Gamescom Hands-on: John Wick Hex – Reeves in the wind

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I scratched my head when they announced John Wick Hex. I scratched harder when I learnt it would be a timeline strategy title. Arriving in Germany, I had grooves in my scalp and no idea what to expect.

The tie-in game to Keanu Reeves’ highly-successful movie franchise did have a bumpy start. From a conceptual standpoint, making the strategy turn-based would have been completely ill-fitting. The action in John Wick moves at a very rapid rate and without him pausing mid-combat to study his next shot. The game may not be looking to offer a cinematic experience, but any kind of gameplay approach must invoke aesthetic and mechanical similarities from the source. And if you’re not going for a straight-up shooter, then you’re going to need to get smart.

From all indications, it is. To play John Wick Hex, you need to play with time.

Using a simple overhead view, you must guide John through back alleys and tearooms while taking down masked muscle with guns. Moving in hexagonal patterns, you must manoeuvre him into positions where he is able to either take the shot, dodge the shot, or physically take the shooter down. All of this within a time frame of a few seconds. Seriously, from John’s point of view, he’s cleared the level in the space of ten seconds. It’s not just simple moving and shooting though. John can become disoriented if he sprints and rolls around too fast. And while starting levels may prove to be easy to complete, you can fall to a swarm of adversaries with gunfire that is spaced out in mere milliseconds.

At an immediate glance, the gameplay looks stunted. Literally freezing mid-action while you ponder John’s next move, it has the potential to alienate one’s engagement and put players off not long after they’ve started. Strategy games by design don’t have an immediate satisfaction point. You need to be patient with the build-up to the payoff.

At the top screen is a timeline bar, counting down tenths of a second as you progress through each level. Moving along you encounter adversaries whose actions are also being timed. Coordination is the key as you decide on which action to take according to the moment of time you have. 3.2 seconds until they take the shot. Half a second for you to crouch and a full second for you to roll over. 2.2 seconds for you to refocus yourself. They’re in firing range in .6 of a second. It is all very meticulous. Don’t think that you can just run at them guns blazing.

You only have so many bullets and therefore it is sometimes preferable to perform a strike or a parry. But while you’re doing all of this, the next foe is coming into range and you’re still busy taking down the first. The game requires you to remain cognisant of the entire scene. And while one or two enemies doesn’t sound like much of a challenge, they will eventually double, triple in number and it won’t be such a clean run anymore. I may still be running off the turn-based high I have from playing Mutant Year Zero earlier in the year, but John Wick Hex had me fully engaged and enjoying its approach to situational combat.

The game does officially tie into the franchise, serving as a prequel to the events of the first film. There are also details to strengthen the realism of the combat situation, while also accurately depicting John’s efficiency at killing people. You reload your gun, the bullets left in the old magazine will not magically reappear in the new one. You also can’t expect to have continuous Terminator-style perception. He needs to take a moment, shake his head, and realign himself in the moment.

Right now, there’s not that much say about the stylish and stylised visuals. Mike Bithell and his team are turning to the Far East for inspiration. Lines and colour schemes that look like they were lifted from a manga novel, and not like the aesthetic that we saw in John Wick 3. It’s weird to see Keanu Reeves here at Gamescom being illustrated in two different art forms: The 3D realism of Cyberpunk 2077, and the comic book-style subtlety of John Wick Hex. In either rendition, he looks fabulous.

Despite tying into a very popular movie franchise, John Wick Hex definitely won’t appeal to the larger audience. The gameplay is too niche. But that won’t stop me nor many people from getting a kick out the simple yet diabolical mechanics, and the overall kick that comes when your coordination pays off in the flawless execution of your enemies.

Though planned for release on PC and all major consoles, we have yet to hear a confirmed release date.

Last Updated: August 22, 2019

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