With John Wick: Chapter 4 just released in theatres, it is as good a time as any to revisit a much-hyped yet quickly forgotten video game, John Wick Hex. Released a few months after John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum took the world by storm, this was not the first time that the laconic hitman played by Keanu Reeves was featured in a video game. He joined the ever-growing PAYDAY 2 gang as a playable character with an extra set of missions right after the first film was released, there was a flawed attempt at a virtual reality experience in John Wick Chronicles, and he appears on and off on the soul-sucking franchise-laden machine that is Fortnite.
One of the key characteristics of John Wick as a character is his impeccable mastery of martial arts and gun-fu, something that is inherently cinematic and also closely tied to video games. After all, all of the action scenes boil down to “John enters a place, slaughters waves of faceless enemies, then reaches a boss and takes them down”. How can someone develop this style into an effective, full-length gaming experience?
Mike Bithell, the creator of the stunningly simple indie games Thomas Was Alone and Volume, and his company Bithell, took the challenge. After a year of development, John Wick Hex was released to middling reviews, which are understandable up to a point. The main idea behind this game is to turn the precise, choreography-driven action of the John Wick films into a turn-based strategy game, “John Wick chess” as Bithell himself described it.
Players take control of Wick from a top-down perspective. Moving through a level costs time, during which AI-controlled enemies can spawn and roam the map. Each action that the player can do takes a specific amount of time, clearly displayed on a timeline at the top of the screen, with the enemy moves shown right below it. The strategy itself comes from the choices at the player’s disposal. Should they shoot on sight, wasting precious bullets, or should they circle behind the enemies and insta-kill them with a successful knockdown? Is it best to crouch and roll away from enemy fire, or accept the loss of two hit points if it guarantees a double kill?
This simple gameplay loop is surprisingly effective, something that Bithell has mastered over the years. Going from room to room, taking down each enemy as they run into full view, or even successfully dodging the close-quarters attacks of melee-focused adversaries is exhilarating. Nothing beats the satisfying feeling of cleaning an entire room using only one gun without getting hit. It is a shame that John Wick Hex does not always feel that empowering.
Nothing breaks immersion more than wonky animations, and John Wick Hex is downright janky most of the time. Either because of its limited time in development or the small team working behind it, it is hard to justify just how stilted every gameplay action looks. Right from John’s literal first steps in the game, it is clear something is off since every level is created as a sequence of hexagonal (get it?) tiles, John cannot walk in a straight line but has to zig-zag left and right, leading to one of the ugliest movement animations in recent memory. Such artificiality is present in all of the takedown animations, which never flow fluidly from one keyframe to the other.
It all leads to arguably the worst aspect of the entire game, replay mode. 2016’s SUPERHOT nailed the beauty of showing the player’s carefully planned actions unfold in real-time at the end of a successful level. The same cannot be said of John Wick Hex. It is unlikely anyone will use the Replay function more than twice in an entire playthrough since the uninspired music by Austin Wintory, terrible camera angles, and lifeless action are capable of killing the momentum gained from finishing a mission with high accuracy and at full health. It does not help that if a player wants to reach the endgame by any means necessary, it is incredibly easy to cheat the system by simply waiting for enemies outside every door and simply double-tapping them.
Still, while this review may seem too harsh, it comes from a place of love. John Wick Hex is a worthwhile buy on sale and a must-try for fans of the franchise, as there is more than enough fun to be had roaming the various locations in New York and Switzerland, shooting baddies and trying to achieve the highest rank possible of Baba Yaga. The story itself is best left forgotten, only notable for having Ian McShane and the late Lance Reddick reprise their roles from the films, with the addition of VA legend Troy Baker playing the villainous Hex who has kidnapped the two fan-favourite characters and is being hunted down by Wick. It is unlikely that the proper John Wick experience will ever fully be captured by a videogame, a reminder that there is a reason why certain things work so well in one medium and not in another.