Playing John Wick Hex feels a hell of a lot more like actually being John Wick than any top down strategy game has any right to. The film might be all about fast, flowing gun fight set pieces, but this takes a far more patient, turn based puzzle approach. However, the two meet via their ruthlessly efficient approach to time management that defines both the film's action sequences, and in-game combat. It means that while they play out in very different ways they leave an almost identical afterimage of muzzle flashes and executions.
I'm thinking I'm back
You see, John Wick's thing on screen is that while he's a good shot, the gun is just a tool and he'll use the best, most practical option at any given time to get the job done – it might be movement to create space, a shove in the face to buy time, or using the gun like a punch to shoot someone he's almost touching in the midst of a fist fight. Whatever keeps him alive at that exact moment in time is the right answer.
John Wick Hex recreates that combat ethos via a timeline based combat system that measures out the actual time taken by any given action. Movement, shooting and other activities all take different amounts of time, and when you take a 'turn' everyone on screen all implement their current choices at once. The temptation might be to shoot the bad guy right in front of you but if they're going to get the shot off first it's not going to end well, forcing you to consider quicker, potentially less effective but more survivable options. Simpley ducking and rolling can be one of the most powerful moves in the game, simultaneously lowering your chances of being hit while repositioning you – both in terms of cover in the world, and the timeline. If you work it all out right, you should end up free from danger and with an advantage on the timeline for your next shot.
It seems weird to say that such a kinetic, and constantly moving on screen presence is best suited to the stop and start of something turn based but it absolutely works. Something more action based – in first or third person – would simple have been a shooter with a Keanu mask on. Do you really think you could play something like a traditional FPS well enough to feel like John Wick? The frenetic precision murder that defines the movies just wouldn't work in real time.
What really makes the turn-based time management really click though is how it makes you feel like you're entering into the mindset of the character. Because you can preview the amount of time your actions take, and that of those around you, you have the space to strategize – to plan your next move, assess the impact, and think several steps ahead. The whole thing plays out like Superhot Chess as time stops and starts, alternating between decision making and execution. A fog of war system and unpredictable enemies keeps you on your toes at all times, constantly having to reconsider and rebalance your plans as things change. You never think you're going to throw a gun at a bad guy's nose until it's the only option that works.
There's one last interesting twist to all this: while playing the game involves a lot of thought, consideration, and careful planning – accessing the time frames of everything from shooting someone, ducking behind a table or even reloading – you remember each level like a scene from the film. When you replay a successful mission back in your head your brain just edits out all the thinking and gives you the action, again doubling down on that sensation of 'being' John Wick. There's an as yet unimplemented replay mode on the way that will actually play completed sections as a movie clip, too. Hopefully showing just how good a John Wick you'd make if you got the chance and didn't have very normal, healthy fear of dying in lavishly choreographed shoot out.