I don’t really want to wade into the whole ‘Dark Souls easy mode’ debate, but I think we can all generally accept that, while many of us will relish the challenge, action games, first and third person shooters, even humble platformers are actually pretty difficult to play. Not only that, but they’re trying to get you to feel like a special ops soldier without any of the training, like a swashbuckling archeologist without a degree, like a long-jumping plumber without… something. It’s no surprise that QTEs have become a crutch for so many cinematic moments in video games, but really they simply test your reflexes, they don’t make you embody that person.
John Wick Hex takes a very different approach. The exact opposite approach. Instead of presenting you with a whirlwind of close quarters gunfighting and melee combat, it slows things riiiiight down. With the adrenaline pumping, with his senses keenly drawing in every detail of the world around him and the people coming to try and get him, the character of John Wick knows just what to do. It might seem fast to us, but he’s got time to analyse and pull off every action. John Wick Hex gives you all the time in the world.
It might look like a turn-based game, right down to the hex-based nodes on the floor that you move between, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s more like you’ve hit pause while watching the films and pondered “What would John Wick do?” before hitting play and letting the action continue. Every action you take or want to take has a time cost in tenths of a second, after which the game pauses for you once more, which includes setting yourself up to perform the action and then pulling it off. You see that visually represented along the top of the screen in a timeline that also features every enemy you can currently see and what they’re planning to do, letting you weigh up the threat, prioritise, decide, act, kill, move on.
Though you just have a gun and some fists, you have a lot of possibilities open to you. Naturally, you’ve got the sharp double-tap of John Wick’s custom pistol, but in a pinch of time with multiple enemies coming at you, you might be better off quickly throwing it to stun one enemy and engaging in melee combat with another. Even there, you have strikes that can knock off two of an enemy’s three pips of health, takedowns that throw them to the floor and let you choose the direction in which you then move, and a grappling push that deals one chunk of damage and can manoeuvre an enemy a few steps backward – great for neutralising them and moving behind scenery, or for an amusing pushed kill.
Some actions will also use up Focus, with the flurry of activity eventually getting to even John Wick – bear in mind, each level can take just half a minute or so of in-game time to complete! Takedowns in particular are a Focus-sapping move, and so a brief moment to shake his head a reset is sometimes in order. It’s one of just a few things that you’ll be seeking to find cover for, alongside reloading his custom pistol – those you pick up off enemies only ever have one clip – and bandaging any wounds, which takes an achingly long three seconds.
Line of sight is actually incredibly important for a few reasons. For one thing, there’s a stealthy approach that you can take to the game, going for quiet takedowns and doing so without arousing the suspicions of those who can’t see your actions. For another, simply breaking line of sight means they can’t shoot you, giving you a few precious split-seconds to reload, recover your focus or find a different angle of attack. However, if you can’t see them, you also cannot see what they’re doing and anticipate their moves through the timeline.
Most of the enemies will just come at you once you’ve revealed yourself to them. Some will want to throw a few punches, but even then you can easily take them down, while all the others that I ran into just had pistols to fire at me. I’m hoping and expecting more variety there, but even without, the level structure did well to throw me into some challenging scenarios. All you need to do it get too the exit and move to the next area, but it could be a set patrol ahead of you, there could be enemies dynamically spawning from buildings nearby, or a mixture of set level and enemy design and slightly randomised building interiors.
The whole point, of course, is for John Wick to battle his way through all of these goons and get to his next target. He’s being led on a merry goose chase through this prequel to the films in order to rescue Winston and Charon who’ve been kidnapped by a man named Hex. There’s some lovely stylised cutscenes that manage to capture the likenesses of Ian McShane and Lance Reddick really well. A little less refined in the build that I saw were the end of level replays that take the stop-start action of your playthrough and, well, remove the stop. These replay will aim to capture the framing and style of the films, but whether John Wick looks like an unstoppable badass or an Inspector Clouseau style klutz depends on your actions.
It’s fascinating to consider the subtle ways in which John Wick Hex could have developed differently. It actually started as a pure turn-based game, it could have leant on an Active Time Battle system from the realms of JRPGs, or worked with time dilation instead of outright pausing. What Mike Bithell and his team have concocted feels just right, though. Having the time to sit there and ponder your actions, working your way in and out of sticky situations or playing with uniquely calculated styles – I personally want to see a “push to kill” playthrough – it all just feels right.
John Wick Hex is coming to PC via the Epic Games Store on 8th October.