John Wick Hex isn't what I expected. The trailer shows off an XCOM-style strategy game; whereas in action, while it is partially that, it's definitively not turn-based. Instead, like in Superhot, everytime you move, the enemies move too. Or rather, time moves.
"The pitch prototype was more XCOM-y and turn-based. You go, they go, you go, they go," co-designer and lead programmer on John Wick Hex, Nic Tringali, tells me during E3 2019. Bithell Games was first approached by Ben Andac, a producer who works with publisher Good Shepherd Entertainment, to pitch a John Wick game, according to Tringali. "And it was fine; it could look the part—and to be clear they liked it, obviously we got it—but evolving it, we were like, well, it doesn't quite look right when John is just standing still and everyone else is moving. And then you're moving when everyone else is standing still. So we then went from there."
The team ended up throwing out the turn-based playstyle completely. In place of it, they added a time system. Every action has an amount of time it takes to complete it (along with the usual percentage rate), which you have to coincide with a timeline at the top of a screen. For instance, an enemy might be just up ahead in clear sight. If played right, you can fire two shots of your gun to take them out before they shoot you.
It's very much a real-time strategy game. While you have time to plan your next action, your action has consequences of time. Time, in a way, is your greatest ally and worst enemy. You can move to an obscured spot—like behind a wall—to bandage John's health, for example, but while he's doing that, an enemy or two that spawn in the vicinity could be closing in. In one level, while out of ammo and without a gun to pick up and replace it in the area, I direct John to sort of merry go 'round in a circle with an enemy hot on his trail; eventually, a gray fog that still showed the enemies' outline appeared, signifying that they couldn't see me now.
Eventually, I caught up with him, and judging from the timeline, I had an adequate amount of time to step forward. I performed a melee "takedown" move which knocks the enemy out and moves John in a diagonal direction. I picked up their gun, and it was back to the grind, locked and loaded.
It wasn't always this way. Initially, John Wick Hex was being developed with a quasi-stealth system in mind. "So doing action to cause noise, gunshots cause noise and whatever; we were playing with different types of AI, hiding people, creating more deliberate ambushes than just walk up behind someone and taking them out," Tringali says. "And really no matter how it fell, it didn't feel John Wick."
John Wick Hex Makes You Feel Like John Wick
The John Wick movies have been an unexpected success. The first of the action movies released in 2014 on a small budget of $20 to $30 million; it went on to make $88.8 million at the box office. Its two sequels have been smash hits. This year's John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum has made $257.6 million at the box office from a mere budget of $75 million. And it shows no signs of slowing down either, with a fourth movie in the series being set for release in 2021.
John Wick Hex has been in close development with advice from the director Chad Stahelski, as well as fight and stunt choreographers from the films. Tringali says that co-designer Mike Bithell not only travels to Los Angeles to show them builds of the game on a regular basis, but to also get advice on how to choreograph certain actions.
"We went to them [about] the push move," he says, regarding an action where John can push an enemy forward to stun or interrupt them, carrying them forward too. "We had an idea for that in mind, but that move itself doesn't specifically happen in the movies. And so, we didn't have a framing for how it actually looked. So we went to them, we're like, 'Hey, what would it look like if you grabbed a guy and you moved across the room with them, because it's an interesting gameplay thing. You just didn't happen to do it.' And someone, they pulled out a phone to record and they kind of worked it out. And then what they did is the animation that went straight into the game basically."
Tringali tells me how fight choreography itself was described by those who worked on John Wick as being like a conversation, with an outlined structure as they fill in the more minute details. The game itself, in turn, fell in line really naturally with how filmmakers thought of its action; calculated, but swift.
The action in John Wick has long been compared to video games, so a video game feels like a natural adaptation format for its universe. John Wick Hex, specifically, is a prequel to the movies; set while John is still a working assassin before his wife, and by extension his dog, dies. I ask Tringali if there's a particular fight sequence that inspired them, to which he more highlights a moment than a scene.
"The one that was definitely the touchstone, it wasn't a whole scene, but in one of the fights in the first movie he hits a guy, turns to—or I don't know if he shoots and he doesn't have a cartridge—but he hits a guy, reloads, and it's like a pause in this action scene where he does the reload and he goes to shoot again. That exact interaction is something we wanted to be able to replicate organically out of just, you know, we have a reload action, and we have a strike action, and we have a time system that governs both of them."
John Wick Hex will also have a replay feature, wherein players will be able to play back what they just did in a level without the pauses. Hearing about this system, which Tringali says they can't show in action yet, reminded me of the recent automatic playbacks in this year's Katana Zero. John Wick Hex doesn't currently have a release window, but it will be out on PC and Mac eventually, and will be an Epic Games Store exclusive. It will also be ported to consoles after launch, though they won't specify which ones yet.