It’s no secret that video game adaptations of popular movie franchises are often pretty bad. Usually collecting dust in the bargain bins of department stores and at the bottom of the list in the discount games section of digital storefronts, these titles usually struggle because of studio interference and license mismanagement. Let’s put it this way, the lists of great movies based on video games are usually a lot longer than the ones about quality games based on movies.
Of course there are some exceptions to rule. Goldeneye is arguably one of the best shooters of all time. 2015’s Mad Max was a pretty solid open-world adventure title. Star Wars spawned arguably one of the most successful video game empires in history (RIP Lucasarts). But there, the list runs dry.
So when John Wick Hex was quietly released, there was an air of skepticism surrounding the title. With only a previous VR game, John Wick Chronicles, in the franchise’s library, it was anyone’s guess as to how the Baba Yaga would translate to home consoles. The obvious first choice would be something in the first-person shooter genre, so when developer Bithell Games released details about Hex being a tactical strategy title, fans were taken by surprise.
To put it simply, John Wick Hex is an interesting and unexpected title in many ways. While it’s not perfect, Hex is a surprisingly safe movie spinoff that offers up some unique and innovative gameplay that strategy fans will enjoy, even if they aren’t big on the films. It suffers from some of the classic blunders of movie spin-offs, but it also does so much more than the value of its license at the same time.
Taking the Quick out of Wick
When players think John Wick, they imagine speed, action, and five-on-one fights, and Hex delivers two of the three. Instead of predictable FPS speed, John Wick Hex offers up slower tactical gameplay that defies expectations, and in a good way. It’s an absolute gamble on the part of the studio and the developer, but the modern game market is already so saturated with fast-paced first-person shooters (think Doom Eternal), and John Wick Hex really needed to take a gameplay risk to set itself apart.
To describe the style of Hex’s strategy gameplay, think a soft version of XCOM’s strategy meets the pacing of SUPERHOT. The game isn’t exactly turn-based or real-real time strategy; instead, players decide John Wick’s actions while time is frozen, and enemies move while the decision is executed. Every action has a time cost, and certain actions take more time than others, so balancing attacks between enemies is a delicate dance. Moving through the level using a hex-based grid, players can choose between a variety of attacks: strike, push, takedown, parry, shoot, or (the absolutely amazing) throw weapon. Some of which cost focus points, a finite resource that can be replenished with time, and others cost ammo or (more importantly) time.
Developer Bithell Games is really on to something great with this gameplay, and it’s surprisingly innovative for a simple film spin-off. There’s truly nothing else like it on the strategy market at this time, and fans of tactical games like Fire Emblem or XCOM will feel right at home in no time. It’s a little slower and can be “cheated” a little once players figure out the system, but overall it’s a really fun and unique approach to a game that could have taken the easy way out by recycling old ideas and slapping a Hollywood sticker on the cover.
Not Much of a Story
Outside of gameplay, John Wick Hex’s plot is about as prescriptive as they come. Taking place before the events of the popular films, hero John Wick is dispatched to rescue Charon and Winston from a criminal mastermind known as Hex. Along the way, he travels through a variety of nightclubs and warehouses to battle un-noteworthy mini-bosses in an effort to track down Hex. Narrated by Hex as if they have already happened, the game’s events are mostly forgettable and serve as very brief intermissions between levels. For fans of the franchise, John Wick Hex’s plot might resonate a little bit more, but it feels pretty nondescript for anyone less versed in Wick lore.
Fortunately, an understanding of the series is not really needed to enjoy the strategy gameplay, as these story moments are very minimal. They serve mainly to provide a reason for a setting change, and give a very brief introduction to the mini-boss. On the plus side, the voice acting during these cutscenes is absolutely incredible. Troy Baker does a spectacular job giving life to Hex’s character and the talents of actors Ian McShane and Lance Reddick lend a level of polish to the game that feels out of place for Hex’s budget. It’s not necessary, but a very nice touch.
Ups and Downs in Art
By far, the most confusing element of John Wick Hex is its absolutely horrendous cutscene art style. In the narrative scenes that take place between gameplay, the characters narrate over frozen, digitally rendered character images, which look very low budget and relatively jarring. Bithell must have been shooting for a nod to the comic book origins of Wick with these images, but their cell shading and overall style look pretty lackluster. It would have been preferable to have hand-drawn art if they were going that route, or even add something with a bit of movement to take the focus away from the details.
Even stranger, the actual in-game art style looks relatively great and does a pretty solid job of capturing the “neon noir” look of the films. While a little cartoon-ish and stylized, the color of the setting and the lo-fi detail of the character models looked pretty good and worked well with the gameplay. It might sound odd, but Hex’s character models felt vaguely reminiscent of the nostalgic RTS model style of the early 2000’s for some reason, bringing back some pretty old memories of titles like Warcraft 3.
If Time’s of the Essence..
Even for a $20 USD game, John Wick Hex still feels little barebones in terms of content. There’s probably just enough in Hex to keep players going for a three-day weekend, but that’s it. Overall, the title’s about a six-hour game to beat and gets a little repetitive towards the end with its lack of variety in enemy and weapon types. For completionists, there may be some value in going back and beating the “par times” on each level or rising to the challenge of hardcore mode, which places a time clock on tactical decisions, but others might see one playthrough and done with Hex. It’s a little disappointing that it’s over so soon, but hopefully, Lionsgate keeps Hex’s framework in its back pocket and delivers an experience worthy of its quality.
People Keep Asking if Wick’s Back
Overall, John Wick Hex takes some risks but comes through with some compelling tactical gameplay that’s innovative and fun to learn. Sure, it definitely has some flaws, but it’s certainly much better than the average movie spin-off. Although short and a little lackluster in terms of story points and design, the new gameplay is worth experiencing for fans of the strategy genre. While it might not be totally worth its price tag for the casual player that doesn’t enjoy tactics or John Wick, it’s a definite pickup when it inevitably goes on sale.
With gameplay this good, it would be great to see the John Wick Hex get the treatment that it deserves, and hopefully developers can add more weapon variety, new skills, and more enemy types to throw a little diversity into the mix for future iterations (or new franchises). While (of course) it’s wishful thinking, even with just a real skill tree, some unlockables and customization options, and a little mission variety, Bithell could turn this gameplay into something truly great. But for now, Hex will have to do.