John Wick Hex: how the game puts you in Baba Yaga’s head

Ben Andac, producer of John Wick Hex, lifts the lid on the indie game adaptation of Keanu Reeves' iconic assassin

Stepping into a gold-plated room at Gamescom 2019, Den Of Geek met up with producer Ben Andac to talk about the upcoming game John Wick Hex. We didn’t get to slide any coins across any tables, but we still had a nice time chatting about the game and watching it in action. It was immediately clear that Keanu Reeves’ cinematic hitman is safe hands.

In an age when licenced-video-game is becoming something of a dirty word, it was with some trepidation that Andac initially met with Lionsgate to talk about making a John Wick title. But when Lionsgate agreed for Andac to bring in Mike Bithell (an indie developer who is known fondly for his work on Thomas Is Alone and Volume), things started to get interesting.

Andac and Bithell had no interest in making a third-person or first-person shooter with a John Wick skin slapped onto it. After all, John Wick’s fight scenes are about more than just ducking behind cover between dishing out headshots. As Andac puts it, the fights in the movies are more like ‘choreography chess’ than simple shoot-em-ups, with each move carefully chosen and every environment explored in interesting ways. John Wick will brawl his way through a room tactically, using every item at his disposal if it will bring him an advantage (even a horse’s hind legs, as it turns out).

To bring this style of combat into the interactive realm of gaming, Bithell originally envisioned a turn-based strategy game, in which John Wick would try to outfox his opponents with cunning manoeuvres. However, something didn’t feel right. John Wick doesn’t stand still and patiently wait for somebody else to make a move. The turn-based approach had to go.

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Instead, the developers rebuilt the game around the idea of a timeline: each move you can make has an allotted cost in seconds, and it’s your job to help John make the right decisions rather than wasting valuable time. Stepping across a room towards your enemy will open you up to being shot, but it will get you in a strong position to fight back. Hiding behind cover might be useful from time to time, but it also gives your opponents a chance to move towards you. Reloading takes a certain amount of seconds, and sometimes, throwing your gun at an enemy’s head might provide a quicker way to incapacitate them than stopping to reload. You can also use your enemies as human shields, should the opportunity arise.

Much like in the movies, John can withstand taking a number of bullets, but you’ll want to find a safe space to bandage up (which also takes a certain amount of seconds) if you do take a few hits. The result of all these options is a very tactical experience, with players encouraged to make quick calculations before every click commits them to a course of action. If you do John Wick proud and complete a level particularly well, your report card will say something like ‘you are Baba Yaga.’ And as Andac assures us, the team is also researching Russian folklore terminology that can be used on the grade cards for less successful playthroughs.

Bithell and his team put the game together and showed it to the team at Lionsgate, with the movie franchise’s recurring director Chad Stahelski also offering feedback. One small foible was brought up: the fact that you could see everything in a room didn’t quite feel right. John Wick isn’t Batman, after all, and he doesn’t have an array of snazzy tech that allows him to scan environments and assess his enemies in advance. John has the eyesight of a mortal man: he can only see the things in his eye-line, and he has to work out every new challenge as it presents itself.

Taking this feedback on board, Bithell and his team worked a ‘fog of war’ visual effect into the game – similar to something you’d see in a Total War game. And now, John walks (or rolls, or runs) into a room with no prior knowledge, piecing together the environment as the player works their way around it. As well as making the game more faithful to the movies, this change also made the gameplay more challenging: there could be an enemy lurking around every corner, which forces the player to do even more calculations on the hoof.

The result of this collaboration between an indie developer and a Hollywood studio seems to be a very tantalising proposition: a licenced game that stays true to the property it is based on, allowing fans of the franchise to feel like they’re actually inside the lead character’s head. We look forward to seeing more, and we live in hope that this project becomes a roaring success and encourages a whole range of similarly thoughtful licenced games.

Developed by Bithell Games and distributed by Good Shepherd Entertainment, John Wick Hex is set for release on PC, Mac and consoles in 2020.

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