John Wick Hex Review08 Oct 2019 0
John Wick Hex Review
Released 08 Oct 2019
For those who have been living in a cave (with or without a box of scraps), John Wick is the protagonist of a trio of films, soon to be a quartet, focused on an assassin who has worked very hard to get out of the business and the complicated criminal subculture which just can't seem to leave him alone. Starring the breathtaking Keanu Reeves, all three entries are brutal high action affairs which become increasingly political and high-minded. As much as you can while kicking guys square in the crotch and shooting them in the face.
It's important to set the stage, because John Wick Hex is a licensed property produced by a very small studio in a genre which at first glance seems completely wrong, but in practice ends up being an amazing realization in a rarely attempted style. It's a real-time-turn-based (?) game in which you control only one unit, John Wick, and your job is to proceed through each map with extremely limited resources, bobbing and weaving, grappling and shooting, until you reach the exit. Along the way you'll pick up guns off downed foes, kick men and women squarely in the crotch, and get into hard-core punch-ups with guys who would otherwise find it easy to dodge your bullets. All lit by stark neon cell shading.
Is it the strategy/first-person shooter without actually being a first-person shooter that I've always wanted? Let's talk about that.
The Tech Curve
We need to talk about options. JWH is a very indie game. That means only a few people worked on it, the technical overhead is very low, but conversely there aren't a lot of moving parts to break. The options screen shows this off, both good and bad. There is almost nothing there. Resolution, whether it's full-screen or not, whether you don't mind a little light bloom, and some motion blur (which I can't say that I've seen in-game), and that's it. Audio volume is on different panel and Accessibility is really just subtitles.
You'll notice that the Resolution options repeat several resolutions but without any note to differentiate why they are separate entries. I'm assuming that they're different frame rates, but at least with this build there's no way of knowing. It's a minor thing, but there it is.
In play, it doesn't really matter. You put in your commands for John Wick one at a time on the interface and watch them play out. I would be shocked if this game didn't make its way to mobile at some point because it seems like the sort of thing that should be straightforward, although it doesn't feel like a game which was designed and implemented for mobile but released on PC first. Is it doing anything brand-new at a technical level? Nope, but it doesn't have to.
Making the Scene
You could be forgiven for thinking that a tactics game featuring John Wick would probably go light on the narrative and heavy on the violence. You would be half right. There is quite a lot of violence.
There is also a surprising amount of narrative delivered, the bulk of which happens between chapters, and is presented as a lightly animated set of comic panels, with voice acting provided by the original actors Ian McShane and Lance Reddick reprising their roles of Winston and Charon. The omnipresent Troy Baker comes in as the antagonistic Hex, having kidnapped Winston and Charon sometime before we catch up.
John Wick, in the full flower of his pre-film assassin awesomeness, is looking for our two agents of the High Table, in his usual style. Cue the ballet of blood and death.
But How Was the Play, Mrs. Lincoln?
Mechanically, the game itself is relatively simple. You have one unit which moves within the play area on a hex grid. Each action you can take requires a certain amount of time and appears above the play area on a timeline. Moving one hex takes a certain amount of time, firing your gun takes a certain amount of time, punching a guy in the face takes a certain amount of time. Complicating matters is that most actions have the time they take split up into two sections, the gray set up section which can be interrupted, and the magenta execution section which is where whatever was set up actually happens.
Your job as John Wick is to get from one end of the play space to the other through multiple maps, with each chapter ending with a boss who has a lot of Focus as well as hit points. Their Focus can only be brought down by punching and hit points can only be brought down by shooting. Along the way you will run into a plethora of henchfolk who themselves would like very much to stop you in a very fatal way. Each of them has their own number of hit points and Stun, the first of which is depleted by doing all sorts of horrible things to them and the latter by punching or throwing them. Or throwing your gun at them.
Speaking of guns, you'll start off with a rather nice automatic pistol with one reload, but you will go through those rounds pretty quickly and the only way to get more is by picking up guns dropped by your enemies. Picking up a gun will take time. There is a nice selection of guns that opens up as you move through the levels, from simple semi-automatic pistols at the beginning, to more powerful though slower to aim revolvers, and even a fully automatic machine pistol toward the end of the second chapter. As you can imagine, each of them do different damage and have different timing.
When it comes to hand-to-hand, John Wick is no slouch. Sure, there is the straightforward melee strike (which often turns into a kick to the groin and palm to the nose), but there is also the takedown, a lovely judo throw combined with a one hex movement, and the push, which pushes your enemy up to two hexes away as you follow along.
On top of all these options, you can choose to crouch, which increases your accuracy with a gun while not allowing you to engage in melee shenanigans. Yes, you heard me say accuracy.
All gunshots have a chance to hit based on whether the target is moving or standing still at the moment of execution, if the target is stunned, and – in the case of John Wick – whether or not his suit has been tailored appropriately. Keep moving laterally and you'll be harder to hit. Crouch at long range and you'll be harder to hit. Be temporarily stunned because a bruiser walked up and punched you in the back of your favorite head and you will be coughing up lead.
It is the careful interplay of trying to manage how difficult you are to hit and whether or not somebody with a gun has line of sight to you with your need to take out your opponents in order to proceed that really drives the game and creates the difficulty. The resource that you will never have enough of is not bullets or enemies but time. Taking out a single target is easy. Juggling three attackers at once at multiple ranges in a meaningful way is not. You will be doing a delicate dance of ducking around high cover to break line of sight, crouching behind low cover and rolling (using up some of your limited supply of Focus, which can only be restored by spending a chunk of time standing still), and engaging in disturbingly precise physical engagements in tight quarters against multiple enemies.
It is a lot harder than it looks, but for those people who are true sadomasochists there is an Operator play mode which only allows you six real-time seconds to make your decisions. Combine all of this with combat environments which often involve vertical levels as well as movement bottlenecks which work both for and against you and you have a shockingly complicated environment to deal with.
Having been introduced to the idea that your action proceeds from area to area on a larger map, at the beginning of the second chapter you're given a certain amount of "coins" to purchase either temporary upgrades for your suit (moving reduces more shot accuracy on you more, dodging out of the way of a melee attack costs less Focus, pushes go further, etc.) or planting guns and bandages in the maps ahead for you to find – with the reminder that there won't be any bandages to be found that you don't place. Bandages are the only way that you will heal up outside of the time between chapters.
Polite Mass-Murder R Us
You know how the game plays. You have some idea of where the difficulty lies. You know that this review is based on the pre-release press build of the game. What is really on the table? Is it any good? Should you throw your hard earned kopecks, pounds sterling, or almighty dollars on the altar to Moloch for the pleasure? Is it really worth $20 USD on the Epic Game Store?
I'd say so. It is a departure from the tactical experiences of the past, and as an experiment alone it's probably worth $20. That the game is incredibly difficult once you get into it just makes it more rewarding when you finally figure out not only what you should be doing but that you can do something in a different way than you had been thinking about it.
As an example, I had been stuck on the second boss fight in the game for a little more than half of the week that I've had to review it. I must've thrown myself at that fight a couple of hundred times. The combination of needing to close and grapple with the boss with the literal endless stream of mooks shoving their way through doorways and shooting me when I needed to recover was incredibly frustrating. But then it occurred to me – I had no reason to actually go into the room with the boss. I could kick open the door, shoot the guy standing next to him, then dash down the hallway and around the corner to a much more defensible position and wait until he came to me. It was still a nightmarish fight that required as much luck as skill, but coming up with the right tactic made all the difference.
Don't go into this game thinking that it is going to be a heavily polished, mainstream-targeting AAA game because it just isn't. It is an extremely indie small team product for a surprisingly large licensed IP, and it shows. There are still some rough spots. I fully expect the release version to smooth out a little bit of the difficulty spikes and probably give another pass of spit polishing to the graphics.
My major complaint about the game are the monster closets, the doors through which enemies can enter at what feels like anytime to screw up your day. While you generally have a bit of warning, even if they're out of sight, because they make a door opening sound, in some areas they can be a little dense when they pop all at the same time. That is a gameplay tuning issue and that'll get worked out.
Some people may find JWH to be a little too much like a puzzle game, and in some ways it is. Most levels have a set of enemies which are pre-placed when you enter and some that are randomly inserted. Figuring out the best way to make your way through can feel like blind groping when you reach a new area. Working out how best to duck, dodge, throw, and punch your way through the thick of things while keeping an eye on the timeline and juggling who can do what when is very much a puzzle. If you don't like puzzles, this is not a game for you.
If you're looking for a steep tactical challenge, if you like the John Wick franchise, if you've been looking for a strategu shooter without actually being a shooter (though there is a replay button at the end of each section which allows you to watch the action as if you were looking through cinematic cameras following Wick around), then this is a good investment of your time and money.
Pros & Cons
- Hard, uncompromising gameplay
- Indie development
- Hardcore action
- Surprising complexity
- Not polished
- Monster closets are the devil
- Epic Game Store (for some)
- Really, no joke, it's tough
Note that all of the discussion above is based on the press version of the game - while it's complete & representative of the full retail experience, there were probably some bugs we encountered that have already been fixed for the launch today.