Stylish cinematic super-violence is transformed into smart temporal puzzles.
It all clicked when I got really stuck. I wasn't sure about John Wick Hex at first. I was put off by the lankiness of the art style, where shoulders are quarterback broad and the arms and legs seem to travel for miles. I was put off by the end-of-level replays that squish your brainteaser battles down to a few staccato seconds, with little in the way of cinematic zip. There's John Wick, right in the middle of the screen, blandly double-tapping away as an endless collection of what look like fancy waiters and up-market estate agents pile in on him. Business as usual, but the whole thing didn't truly feel very Wickian.
Why not? Hex borrows from games like Superhot and All Walls Must Fall: time only moves when you do. This means that the game is perfect for creating that kind of interior monologue of brutality as you work through the order of your actions, time and space converging. Firstly, I'll shoot that guy coming through the door. Then I'll tackle that guy lurking behind the bar. If I roll over to the far corner, I can probably tackle that one before she even sees me. Then I can take stock and reload.
All well and good, but that's Jack Reacher rather than John Wick, I would argue. Reacher's the planner, the strategist, brainying his way through encounters that add up to spatial, temporal puzzles, chess with a bit of kneecapping chucked in. Wick always feels much more flowing and wordless than that. We are never allowed inside the Wick headspace. The director calls the films reverse-first-person-shooters. They're about skating from one encounter to the next, about dancing between shivvings with your mind gloriously empty. John Wick films are basically deadly musicals, aren't they? Choreography and footwork, with a brassy tune from The Man of La Mancha slapped over the trailer. Hex, the calculating strategy puzzler, initially seemed a bit too thoughtful.
But then I got stuck. I sailed through the first level, and got thoroughly bogged down in the second. And that's when I realised that, whether or not it tied into my notion of what a John Wick game could be, Hex is pretty special in its own right.
It's all about economy. That's pretty Wickian, right? You start each top-down level with a gun and a couple of bandages. You also start with full health and decent focus, a meter that allows you to do stuff like instant takedowns and combat rolls. The thing is, when the game starts to throw baddies around you, as you hex your way through compact environments, pushing back the fog of war with each step, you need to manage all that stuff. You can shoot people, sure, but you probably want to hold onto your bullets when you can. So just get in close and tackle them, then? Yes, nice plan, but that eats through your focus and there's also the chance that, if the enemy you're up against is armed, they might shoot you before you close the gap. Bandages run out pretty quickly, and they also take time to apply. It takes time to do a little labrador shake that regains focus. It takes time to switch stances so you can combat roll. It takes time to reload your gun or pick up someone else's once you're out of ammo. Everything is sharpened by opportunity cost.
Man, this is where the game truly lurks. And the more you play, the more you realise you're actually playing the timeline that runs along the top of the screen. The timeline shows you the cost in seconds of everything you're planning to do. As time only moves when you do, you can mess around planning things while you're standing still and the world stands still around you. And this quickly becomes a lot of fun, because the timeline also shows you the timescale of everything your enemies are doing. So you can shoot a guy, right, but the timeline shows that he's going to shoot you first. So maybe throw your gun? That will stun him and do some damage and it's quicker than getting off a shot, but then you won't have a gun. Can you then get to him while he's stunned? Do you have enough focus to finish him off with a combat tackle?
It took a while for this to click. At first, all I saw were the percentages that pop up when you pick an action: 90 per cent chance to hit with a shot, 100 per cent chance to stun with a thrown gun. I saw the different weapons, with their different per centage chances, the different hand-to-hand moves with the different amounts of damage they all do. But really, more than it's about the odds, it's all about the time.
Actually, it's about time twice. There's the moment you're in, but then there's also the moment that follows. Each level is broken down into a series of stages, and your vitals carry over between these stages. So you can ace the first stage with no damage, but maybe you've wasted most of your bullets. Or maybe you just squeaked past a mid-level boss but used up all your bandages. You can replay each stage, which is where the real fun lies, but you'll always start with the same hand you've dealt yourself through your previous actions. And you can make the most of the pre-level planning sequence, spending money on perks or on equipment that you can stash in various stages up ahead - but once the stuff is stashed you still have to find it, and that money doesn't go very far anyway.
All of this keeps the game racing along far more efficiently than any quirk or wrinkle it can add to the design as things evolve. New weapons and new enemies are fine, but it's that timeline system that really makes things sing. Bosses are a bit of a drag and the plot is fairly skippable, but those second-to-second decisions retain their appeal, no matter how stuck I am, and no matter how many times I've plodded through the same level, walked the same alleyways or dockyards, the layout remaining the same while the enemy spawn points constantly shift.
There is a great game lurking in John Wick. This series is so infused with the spirit of games, its world-building is so gamey, how could there not be? I'm still not sure that John Wick Hex is actually that precise game, but who cares when it's pretty great in its own right?