Hands On: John Wick HEX
I had some hands-on time with John Wick HEX at Gamescom in August. Since then I’ve been wanting to write about it but found myself struggling for the right words. Saying a game makes you feel like _____ is about as useful as saying it has “RPG elements” while being as reductive as claiming it “takes inspiration from Dark Souls”. But it has been the barometer for licenced games for years. Marvel’s Spider-man promised rushes of swinging through New York and beating down goons, but what roped people into the game was how the game captured the feeling of reading a Spider-man comic. Not only were you the web-slinger but you had moments as Peter Paker, down on his luck, Miles, learning the ropes and MJ, acting as a guide, friend and co-conspirator. Spider-man’s achievement was creating pages of a comic-book to read in a different form, but often this was boiled down to “it made me feel like Spider-man”.
However, this is something all mainstream games do at their core, create fleeting moments where sights and sounds come together and allow you to forget yourself. Being Spider-man is a power fantasy, as is being the Witcher, a super solider or an adventurer in a strange land. The success of most games is how often they can put us in the mindset of its character, make us feel like _____.
I expected John Wick Hex to do the same and give me some of these moments as well. However, its unorthodox development team has taken every opportunity, from the gameplay systems to art style, to do something much more interesting than make me feel like a cool assassin. HEX doesn’t shuffle the player along, getting you to do all the stuff you remembered from the movie. Instead, it presents an apparent puzzle then tells you this is an opportunity to become John, not just feel like him in fits and starts. HEX got me stuck in the mindset of Baba Yaga, and it was pretty great.
The game does this by asking how does John view the world? It starts with his perspective.. Much has been made of the fact that this game is not a third or first-person shooter but an isometric top-down strategy game. If HEX wanted you to have brief flashes of feeling like Mr. Wick then, yes, a traditional action perspective would have made sense but it doesn’t seem satisfied with flashes. Viewing rooms from a top-down 360-degree view with a fog of war that lifts to match your line of sight is humanly impossible, but it makes sense here. Baba Yaga always seems to possess slight advantages over those he fights, nothing quiet superhuman but they add up. The game understands that how John sees the world is a core part of what makes him so compelling, the perspective facilitates this. You can keep track of everything a bit better than those rushing into the fight and you always seem to be in control of the uncontrollable.
The games don’t give John any single ability one of his enemies don’t possess, rather it puts you in his shoes and the game visualises his approach to combat, this is the closest thing to his superpower. John’s every punch is deliberate but happens in the flinch of an eye. To show this, time stops and you plan out each action, as a result, the game becomes an intense management sim. Bars at the top of the screen represent time. One showing how long you take to act, the others show how long you're enemies will take. John is a seasoned professional, so the game tells you a punch will take exactly 1.5 seconds and moving to cover will take 2 seconds, but you also know how long it will take the person trying to kill you to do the same. Despite time standing still you are making, literal, split-second decisions. Will this henchman line up his shot before I can punch him? Will this goon reach cover before I can fire an accurate shot? All these mechanics come together to show you what a fight looks like to John - time slows, the situation is evaluated and decisions are made, in the blink of an eye.
As an unseen guide, I was placed in situations where John could have shot someone but doing so would allow their buddy to take a better shooting stance; suddenly John would be in the open and would definitely be shot. I could’ve slinked John behind cover, but since enemies move about as fast as him, they’d quickly rush him. My only option was to treat this moment like Wick would and take the fight to them.
Along with ammo, health and time, there is a final stat to keep track of, focus. A separate bar which recharges when not in a shooting stance. Using focus allows for rolling, parrying of incoming attacks and generally do the more action movie-y things. Here, again, is our slight advantage. Spending this limited resource allowed me to move up on the first goon, perform a takedown, then roll away. The roll gave me a slightly better chance of not being shot while staying out in the open. This meant I could get a shot away before the other guy could line up again or move in on me. A very Wick-y moment, heightened by me throwing my gun at the rooms final henchman, stunning him for a takedown… Because I could. But this moment was protracted over much longer than the few seconds it would have taken to play out in real-time. HEX successfully had me thinking as and being John Wick for longer than any role-playing game has ever let me feel like a swordsman.
The art style even gets in on the action, by showing the oncoming threats as simplified cell-shaded varieties. It becomes clear all that matters is are they holding a gun or did they have their sleeves-rolled-up for a punchout. John’s internal thought processes were projected onto me as the demo went on.
The short demo I was shown had me make my way through Chinatown’s back alleys on my way to a boss figure who needed to be eliminated. Even this splitting of gameplay into short setpieces in distinct areas paced the game like a prolonged action scene moving through sets.
A lot has been said about what a surprise John Wick HEX is. Taking the indie darlings behind narrative-driven experiences, like Thomas Was Alone and Volume and setting them loose on this high-intensity action world. But after all the anecdotes about how the team got involved in this project and how invested the films’ director and Lionsgate are in the project, something stood out to me about John Wick HEX. It understands that any game can make you feel like someone for a moment, and these moments are great. However, the Bithell team has found a way to make you not just feel but plan, move, process information and be John Wick.
John Wick HEX only needs one more element to basically be a Kenau Reeves simulator. A real good doggo.