John Wick Hex Review: Murderous Time Management

Fascinating core combat more than makes up for some average presentation.

John Wick Hex is murder at one mile an hour. I mean that in several different ways — including the best one. It’s a damn fun game with unique, semi-turn-based combat that doesn’t quite feel like anything I’ve played before. It’s murder in the sense that John Wick feels like a weapon of calculations, stalking goon after goon with deadly precision. And it’s murder yet again in the sense that John Wick Hex gets pretty hard pretty quickly.

The challenge feels appropriate to the source material, too. John Wick is a badass, but he also takes his lumps. That’s part of what makes him feel like a badass. Although this game takes place before he’s the retired, very slightly out of practice hitman we know from the films. John Wick Hex is set years before he would meet the love of his life (or pet the dog). And so we don’t get a lot of pathos (or any dialogue at all) from him. Instead, the story is told from the perspective of Ian McShane’s and Lance Reddick’s characters from the films. There’s also the original villain, Hex, voiced by Troy Baker.

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The trio dips into a bit of John Wick lore: the High Table, the Continental, wars of succession, etc. But it’s that combat that makes the game. While it technically plays out in real-time, John Wick Hex automatically pauses between every action and whenever a new enemy enters our hero’s field of vision. How long these actions take to begin and complete is displayed at the top of the screen. And the idea is to select moves that interrupt whatever your opponents are about to do.

If a shooter gets the drop on you, for instance, you can throw your gun in their face. It does less damage than firing your own gun, but it’s faster than lining up a shot. It also stuns the hapless enemy, giving you time to get up close and melee them. Of course, while that’s happening, other foes might enter the scene. So positioning yourself out of sight, behind low cover, or near doorways is also key. John Wick Hex is a really a management game, where the economy is based on time. You always want to have more of it than the other idiot with a gun.

Do Tell Me the Odds, Actually

The game really drives the Wick-edness home by making John just a little bit better at everything than anyone you meet. He shoots faster and punches harder, but is essentially working with the same tools as everybody else. That very slightly uneven playing field seriously captures what makes the title character dangerously grounded. Anyone can fire a gun or box some ears. But making him just a fraction of a second faster — just 10 percent more accurate — allows him to dispatch armies of equally equipped enemies.

At first I wasn’t too sold on the game having percentages at all. It adds a sense of random chance to a game that feels more like a logic puzzle. You can make the “right” move at any given moment, but hit chances might throw you out of your groove because… math. Eventually, though, I warmed to the idea. Because working with percentages also forces you to think more about which moves you make. Sometimes running away is just the best option. Moving gives enemies an accuracy penalty, while encouraging you to set up clever ambushes. Wick may stalk like Jason Vorhees, after all, but he’s not a slasher movie monster. These moments of maneuverability make him look as much like a thinker as a force of nature.

The dodging also weaves in nicely with one of the game’s conceptually coolest ideas. John Wick Hex features a replay function at the end of every stage. These peel out in real-time — allowing you to see how your slowly calculated moves would look in a John Wick movie.

Can’t Keep a Good Hitman Down

At least that’s the idea. The replay system is a little bit wonky in practice. The character models are stiff, sometimes jitter in the wrong direction before correcting course, and don’t have that many animations. You often pop enemies in the mouth multiple times in a row, for instance (most of them have enough health to survive the first melee strike). But seeing that play out at normal speed, with John doing the same canned “kick, punch” animation twice in a row, just looks silly. Not to mention sometimes you just do silly things in pursuit of an optimal run. Dodge rolling between spaces is great for not getting hit. Only you end up looking like this.

Presentation quirks aside, however, this is a stellar little strategy game. Much like John himself, it gets in and gets out, leaving a lasting impression in its wake. It’s a formula I’d love to see refined and returned to — perhaps in an original setting, where the developers can play a little more fast and loose with your abilities. Although in this case the restrictions feel absolutely true to the character. I couldn’t ask for much more from a licensed game. John Wick Hex just happened to give me what I expected and more.