Can a proper John Wick video game truly be made? You may look at a film series like John Wick and assume its guns, martial arts, fast cars, and worldwide mafioso hideouts are the stuff of a dream video game.
But for me, I imagine that game’s design perspective and start sweating bullets. The character of John Wick is a laser-focused, ultra-durable hit man, all perfect aim and uproarious slapstick. How do you translate that hero’s superhuman prowess accurately in a video game yet somehow make it challenging to play? Can a real-time action game, either first- or third-person, ever do that sensation justice without automatically cheating its players into Wick-like perfection?
The first true game based on the series, John Wick Hex, answers this quandary with a clever angle. The films’ hero has an uncanny ability to scan and understand an entire room full of bad guys like he’s a supercomputer. If he can figuratively slow time down and pick off his foes with precision, couldn’t the video game version do the same?
Eyes on the timeline
The resulting video game, as designed by Mike Bithell (Thomas Was Alone, Volume), has occasionally been described as “John Wick chess,” but that description doesn’t do this game’s best bits any justice. Instead, imagine the tactical movement and combat of classic XCOM games married with a “time moves when you move” twist from Superhot.
The game takes place before the events of the first John Wick film, which means it recalls the titular character’s past as a legendary hit man before he “got out.” Two of the film’s biggest actors, Ian McShane and Lance Reddick, appear as voice actors for Winston and Charon, respectively, and they narrate Wick’s bloody search to take out a man named Hex. Weirdly, Hex joins the narration crew, which immediately asks a compelling question: how could one of the famed Baba Yaga’s targets live to tell the tale?
We eventually find out, but not before leading Wick through seven bloody “chapters” of tactical combat. The above gallery spells out the game’s flow and mechanics. Players guide the character of John Wick around a hex grid of spaces in various Wick-appropriate locales, so it’s all nightclubs, seedy alleyways, rich villains’ outposts, and so on. Time is frozen by default, until players toggle a specific command (walk, crouch, roll, attack), at which point time moves forward both for John and for anyone else in the vicinity. Time will freeze the instant John notices a new perp in his line of sight, as well, at which point you can begin plotting how to kill them. (No, there’s no “diplomacy” option for the world’s most deadly assassin.)
“Fog of war” fills the air around John, so players must move him forward carefully toward each level’s “exit” point (marked by an icon, even through all the fog) and then be prepared to react whenever a foe materializes. Sometimes, players can bee-line to the objective point and be done (though you won’t survive if you leave any nearby baddies alive). Other times, the objective point will have an icon indicating that John needs to kill more perps before he can leave. Either way, until John leaves a given zone, foes can materialize from a number of nearby doors and gates, all marked by hot-pink markers, and they, too, are professionals in the killing world.
John’s superiority over the other assassins is represented in one clear metric: time. Every Wick action takes a sliver of time less than anyone else in the room, and so long as he minds his position and tactics, he can defeat everyone else in the room without much struggle. The catch is, the odds ramp-up as Wick racks up more victims, so you won’t survive without juggling a series of consequence-filled decisions, each taking up approximately half a second of real-time action.
If a few enemies surprise you, the timeline at the top of the screen will indicate which oncoming threat might attack first. Does that mean John should target the first foe in the damage timeline? And does he have time to line up a gun shot? If not, should he throw his pistol instead as a faster but weaker attack? Might he be able to use a foe as a human shield if he spends a limited “focus” point system to crouch and somersault into a different position?
Stylish, refreshing, but maybe a bit too tough
The key driver of JWH‘s tension is that most of its tactical options force some sort of movement. A “shove” not only damages a foe but sends them reeling in a direction of your choice, possibly as a buffer between you and another foe. A “takedown” lets you sidestep after knocking a perp out. And a thrown pistol is a quick-enough maneuver to afford you some last-second safety, but it comes at the cost of making you scurry to grab a replacement gun. (You can only hold one weapon at a time.)
At its best, this resembles the bouncy back-and-forth combat of a typical John Wick film. Having a default selection of so many “basic” maneuvers, each with battle consequences, feels like fresh tactical-combat air compared to a default “press A to attack” move over and over. While that core experience feels great, be warned that you’re not going to fake like John Wick in other respects. You’re not racing cars with John Leguizamo, getting into suspenseful conversations at the Continental, or shooting gangsters while riding a horse. (Also, while virtual John Wick resembles Keanu Reeves, the actor otherwise makes zero appearances here.)
Worse, JWH has a few choke points in challenge and strategy, where every seemingly smart move—ducking strategically behind cover, escaping to recover ammo, circling around foes to have more one-on-one chances to live—still isn’t good enough. I ran into two particular boss battles that had me throw up my hands in despair, and the second one was so ridiculous, owing to a bullet sponge of a boss surrounded by endlessly spawning thugs, that I still haven’t beaten the game.
I’m hopeful that some retuning of the game’s thug-spawn system can help players get a little further in “normal” difficulty. This isn’t helped by a mix of static and random enemy spawns within each given level; sometimes, I could get an edge just by restarting, at which point a completely different crew of enemies appeared in my first ten footsteps. That, too, seems like a difficulty-tuning oversight.
Not that I expect a John Wick-caliber game to be a cakewalk. This is the Baba Yaga we’re talking about, and living up to his tactical-badass standards is a worthy video game goal. If you’re looking for a tactical action game that pushes your strategic thinking to the limits, even in “normal,” JWH has your back. But my hope is that the difficulty gets a nudge in a patch, because the game also includes an optional “par” system that rewards expert players for surviving missions without using health bonuses, for maintaining high weapon accuracy, for faster completion times, and more. I prefer that kind of flexible difficulty stuff, especially as new players figure the game out, then try again later while staying aware of those par objectives.
With those complaints in mind, I’m still charmed by John Wick Hex as a modest, authentic dive into the origins of Keanu Reeves’ latest blockbuster character. A certain breed of games fan loves the possibilities of an “XCOM-like” game, but it’s been a while since a game ran with those inspirations somewhere truly refreshing and interesting. For that, John Wick Hex isn’t just a great game for fans of the series; it’s great for that picky niche of gamers who like “action” games built for stopping, breathing, and working out strategies.
- The most refreshing “XCOM-like” game we’ve seen since, well, the 2012 XCOM reboot.
- Nearly every “default” maneuver forces movement and bounciness in a way that feels like a John Wick film, not a generic tactical RPG.
- Pulsing techno music and dramatically lit dens of the underworld make this feel like an authentic John Wick experience.
- In the game’s pre-release period, difficulty tuning veers a bit too far into unfairly obnoxious territory.
- Some of the film’s actors appear, but no Keanu? Heinous. (In seriousness, the lack of Wick’s spoken dialogue makes the solid plot a bit tougher to sink our teeth into.)
Verdict: Great if you like tough tactical games; a harder sell if you’re merely a fan of the films.
Listing image by Good Shepherd Entertainment