John Wick doesn't suit turn-based strategy games. He's not one to plan things out. Instead the suited, bearded assassin prefers lethal improvisation until there's a flood of moaning, injured people in his wake. Those moves are truly a sight to behold, and in John Wick Hex, the new game all about Keanu Reeves' assassin, you get to use them a lot. But this isn't the fast-paced blink-and-you'll-miss-it combat from the movies.
Instead, I spoke to creator Mike Bithell about how in John Wick Hex you'll be carefully planning your attacks using a timeline to make sure enemies never quite get the drop on you. Yes, using the world 'timeline' might have just given you serious history class flashbacks, but stick around and you'll find out why John Wick Hex is the best way you make you feel like you've got John Wick's lethal skills coursing through your veins.
Timelines and kickin' ass
Real-time strategy is the best way to describe John Wick Hex, with some added cinematic quality thrown in. Having a timeline of your actions at the top of the screen in John Wick Hex might sound a bit dry, but each move takes a certain amount of time to complete. Bithell tells me that they're "calling it a timeline strategy, rather than turn-based or real-time," as to really feel like the world-class assassin, you have to assume that he has an intimate knowledge of how he can counterattack anyone in his way, so it makes sense that Wick knows how long it'll take foes to stab, shoot, or get close enough to punch his lights out. With enemy timelines appearing just below yours, you'll have to carefully decide what you have time to do to make sure your blood stays firmly in your veins instead of spilling on the floor.
Crouching to dodge bullets before they're fired or moving to behind a column will save you most of the time, or you can parry a melee attack, do a takedown to incapacitate enemies instantly, simply push them away, or – if you're out of bullets (and patience) – yeet your gun at foes. Doing so will stagger them long enough for you to get close, punch 'em so hard they collapse in a pathetic little ball, and be on your way. The real-time strategy of John Wick Hex is "a nice way to kind of do something that’s in the world of John Wick but isn’t trying to be a John Wick movie," Bithell tells me, "and isn’t stepping on what they’ve done with that amazing visual stuff, which we are all huge, massive fans of."
At first a relatively limited moveset – there are only six things you can do as John Wick (shoot, parry, takedown, strike, push, shoot, or throw gun) – sounds restrictive, yet it's really not. Imagine a kind of bloody beat-em-up chess, and that's what it feels like to play John Wick Hex: satisfying is an understatement when it comes to describing how it feels to seamlessly eliminate enemies even when you're surrounded from all sides. Due to the precision of the timeline at your disposal, when you hover over an enemy you can see the modifiers that alter how much damage you do and how likely you are to hit, so when I was watching it being played before my eyes it really felt like I had the entirety of John Wick's knowledge at my disposal. That's exactly what Bithell wants anyone playing to feel, as in the game "you’re kind of making these choices which feel like John Wick choices. We’ve modelled the rules of a John Wick fight scene, and then … get you as a player to figure out how best to deal with it," says Bithell. "Because with John Wick, it is about that speed of decision-making. But I want you as a player to be able to make those choices."
Getting everything perfectly lined up timeline-wise makes you feel almost as tactical and precise as Wick himself, though obviously without the whole life-and-death-scenario being a reality. Plus a replay option is going to be available at the end of each level, so you can watch your assassin demolish his opponents in real time and see just how important that timeline is, hopefully making it feel as if you were creating a perfectly-choreographed scene just like Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, the minds behind the action of the John Wick movies. When the replay mode does make it into the game (I was unable to see a preview of it at E3 2019, unfortunately), it should show you just how astoundingly quick each level is, with decisions that might have taken you minutes to make passing by in seconds.
John Wick the game vs John Wick the movie
Unsurprisingly, the John Wick movies have had a massive impact on John Wick Hex. To kick-start that John Wick style Bithell tells me how his team "found our favourite three seconds of the most dense kind of action, and the animators made that in engine" to get a vague impression of what the game would look like. Then they started a rather intimidating task of "making animations based on every move you ever see the character do in the movie". Every move. Just like the movies, Hex has the same attention to detail coursing through its veins: "we’re making sure that it always looks like his hand placement is correct, and that he’s always aiming at the right body part," Bithell tells me. "It’s a really small detail, but for something like this, it’s so important. The seriousness with which this universe treats the action, and the believability of the action – we wanted to make sure that we got that sense in the game."
Even the reloading follows the movie's strict adherence to reality. So Bithell tells me that "reloads are done realistically … if you have a gun with 14 bullets and you want that one extra bullet in your reload, you’ll throw away 14 other bullets." Unlike in other games, you won't magically get that bullet back. For those who suffer from compulsive reloading syndrome like me, where my magazine always has to be full (even if I've only fired one bullet), John Wick Hex forces you to think like an assassin from the very beginning.
Like Wick himself, you'll have to pick up enemies' guns, use bullets wisely, and improvise when you're in the middle of the action. Don't expect to run into any thoughtfully-placed ammo chests in John Wick Hex… Those are all things you have to bear in mind when you're planning how to eliminate the baddies hunting you down in John Wick Hex. Run out of bullets and you can always throw your guns at enemies to momentarily stun them, but you had better be ready to put your dukes up and punch your way out of trouble.
Why there's no dog
Although you definitely play as John Wick, this isn't the Wick we know. The whole game is a prequel to the movies, which means no dog, no Helen, and no revenge-oriented mean streak. With his dog being such an intrinsic part of Wick's character arc in the first movie, Bithell explained the thinking that went into making sure this Wick is pet- and love-less.
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"John Wick, obviously, in the first movie, it’s a powerful thing when his dog dies, and it sets him off, and we get movies as a result. If that was his fourth dog, it wouldn’t be quite so powerful. So we don’t have a dog in our game, because John’s not at that point in his life yet", he says. "It comes back to us wanting to respect the franchise and the fans, and get that right. It would be wrong for us to introduce that concept at this stage of the narrative. So we don’t have a dog. Maybe he’d like a dog, but he’s not ready for a dog yet. The way they set it up in the first movie, he’s not got the stuff for the dog. He doesn’t quite understand how to look after it yet. If he was like John Wick, a dog owner, since the age of 15, it wouldn’t work so well."
Judging from my chat with Bithell, John Wick Hex isn't some spin-off game: Bithell and his team have talked with Chad Stahelski (director of the John Wick moves) about the direction the game should take as well as how it feels to play as John Wick, making John Wick Hex a certified prequel to the ultra-violent dog-driven movies we see on the big screen. So far there's no clue on when the game will come out, but if you need something to tide you over in-between Wick movies, this could very well be it.
If you're looking for another game to play while you wait for John Wick Hex, take a look at our list of the best FPS games you can play right now, or look below to watch our preview of Cyberpunk 2077 which also stars Keanu Reeves!