The stylish action sequences in the John Wick movies work so well because of their cold, clinical sequencing. Keanu Reeves’ titular character rarely misses his shot, dispatching enemies in the most efficient manner possible. Often he’ll incapacitate someone, take out someone else, and return to the first target for the final kill. It makes you wonder whether anyone could possibly be that elegant and mindful in a real-world firefight.
They couldn’t, of course, which is why John Wick Hex, a new game billed as a prequel to the movies, sounds like a great idea. Instead of going the obvious route of adapting the franchise into a Max Payne-style third-person shooter, designer Mike Bithell (Thomas was Alone, Volume) has come up with an original strategy-based concept that translates John Wick’s methodical action into a format where you have time to think.
As you might expect from the title, John Wick Hex plays out on a hex-based grid, although the game’s minimalist comic book-style art doesn’t actually go as far as to render the shapes on the ground. While actions are only set in motion once you give John a command, the combat isn’t technically turn-based, unlike many strategy games. Instead, each action takes up a specific amount of time, and the game’s central challenge comes from managing this time so that you get to the enemies before they get to you.
Let’s say you enter a room and see a bad guy standing with his back to you. You sidle up to him in a split second, then take another 1.4 seconds to take him down, directing his lifeless body behind a table. At this point, two more enemies enter the room, so you crouch and roll behind another table, taking another 0.9 seconds and a couple of points off your “focus” meter, which will affect your aim when you stand up to shoot the first enemy. You still have an 80 percent chance to make the shot, and thankfully you do. But the second enemy has enough time to fire a shot back at you, so you need to dive into your limited bandage supply to patch yourself up, which takes another three seconds. She’s approaching your table. Will you be able to shoot her in time, or will you have to parry her attack, or were you ultimately doomed by your decision to roll behind that table a few seconds ago?
John Wick Hex is entirely made up of situations like this, and when it works, it’s really satisfying. The time-management aspect is smartly designed, deconstructing the movies’ combat sequences into a series of quick decisions. Each stage is tightly designed and puts up a good challenge. A lot of thought has been put into devising the death traps for your Keanu-inspired avatar to navigate.
Unfortunately, the game just isn’t as slick as the movies. You will die a lot in John Wick Hex, and success often comes down to trial and error. Even when you do succeed, though, there’s little payoff. You can watch a replay of your actions strung together, but there’s no cinematic verve. Mostly, you’ll see a crude Keanu-ish model walking back and forth with stilted animations. There’s only so much you can do when your character is restricted to six directions and not many more colors.
Often, John Wick Hex reminded me of Hotline Miami and Katana Zero, two more games that are mostly about entering rooms, deciding which order to kill people in, and dying a lot. But John Wick Hex has none of the twitchy 2D exhilaration of those games, which do a great job of making you feel like a badass the one time you do get it right.
Part of this is just the nature of a cerebral strategy game, of course, and there wouldn’t be much point to John Wick Hex if you managed to beat everything the first time. The small scope of each stage, however, makes each new attempt feel like less of an opportunity to try new tactics and more like you just haven’t stumbled across the correct order of commands yet. There’s little room for improvisation or creativity in your approach.
It’s possible, even likely, that I’m just not cut out to be a cold-blooded assassin. John Wick Hex is a smart take on the franchise in many ways, and it might well click for you more than it did for me. (If it does, I’m not saying you’re cut out to be an assassin, just to be clear.) But while I respect its substance, I came away wishing for a little more style.