beating a par time, not using bandages, varying your weapon use, etc, and there’s an “expedited” mode that only gives you five seconds to take an action. Fail to do so, and the enemy gets to move while you wait. I don’t think it will cause most players any difficulty – you take turns pretty fast as it is – but it’s there if you want it.
All told, John Wick Hex is a solid adaptation of the source material, even if the animation systems can’t always cash the checks the gameplay writes and it sometimes feels a bit unpolished. It’s not a great game, but it is a good one, and one well worth checking out if you’re into the films or tactical games. Just remember: plan well, and don’t be afraid to spend some money before you head off on your mission. The tasting is more than worth it. Trust me.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Precise, tactical gameplay. Good story and voice acting. Cool comic book art style and atmospheric soundtrack. Lots of levels to play. A big arsenal. Good hand to hand combat.
Wonky animations. The occasional technical error. Certain sections can be frustrating.