When talking about games based on the John Wick movies, you might think of fast-paced action titles like John Wick Chronicles for VR headsets or shooters such as Payday 2 and Fortnite, both of which offer Wick-themed DLC. But Bithell Games, makers of Thomas Was Alone and Volume, is taking a decidedly different approach with the franchise with its upcoming game John Wick Hex.
I was joined by John Wick Hex co-designer and lead programmer Nick Tringali, who helped walk me through an early demo of the game. The game is a tactical action strategy game with highly stylized graphics. Players need to make their way across levels while taking on a series of enemies that emerge to kill you.
One of the first things to stand out was its minimal use of colors in darkened environments.
“Our art style is about evoking the movies without trying to directly replicate things photo-realistically,” Tringali explained as I played through the demo.
Time to kill
Although Tringali explains that the aim is to capture the feel of John Wick’s style of combat, the game feels much more deliberate and paced compared to visceral movie fight scenes. Aside from health and ammunition, players have two main resources to manage, time and focus.
John Wick Hex plays out in semi-real-time in that the action freezes between moves. This provides players with an opportunity to analyze the situation and react. Then it’s a matter of picking the move you want — whether it be shooting, melee, dodging, or moving — and seeing how it plays out. All actions require time, and variables such as distance determine the likelihood of an attack connecting and doing damage. Thus, you may have just a small chance of hitting an enemy that’s halfway across the map, forcing you to move closer. Time unfreezes while you move, giving all enemies on the level a chance to attack.
Meanwhile, John Wick needs focus to pull off some of the more advanced moves, such as moving while crouched, dodging, or dealing certain melee attacks. You only have a limited number of points, so you need to have him take some time to “refocus” every so often to keep him from getting hurt.
It took a little time to get used to the system, but I was soon taking out enemies like a pro. Despite its pace and setup, John Wick Hex isn’t a stealth game. You can sneak up on an unsuspecting enemy early on, but even melee takedowns will alert everyone to your presence. Then they’ll all single-mindedly come to kill you.
You can move behind objects to break line-of-sight or duck down to make for a smaller target. That said, the game doesn’t put much emphasis on cover. Moving out of sight also puts you at a slight disadvantage because you can’t know where enemies move either. This ups the tension as you try to guess the direction enemies will approach you from. Still, I couldn’t help wishing that there was some sort of skill like listening for footsteps to help clue me in.
Hit or miss
The one thing that frequently frustrated me was how new enemies continue to appear mid-mission, often emerging from areas that I had already walked past to sneak up on me. There was also no way to peek around corners and deliberately set a trap by waiting until an unsuspecting guard came close. Unless it’s at the very beginning of the mission and the guard’s back is turned, enemies usually have no trouble spotting you.
On the other hand, the guards can act somewhat predictably. Most of them walked in straight lines towards me, making it easier to shoot them. Melee fighters were the easiest to deal with because I could simply shoot them in the face as they drew close. Enemies also spawn at the same places and times, and it didn’t take much effort to remember where everyone was or came from when I died and had to replay a stage.
Additionally, this low-level version of John Wick has some sort of aversion to holding extra weapon mags. Reloading typically means picking a new gun from the recently deceased, which can become a bit awkward, especially since your bullet count carries over to the next stage. But I have to admit that, even though I came close, I never had a problem with running out of bullets.
The demo only had 9mm pistols, but Tringali promised that more advanced weapons will be available when the game launches. It remains to be seen whether high-style bulletproof couture suits will be involved.
What it won’t have is the incredible sense of improvisation John Wick shows in the movies when he picks people with everyday objects, kicks people through plate glass windows, or throwing knives back after a near miss. According to Tringali, the development focused heavily on the jujitsu and gun-fu, combined with the situational awareness that tactical games provide. Putting in melee weapons didn’t add much to the existing combat.
The demo included several linear missions that didn’t have any voice acting or story elements connecting them. While the final boss was challenging and took me three tries to beat, he was also nameless and generic. His only standout feature was doing exceptional gun damage while being immune to bullets, which required me to get in close and take him down with melee attacks.
Although the experience was impressive, the lack of recognizable features separated it from its source material. Everything took place in narrow streets, hallways, and offices that were only populated by enemies. I enjoyed the artwork and gameplay, but the demo didn’t feature any crazy, crowded locations the way the movies do. In short, it was difficult to remember that this was supposed to be a John Wick game. Hopefully, this issue will be largely resolved once the story is in place.
This time, it’s impersonal
Tringali didn’t reveal much about John Wick Hex’s plot, other than it’s an original story written by Mike Bithell that acts as a prequel to the movies. Bithell also consulted with some of the movie crew, particularly the stunt team, to ensure that the fighting stayed authentic to the films.
However, he doesn’t say how long before the movies it takes place, so it’s tough to say whether Wick is fighting to retire or just doing business as usual. In any case, it’s safe to say that there will be no dogs or personal revenge motives involved. We’ll have to wait and see if the signature Ford Mustang shows up, though.
Additionally, even though already we know that actors Ian McShane and Lance Reddick will feature in Hex, Tringali couldn’t tell me if Keanu Reeves will lend his voice to the title character.
John Wick Hex doesn’t have a release date yet, but it will release exclusively on the Epic Games Store when it launches on the PC.