John Wick Hex review - Brilliant mechanics, held back by presentation

Published: 16:43, 09 October 2019
John Wick Hex key art
John Wick Hex key art

Bithell Games came up with a creative and unique way to play John Wick Hex in order to channel the feeling of Baba Yaga himself but the magic conveyed by creativity was throttled by the more technical aspects of the game.

John Wick Hex is a game that threw me into conflict with myself when trying to decide a subjective rating for it so I had to split it into two sections, each of them an aggregate of key video game elements. The gameplay itself proved to be something innovative in an unexpected, yet very welcome way. Meanwhile, the presentation left much to be desired.

Let's kick things off on a positive note, with the gameplay elements. It is hard to describe John Wick Hex's gameplay style because it is both real-time and turn-based simultaneously. The game definitely offers players opportunities to make their tactical choices while the time around them is suspended, just like any turn-based game would.

On the other hand, it's not the classic turns like in XCOM games nor initiative like in Divinity Original Sin that decides who gets the next move. Each move you make with John takes time, just like the moves the enemies make. Therefore, it is time alone that decides who can perform an action sooner, just like in any real-time game. 

As such, we have a game that borrows from both worlds, so one could be led to believe it is a real-time experience with tactical pause, much like CRPGs, along the lines of Dragon Age: Origins or Pillars of Eternity. While that sentiment would be correct to an extent, so are the ones about John Wick Hex being a turn-based game or a real-time one.

It is this puzzling mash of gameplay mechanics that fascinated me the most. Bithell Games certainly went well above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to a creative way to make a player feel like they are in John Wick's shoes. 

Had the game been in real-time, it wouldn't be able to convey the need for various colourful moves seen in the films on the account of players not being highly trained assassins, capable of making such decisions in split second. On the other hand, if it went with regular turn-based combat, it wouldn't feel as fluid as it needs to be, in order to be a faithful John Wick recreation.

Instead, Mike Bithell trod the unbeaten path and created unique mechanics that served the purpose, dare I say, perfectly. As I previously mentioned, there is a healthy mix of strikes, parries, grappling, shooting and gun throwing that keeps the action varied at all times. One could potentially find the game to be too easy but the Expedited mode puts a limit of five seconds on the time you have to choose your move, making it considerably harder. 

While there is no official statement on the matter, it's safe to say a mode with a lower time cap is possible in a post-launch update for those seeking even more of a challenge. Bottom line is that barring some minor balancing issues, the gameplay just feels amazing.

Bithell Games John Wick Hex combat screenshot Timelines on the top of the screen indicate the characters' actions will take place. The ones that happen sooner can interrupt the later actions

Presentation, which includes art style, animations and voice acting is not nearly as well done as gameplay. The art style itself is not bad. It's nothing groundbreaking but the comic-like presentation style fits into the narrative and John Wick mythos well enough. One might like it and one might hate it but I feel like this is a classic way of proving that the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Characters of John Wick, Winston and Charon bear a striking resemblance to their counterparts from the movies, while the eponymous villain, Hex, is a completely new character.

He is coincidentally the first instance of the presentation going wrong. John is not voiced at all but that really is not a big deal as the story works fine without him talking - it is told from the perspective of the other three main characters and the gameplay sequences have already happened at the moment of their discourse. The actual issue here is Troy Baker's voice acting.

Sounds incredible, right? I'm talking about the same Troy Baker that delivered as the Joker after Mark Hammil in previous Arkham games. He played roles filled with emotional moments like Joel in The Last of Us, badass characters like Erron Black in Mortal Kombat 11 and iconic villains such as Gul'dan in World of Warcraft.

Baker's performance as Hex is not versatile, emotional, badass or iconic by any stretch of the imagination. It is hard to pinpoint what went wrong here but the fact that he sounds like he's constipated all the time and talking with a mouth full of dough could be an indicator that there was not enough preparation time or that someone really insisted on a whispery villain with Brooklyn accent even when it didn't sound good. To top it off, Hex is not exactly a well-written character and this wouldn't be the first case of sub-par writing dragging an entire performance down. 

On the flip side, the characters of Winston and Charon have been so faithfully recreated that their portrayal alone deserve accolades. Both of them keep their cool at all times, reacting to the situation with their unique brands of elegance. Ian McShane and Lance Reddick's performances are spotless. 

These two easily make up for the poor execution of Hex but spending time and other resources on them are not excluded as possible reasons for taking away from the villain. You can check the three characters out at the start of the video immediately below.

Aside from Hex, the game's presentation issues are best represented in animation. While John can perform parries, grappling takedowns and melee strikes, one can easily see them being underdeveloped, especially once a player launches the replay feature, following a successful level clear.

The feature works in a similar manner to that of Katana Zero - a player completes a level by not being aware of what their performance would look like in real-time due to gameplay mechanics interrupting the flow. Once the replay kicks in, it all meshes together, essentially forming a short film that showcases the player's kills in a highlight reel.

On the other hand, Katana Zero players enjoyed their highlight reels as a fluid motion scene while the animations in John Wick Hex tend to be choppy. This results in some hits not connecting, the camera sometimes focusing on an inanimate object instead of action and it's clearly visible when a player's move starts and when it ends.

The last problem highlights the biggest issue in the replays. One of the most compelling reasons to watch John Wick movies is to enjoy the fluid movements in the main character's ballet of death, even without Nick Offerman's narration. John's string of motions looks mesmerising on the big screen, TVs and monitors alike but the game version just falls flat at times.

This usually happens when a parry does not connect with an enemy at all, characters start clipping in each other or they start twitching because they lost the line of sight with their target. There are, however, sequences when these flaws are not that eye-catching and replays look really good in these cases.

The feature is held back by another problem though - you cannot save the replays. There is no button for it. To make matters worse, you can't even take screenshots since neither John Wick Hex nor Epic Games Store have that functionality. Print screen into Ctrl+V in an image manipulation program is literally one of the only two ways to get a screenshot. The other is relying on third-party capture programs such as the unreliable GeForce Experience and Radeon ReLive.

When it's all summed up, a feature that was supposed to be one of John Wick Hex's highlights turned out to be one of its weaker points.

Bithell Games John Wick Hex replay feature John Wick Hex replay feature offers some cool montages at times but it's still troubled with numerous issues

Even though Hex himself is not a shining example of writing brilliance, the story is compelling enough and ignites the player's desire to see its end by completing the campaign. Winston and Charon pick up Hex's slack and keep their exchanges interesting. Overall, it is a pleasant experience.

I played John Wick Hex on a PC with i7 3770, RX 580 and 16GB RAM (DDR3), installed on an HDD. The game loaded quickly and the frames don't dip, regardless of the amount of clutter on the screen. Then again, the art style allowed for less complicated graphics so solid performance is to be expected.

Bottom line, John Wick Hex proved to be a fun experience, well worth the time I sank into it. Those who prefer longer games can play it over and over again since the virtually infinite combinations of luck, weapon usage, movements and other decision making make it extremely replayable.

The animations and Hex hold the game back, however, resulting in a final score of 7 out of 10. It is a score I truly wish was higher due to the brilliantly creative gameplay but just like the high points need to be commended, the not-so-bright spots have to be pointed out.

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