John Wick Hex review: Destroying the myth of the Baba Yaga

If I've learned anything from a week playing John Wick Hex, it's that I'd make a terrible assassin. There's too much going on.

John Wick Hex has an almost impossible task. The strategy game attempts to distill the explosive tornado of the John Wick franchise's action sequences into an easy to control and understand strategy title. A title that has both Wick and his enemies moving at the same time, with movements and actions shown at the top of the screen via an ever-present Adobe Premier Pro-esque timeline.

It mostly works, although a few design decisions made the experience frustrating.

The accountant

The biggest annoyance with John Wick Hex is the game's focus system. Most of the cool moves, whether it's rolling across the ground or taking them down with instant-kill melee attacks, requires Focus. This requires you to keep an eye on your Focus, which is fine, but the way you regain Focus means you need to stand for two seconds and psyche yourself up.

Effectively, this punishes you for doing cool stuff, because dropping a target using a takedown will cost you Focus, but you have to save that Focus so you can dodge if you need to or well, reload. So, you shy away from the balletic death-whirlwind that you see in the John Wick movies. Instead, you end up going for the boring double-tap to the chest.

You'll also spend a lot of time hunting around for new weapons. This is because you're rarely carrying more than the ammunition loaded into a gun at any given time. You might perhaps have a few spare magazines, and they're limited to the weapon you're clutching as you enter the level and any you drop yourself on the way by stashing them in a pre-mission planning screen. Weapons differ only slightly in terms of how much damage they do and how long it takes to fire them.

Then, you start trying to keep track of your bandages, too, as they're the only thing you can use to recharge your health, and you need to drop these in pre-mission also. The result of all of these changes is that you have to continually keep track of your ammo, health, and focus. In direct contrast to John Wick's cinematic performance, you're ultra-conservative, managing your resources and trying to kill people with the minimum of effort.

Unfortunately, that isn't all that fun.

Killing them softly

Hex's aesthetic is killer, neon colors, cel-shading, and moody hues make it a treat to look at, even if they don't appear to have Keanu Reeve's actual likeness. Wick is also mute in the game, his actions narrated by Ian McShane and Lance Reddick, who are reprising their movie roles, joined by Troy Baker because it's a video game in 2019.

However, the animations in the game are weaker. Wick shoots all enemies center mass, while he performs the same handful of melee attacks, which feel clunky. Part of this is going to be a budgetary concern: it's impossible to make attacks feel as fluid as they would be in a choreographed fight scene, but it makes the game visually a lot less appealing.

This stiltedness is more evident with the end of mission replay function, which lets you see the action as it plays out in real-time and stars Wick waddling from place to place, scavenging for new guns, rolling backward and forward, or repeatedly punching people in the neck. I do enjoy the takedown animations, although there are too few of these, also.

As a result, visually, Hex looks great in screenshots, but in motion, it seems clumsy.

All of the ingredients of a quality game are here. Still, it feels like this murderous dish could have used a bit longer in the oven, allowing a more varied set of moves, more weaponry, and a better selection of animations. It wouldn't have solved all of the problems with the game, but it would have helped massage some of the numerous issues in the game.

Final Thoughts

I think a lot of the dissonance with John Wick Hex comes from what it is trying to emulate. Wick is known for his rapid improvisation and unstoppable killing ability. The Baba Yaga is legendary, and he doesn't stop coming, killing people with his gun, hands, or even a pencil — a pencil! — if he needs to.

By contrast, in the game, Wick shoots people in the most boring way possible, eager to conserve resources and remain as efficient as possible. It lacks the flamboyance of the movies, and I think the game suffers for it. There are no improvised weapons or takedowns really, and it makes it all feel a bit... basic?

As a result, playing it feels weird. It's a novel idea, and I'm excited to see strategy games taking a new approach to combat at a tactical level. However, it falls down here for me too because enemies mostly just approach you, pushing you to fall back, lest you risk losing any of your precious resources.

Weapon variety in the game isn't great, and the enemies all seem to have the same basic idea of walking towards you until you shoot them or they shoot you. Enemies also spawn through particular doors continually, meaning you have to keep pushing forward, or you'll be punished. Except that the spawn rates often mean pushing forwards leaves you surrounded by enemies as they spawn behind you, meaning you're always surrounded.

The result of all this is that, as a player, I rarely felt like I was John Wick. That is rather supposed to be the point, isn't it?

Jake Tucker

Jake Tucker has been writing about video games and technology for a decade, which he loves. He is better at this than writing about himself, which he does not. He's on Twitter on _Jaketucker.