John Wick Hex (PS4) | Review

With at least one more film coming, a comic adaptation already in circulation and a rumoured TV series in the works, the real question is why it’s taken so long for John Wick to brute force his way into video games. Especially considering how closely the last two films mimicked the super-slick, ultra-violence found so often in modern games.

Of course, the obvious game translation of the iconic hitman to the smaller (interactive) screen is a shooter, be it first or third-person. But one of the highlights of the series (particularly the latter two films) is the joyous spectacle of Reeves rampaging his way through breathtakingly choreographed displays of violence: something that isn’t necessarily easy to replicate when the player is part of the action.

John Wick Hex is a surprisingly modest, thoughtful affair – dare I say a game of great focus? – that takes the unusual approach of turning the action franchise into a tactics game, albeit one that streamlines the process. Any combat-adjacent management aspects familiar to the genre have been removed and the action concentrates on a single asset rather than a team as you would normally expect.

YOU STABBED THE DEVIL IN THE BACK

Like the source material, John Wick Hex is a simple, direct premise. Set before John left the life for Helen, the mysterious underworld figure Hex has kidnapped series regulars (and Wick allies) Winston and Charon from the Continental New York in an attempt to use them as leverage over criminal cabal, the High Table. Naturally, John turns his legendary focus to the task of rescuing them at any cost.

Exposition is played out using static comic book frames coupled with voice work from Ian McShane, Lance Reddick and Troy Baker, all laying on the cheesy gangster melodrama, and bigging up Wick’s boogeyman status. While clearly on the lower end of the budget, they tell the slight story effectively and add the required Wick pseudo-philosophy set dressing to what is really just an excuse to shoot a lot of people. The only disappointment being that Keanu doesn’t lend his voice to his alter ego, leaving Wick even more laconic than usual.

As Wick, the player is placed in a stage mapped out in hexagonal tiles and tasked with getting to an exit point, regardless of the opposition. Each stage functions as part of a larger locale – like Chinatown or a bank – and there are seven of these locales in total that the player works through sequentially. From the title screen, the developers wear Parabellum’s art style proudly: each setting sporting neo-noir sensibilities infused with sleazy hot-pink neon and menacing pools of shadows, all laced together with trademark growling guitar and synth music.

Lining up more with the recent XCOM: Chimera Squad release than traditional turn-based tactics games, player and AI enemy actions occur simultaneously rather than by turn, pausing as John completes an action, is interrupted or alerted to an enemy presence. A scrolling timeline at the top of the screen denotes how long player actions – firing, reloading, melee, takedowns, stance, traversal – will take and, during enemy encounters, how favourably (or not) they compare to his attackers. Shooting Wick’s signature custom sidearm, for example, takes a predetermined amount of time to aim before firing and can be interrupted by an impeccably attired goon getting a shot in first or engaging Wick in melee combat.

I ONCE SAW HIM KILL THREE GUYS IN A BAR WITH A PENCIL

Gameplay primarily boils down to playing the timeline: how long does the player have before an enemy action triggers, what can they do to counteract or evade before that action occurs? Every firefight literally comes down to split-second decisions where positioning, efficiency and situational awareness can mean game over or getting one step closer to your goal.

This may all sound painfully dry when considering the high-octane fuelled set pieces the franchise has become famous for but it’s actually a bold choice that allows you to think like Wick – minus the superhuman reaction time. If you take the nightclub gunfight from the first film as an example, it seems impossible to mimic Reeves steaming into a crowded area and murdering countless henchmen with precision double-taps into a tactics game, but, if you break that sequence down blow by blow, that’s exactly what Wick does: execute ruthless tactical efficiency on a target by target basis.

The resulting gameplay loop can be immensely gratifying as players are given the opportunity to treat encounters like a combat puzzle, sizing up enemies by threat presented and planning their moves in advance chess-style rather than simply reacting as with most shooters. The AI will often favour larger groups of enemies and these instances can be both thrilling and tense as finite ammunition and health force you to balance efficiency with playing the odds, smoothly transitioning from ranged combat to melee and using line-of-sight to your advantage.

At the end of each stage, a cinematic replay of the player’s actions during their run in real time screens like a little John Wick murder home movie. This is a really neat bonus that makes the player feel like a badass as they see their 10-15 minute playthrough distilled down to mere seconds and displayed like an action set piece but it also shows up some of the games shortcomings, like sound bugs, ragdoll glitches and poor camera placement. 

Unlike most games where character abilities are unlocked through progression, Wick is fully formed at the start of play with different talents to employ during his rampage. In addition to the obvious moving and shooting options, the player can change stance to a crouch that allows them to break line of sight, sneak and roll as a faster form of movement. Closing on an enemy allows players to dispense some jiu jitsu tough love in the form of strikes, parries or takedowns that will remove an enemy from play in one move. Should a lack of ammunition be a hinderance, even empty pistols are weapons in the hands of Death’s very emissary and can be hurled at enemies to interrupt and/or stun them.

While the fully fleged player-character design decision allows the player to act like a super-assassin out of the gate and stay true to the character, it becomes constrictive and repetitive later in the game and feels at odds with films that by their very nature have to be inventive every outing to stay relevant. Later chapters give players in-game currency to buy stashes of guns and bandages to place in stages throughout a locale, as well as passive ‘tailoring’ perks, such as reduced enemy hit percentages. It’s a nice touch that adds some hitman lip-service but the ability to buy new abilities or gear to deploy as the game progresses would add more player choice and shake up the gameplay.

SI VIS PACEM PARA BELLUM

Most actions in the game come at the cost of time, but some, like takedowns, are fuelled by a separate meter: focus. All characters in Hex have focus, although not to the same extent as John (with the exception of bosses) and while it acts like a super-meter for the player to execute more efficient or evasive actions, it’s more of a hit percentage modifier for enemies. As henchmen take damage, their focus is depleted, making them more vulnerable, but bosses – with their larger supply of focus – are virtually impossible to attack at range, forcing Wick into close-quarters battle where they’re immediately (and easily) hamstrung by a loop of interrupting strikes followed by shots.  

There are limitations to Wick’s loadout as well. Players can equip only one weapon at a time and this must be discarded (or thrown) once spent as it cannot be reloaded with any found ammo. Again, this creates interesting risk-versus-reward gameplay as picking up a new weapon burns up time on the combat clock, but it seems both unrealistic and contrary decision when not only has John used loadouts that make most soldiers look ill-equipped but one of the standout sequences of the series sees him murdering his way to Santino using just a handgun reloaded from scavenged ammo.

Like his chosen weapon and ammo, John’s health is only restored at the beginning of a new area in a rogue-lite flourish. Health can be replenished with bandages that are carried sparingly but if they’re expended midway through a level, there’s no way to heal other than stumbling across precious few of them scattered through the stages. Unfortunately, while semi-persistent health is an interesting twist and ratchets up the tension, the game has a habit of springing cheap ambushes on the player and encounters are frequently messy, sprawling engagements that can result in aggro-ing previously unseen enemies to detrimental effect. This can lead to instances of replaying a late stage repeatedly to get a perfect run or, frustratingly, restarting the whole location again because of poor luck.

In most cases, John Wick Hex feels like it defies expectations. Despite a modest budget, it looks and sounds the part while being respectful to the source material. The game expands the world just enough to be satisfying without justifying its existence or damaging the existing mythos. The action sits comfortably in a tactics setting that delivers an enjoyable experience when firing on all cylinders. Although distinctly paired down, there’s still enough spinning plates to offer some variety and it’s rewarding when you correctly intuit the game to your advantage.

Ultimately though, Hex feels like a proof-of-concept: the manifestation of a ‘what if?’ conversation that should herald a full-scale production. What’s here is solid but it merits expansion. Deeper planning options prior to entering an area, more loadout flexibility, improvised weapons, environmental kill options, unlockable skills, all of these would make an entertaining game more compelling and, like the first John Wick film, more than the sum of its parts. In short, it’s a fun idea that could become great if fleshed out in a sequel.

Rating:

3 Stars

 

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