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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Review: John Wick Hex (Sony PlayStation 4)


Review by Matt S. 

I have been looking forward to John Wick Hex for quite some time now, after it first launched on PC last year. With Mike Bithell (of Thomas Was Alone fame) behind it I had faith that it would be good, but despite my enthusiasm I still wasn't sure how, exactly, a humble indie game was going to be able to capture the true blockbuster appeal of the film property. Somehow, though, Bithell did it. This game is spot-on to John Wick, and that is impressive all by itself.

Of all of Hollywood's blockbuster output in recent years, I find the John Wick franchise to be the most palatable, and that's because it's so honest about what it is. It is a celebration of waves of unending, visceral action and aggression, of unfettered individualism, a lack of respect for authority or decency, and a complete absence of intellectual or philosophical depth. There is no truer depiction of American culture and values than John Wick, and the complete lack of pretentiousness about it is both refreshing and engaging. It is James Bond's love of exotic locations without the class, it's the intricate machinations of the Bond villains and sinister organisations only with calculated deviancy replaced by unfettered brutality. It is James' love of violence without offending the puritan values of the new world by also indulging his love of women. John Wick is a purity of vision, and when it comes to the arts I do love anything brave enough to be pure.

None of the above would suggest that the property could be easily adapted to a turn-based tactics strategy game, though. When you think "John Wick", you think furious action, rather than careful deliberations, and yet somehow John Wick Hex manages to resolve the two so perfectly that you'll finish the game thinking that there was no other way to do a John Wick game. Part of the reason that it is so successful is that the tactics are kept so streamlined, with just a couple of different options to resolve every situation that the game throws at you. Part of it is also that the game sets "par" times to complete stages, meaning that you will be encouraged to constantly press forward, making snap decisions to deal with each and every situation.


All of the franchises' themes are also conveyed through the design of the game. Cut scenes are kept short and to the point, utilising some slick comic-book style presentation and all the real actors' likenesses to link seamlessly in with the film property. Stages, meanwhile, are lengthy, multi-tiered affairs, in which you'll need to move across a half dozen or more "nodes", or hotspots of action on your way to the final confrontation with the boss. Ammunition and health doesn't recover between nodes, giving the game the same rolling structure to the films, where a single battle scene can drive on and on for what feels like half an hour, across multiple sets and locations, without a breath in between.

The ability to replay levels as you complete them helps reinforce this. It's purely done for show, and simply takes your movements and actions through the levels and renders them into a more "cinematic" series of camera angles and cuts, but it's something that you won't be able to help yourself but watch at the completion of each level. Though it's not perfect - some of the "dynamic" camera angles are odd, and there are moments of clipping and visual oddness, these cut scenes show exactly how fast the action is moving in real time, and help give those snap decisions that you're making during the tactics gameplay a true "John Wick" context.

Unlike the films, which follow a tired and unwilling John Wick, Hex is a prequel and shows John Wick in his prime. This is less relevant in terms of the presentation of the game (which is all minimalist and timeless as far as John Wick's "look" and behaviour goes), but for the Wick faithful, it does help expand the universe and give some kind of insight into the reason that the very name would strike fear into the various mobsters of the films. Prequel or not, though, Bithell clearly understands Wick, and has captured the tone and aesthetics of the locations and set pieces perfectly. If I was to criticise anything here it's that the impact of the violence isn't high enough where the film made the fetishisation of violence a masterpiece on a canvas of visceral energy, but on the other hand, video games do severe violence with such frequency that we're all quite desensitised to it, and the classy approach found in Hex probably does a better job of drawing the player's attention to it than the most extreme bloodletting would have been able to.


There are some elements to John Wick Hex which would come across as disappointing out of context. There is a general lack of enemies and weapon types, though if there were too many different enemies it would slow down the process of making the snap decisions that the game otherwise encourages you to do. Additionally, it can be difficult to make use of cover mechanics and, at times, it can seem like the enemy can shoot you through barriers. While undoubtedly a flaw, it's not much of an issue in practice since you're encouraged to take the fight to the enemies, rather than hide behind barriers and take pot-shots. Finally, the AI is woeful and, when goons aren't simply charging at you to be fodder, they're moving randomly all over the place. This does mean that they fail to present any kind of tactical challenge... but then we are talking about John Wick here. If you've seen the movies you'll know what I mean regarding the intelligence of the goons.

John Wick Hex is a fascinating example of a developer making compromises in order to make the game fit with the license. Sometimes those compromises are quite substantial indeed. They also end up being a non-issue, however, because in delivering a true John Wick experience, Mike Bithell and his team have given us something intriguing that adds to the film property. That is a refreshing change when most licensed tie-in games simply look to capitalise on a popular thing to the profit of the developer. For something based on such an unapologetically dumb film property, there is some truly intelligent and thoughtful game design that went into the making of John Wick Hex.



- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

The critic purchased a copy of this game for review.



Review: John Wick Hex (Sony PlayStation 4)
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