‘John Wick Hex’ Would Be A Great Adaptation If It Weren’t For The Rough Edges
In the films, John Wick moves through fights like a freight train, walking through his enemies without stopping. He grabs his opponents like cattle in a cowcatcher and pushes them in his direction of travel, punching his pistols into their chest and head as he fires. It's something that sets the choreography of the films apart from most action movies.
In John Wick Hex, the video game, he has a much more awkward fighting style. I walk up to opponents and stand still as I slap them about the head and kick them in the groin; I shoot from a stationary position; and I often walk in a strange zigzagging pattern rather than straight lines. Despite this, it does capture the spirit of John Wick, if not the form.
While you might expect a John Wick game to be something akin to Max Payne or Uncharted, a game that flows in real-time to show off Wick's movement and combat abilities. Instead, in John Wick Hex, combat is a blend of real-time and turn-based that puts you inside Wick's head. It's a game that gives you access to the interior monologue Wick must be playing out, analysing his opponents and the room around him to make choices on how to proceed.
All the combat in John Wick Hex is mapped on a timeline at the top of the screen, that shows how long it will take to perform your current queued actions. Below your schedule, are other bars representing the actions of all the enemies you can see. So, for instance, if an enemy is preparing to shoot at you, you can see whether you will be able to attack them first, interrupting their attack, or if they will manage to shoot you before you can strike them.
You have a spread of actions available to you - a close-range melee attack and a takedown move, shooting your gun and throwing the weapon itself, a parry move that interrupts enemy attacks, and a push move has you grab an enemy and walk with them in a chosen direction. Each of these moves varies in how long it takes to perform, creating options and choices in every encounter.
Say, like above, there's an enemy about to shoot you and you're three steps away from them, out of melee range. You can check how long it would take to fire and find that they've got the edge on you, meaning you'll take a chunk of damage unless they happen to miss. You can try walking into melee range, but you won't be able to strike them before they fire, so hopefully they'd miss their shot because you're a moving target. Or, you can throw your gun at them - it's faster than shooting so you'll interrupt their shot and stun them (unless you miss) but you will then be without a gun.
John Wick Hex is a chain of choices, pushing you to decide when to enter combat and how to face multiple opponents at once - some who will stand back and shoot at you while others move in to engage in melee.
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The timeline system is a canny way to get you inside the head of the John Wick from the films. It suggests he is always aware of the space and the intentions of the enemies around him, and he is trying to weave his way through those encounters. My frustration with it is that my John Wick is much more awkward than the John Wick I see in the films.
The levels in Hex are mapped out on a hexagonal grid, which makes it easy to gauge distances for interacting in melee, but it leads to some odd movement from Wick. If I move him down a corridor he will often zigzag between the nodes because a straight line isn't open to him.
My John Wick is limited in how he engages with targets, too. In the films Wick will often grab one enemy while shooting at another, or use them as a human shield while marching into fire. He seems to rarely engage a single enemy at a time. In Hex, those sorts of movements and attacks that address multiple assailants at once aren't possible. I instead move from one target to the next, trying to dispatch or stall them long enough to move my attention to another enemy. It can often feel like I'm flowing between my enemies, but equally often I would find myself in odd situations where I'm surrounded by three melee enemies and I'm just punching them in the head one after the other until they all fall down. It looks like something more out of a comedy than an action movie.
Hex isn't helped by a lack of key animations. This isn't a criticism I've leveled against a game before, and it feels uncomfortable doing it now, but it's because of the richness of movement in the source material that it feels important to mention. For example, there are no animations for attacking an enemy on the ground. I found myself often throwing someone to the floor and then shooting or punching them before they got up. Instead of an animation of Wick shooting them or punching them where they lay, they would pop into a standing position to take the hit, often then falling down dead afterwards. If this was an edge case it would be more understandable, but attacking enemies on the floor was something I did repeatedly. Each time it was something that broke the flow of the action and dispelled the idea that I was controlling John Wick.
The awkwardness of my John Wick wasn't helped by the bugs I encountered. Only one actually impacted play - when an enemy simply stopped moving or attacking - but the other visual bugs were prevalent. Dead bodies spasm and clip through the environments of the levels and the video in one cutscene didn't load, so I was just watching a black screen while listening to the characters talk. I have been playing a pre-release version of the game, so there's reason to hope they will be patched out by launch.
A feature I really hope is fixed with patches is the replay camera. When you complete a level in John Wick Hex, you're given the option of watching all the action back in real-time. The camera switches from the overhead isometric view to take more cinematic angles. It should be a moment when you see your choices enacted most like a fight scene in the films. The problem is the camera often doesn't capture the action - there's either a wall in the way or a pile of crates, or it can't see the enemy you're shooting at or is shooting at you. It all comes across as clumsy.
The moments when John Wick Hex comes together are great. There have been times when I've been surrounded by enemies a second away from being killed. I've grabbed one of them and pushed my way out of a fight into cover, turned and shot one of the goons behind me, thrown my gun at another to interrupt their shot, closed the gap and finished them off with a takedown. It's a fight I could have approached in lots of different ways so could come away with ownership of the approach I took. But all too often Hex's rough edges would break the illusion that I'm the world's best hitman, and sap the thrill out of the fights.
I'd still recommend John Wick Hex, but it's not the best version of the game it could be and that's disappointing.
Featured Image Credit: Good Shepherd Entertainment