John Wick is an orchestrator of death. He efficiently uses both the tools and space around him in a fight, delicately flowing between enemies and intelligently picking them off. John Wick Hex effortlessly replicates the slick violence of the films, allowing you to embody the feared assassin in combat scenarios that are both challenging and satisfying to overcome. It also introduces a fast-paced spin on traditional turn-based action, letting you think and act like the elusive Baba Yaga while also looking as refined and controlled as he is.
At the core of John Wick Hex is an overhead timeline, which records actions both you and enemies take. Each action takes a set amount of time, represented plainly in the timeline to give you a clear view of when you’re taking a shot versus when you have to dodge an incoming one, for example. After each turn, the action you’ve made plays out in real-time, only pausing if a new enemy enters your line of sight or if you take damage to let you adjust accordingly. You’re always aware of how the action is going to play out when it starts moving again, which lets you plan ahead and position yourself for your next turn.
The choices you make in combat are vital, though. Sometimes an enemy might be quicker on the draw than you, forcing you to decide between potentially taking a hit or throwing your gun to stun them in time. This has its own set of consequences. If the enemy is too far, you’ve now disarmed yourself with too much ground to cover for a close-quarters takedown, or left yourself vulnerable to the surprise appearance of another foe. Each turn is a new step in a moving puzzle, rewarding careful consideration of positioning, sight lines, and resource management with a graceful flow of murder.
Aside from health, you have to consider both ammunition and a resource called focus. John Wick is great with a gun, but Hex limits the number of bullets you can carry at a time to force you to experiment with new weapons that you find. Knowing how many bullets you have in the magazine before a fight helps you manage how many enemies you think you can dispatch before needing to find a new one, which in turn helps you move efficiently from one kill to the next, collecting dropped firearms in the process. It’s a satisfying balance; I constantly had to adapt to the firing speeds and effective ranges of new weapons, which in turn changed the way I advanced on or retreated from a fight.
Focus governs most of your actions outside basic movement and shooting. Everything from performing an instant melee takedown to reloading your weapon requires some focus points, making it the backbone to most of your available repertoire. Although it can be replenished easily enough, finding space in a fight to do so without taking too much damage is tough, encouraging you to only bite off as much as you can chew and space your enemies out to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Your successes and failures are governed but how well you’re able to manage both ammunition and your distribution of resources, with Hex focusing less on hit percentages and random rolls and more on the choices you make and your ability to anticipate how things will play out.
Levels are designed to challenge your understanding of movement and its inherent risks, too, stuffing you into long, cramped corridors laden with doors that enemies can spawn through at any point. Sight lines are obscured to keep you guessing about who's just around the corner; a reckless roll could put you in the firing line of a group of previously hidden enemies. Each step you take towards the exit of each level has to be a calculated one, taking into account acute angles of doorways and the benefits of elevation from overhead balconies.
When you hit a stride with this balancing act, John Wick Hex feels like it’s almost moving in real time. Your decisions will start feeling instinctive, with moves playing out as if you’re beholden to a ticking clock. Hex is tuned to make you feel like you’re always one step ahead. Because you have a beat or two to react to new enemies before they make their moves, you'll often feel like your reaction times are split seconds ahead of them–so long as you're thinking carefully. But it’s equally unforgiving if you’re too bold. If you don’t learn how to break sight lines while moving, you’ll quickly find your timeline overwhelmed with enemy actions that you can’t address entirely. Hex is a power fantasy with the odds ever so slightly tilted in your favor, but it’s also a game that wants you to understand the fine margins that John Wick operates within during every fight.
With such dynamic and engrossing combat at its center, it’s disappointing that John Wick Hex’s original story fails to live up to the same standard. It takes place well before the events of the first film–when John was the most dangerous weapon the High Table had in their employ, and before he ever met his wife–with John searching for series stalwarts Winston and Charon, reprised by Ian McShane and Lance Reddick respectively (Keanu Reeves' likeness is used in the game's stylized cartoonish aesthetic, but John Wick has no dialogue to speak of). Hex, a new villain to the series, has kidnapped the pair in an attempt to dismantle the High Table in a fit of revenge, inviting the wrath of John Wick as he ruthlessly hunts him down over a variety of locales, like neon-soaked night clubs with harsh electronic music and silent, snow-slicked forests which quickly become drenched in bright pink streaks of blood from fallen foes.
While the narrative gives the game a reason to bounce from one location to the next, it never taps into the intriguing layer of lore that sits on top of the high-octane action from the films. You’ll learn nothing new about the High Table or their seedy, mysterious Continental hotels, and even less about John’s time before giving up his assassin lifestyle in pursuit of something quieter. Hex’s revenge tale also fails to establish any interesting backstory or lasting impression on the franchise, making the story feel meaningless in the grander scheme of things.
It’s a disappointing thread that ties together the exceptional gameplay, which faithfully captures the feeling of being John Wick in a strategic and pulsating formula. John Wick Hex has turn-based gameplay at a pace you’ve likely not experienced before, and it intricately balances its systems to give you a sense of being an expert hitman while also making it feel earned. It’s a slick and well-oiled game that succeeds in giving you a new, engrossing way to experience John Wick and its signature brand of chaotic action.