Baba Yaga is coming for old movie games, and its name is John Wick Hex
Games based on movies suck. Yes, there are exceptions that people always go to (Spider-Man 2, Alien Resurrection, Aladdin for Sega Genesis, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, etc.) but even then those always come with the addendum “good for a movie game.” They’re rushed out the door with extremely small development cycles, maybe six months if the devs are lucky, all to bank on brand recognition to dupe whoever’s browsing the electronics store at the time to buy an overpriced piece of mediocrity. Because of these short cycles, most of these games don’t exactly try to emulate the bigger ideas, themes, or even experiences of the movies they’re adapting but rather graft popular game genres on to the narratives and calls it a day. Jurassic Park: The Movie is a sci-fi story about ambition eclipsing responsibility with several intense horror-esque chase and escape sequences, but Jurassic Park: The Game is a 2D mascot platformer where you collect doodads as a velociraptor. There are exceptions to this style to be sure, but you can easily count them on one hand. And with the ever-escalating costs of video game development ever since the explosion of HD and photorealism, officially high-profile movie tie-in games have vanished from physical store shelves. Now such experiences have migrated to the mobile market – seriously search the App Store you will find stuff – or are mere DLC cameos in more high-profile video game projects. Thanos got to step out of the MCU and beat up people in Fortnite during the theatrical run of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. The Predator was added as a challenge for you and your military squad in a surprise update for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands around the time Shane Black’s radical The Predator film hit theatres.. Even the gunslinging boogeyman himself, John Wick, was introduced as a playable character in the co-op bank heist cult hit Payday 2 around the time he was blasting guys’ heads off on the silver screen for the second time.
But then something interesting happened recently with the official announcement of John Wick Hex, an official John Wick-licensed game coming to PC and consoles. This wasn’t a mobile game that was farted out, nor was this a hired gun job given to several journeyman developers, nor was it just bolting on popular trends on to the license for maximum profit. For a movie series about a nigh-unstoppable killing machine fighting against waves of trained hitmen and soldiers in a quest for revenge, this game plays more akin to a tactical turn-based RPG where you help John prioritize targets, use the environment to your advantage, and plan out assaults with cold efficiency. Visually speaking, the game goes for a much more stylized look, aping the neon color palette and moody neo-noir look of the movies. But the biggest sign that things have shifted is the team behind this project is being directed by indie game darling Mike Bithell. A truly amazing talent that has managed to perfectly blend narrative and gameplay together with hits like Thomas Was Alone and Volume. Furthermore, it seems that the game isn’t going to coincide with the release of John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum slated for release this weekend, but is given a vague “it’ll be out when it’s ready” placeholder release date.
All of these facts lead up to an immeasurable amount of excitement and anticipation for what John Wick Hex can accomplish. Mike Bithell has been on my radar since he made me feel compassion for simple squares and rectangles in Thomas Was Alone, and his cyberpunk take on a Robin Hood narrative in the stealth game Volume showed a willingness to keep trying out other genres and not stay within a certain niche. Also after the release of his robot detective game Subsurface Circular, it is clear that Bithell is not just a good developer, but also a good storyteller with a strong grasp of theme and expressing that theme through play.
Which is why it is so inspired to have a John Wick game play more like a streamlined XCOM than a watered-down Call of Duty. The fight choreography in those movies are elegant ballets of death with deliberate, measured, and lethal actions taken by all involved. Moving seamlessly from gunfights to fistfights to knifefights to carfights (yes really), without any real breaks taken. Something that would take far too long to replicate in a high-budget traditional action experience. But as a 3rd-person isometric tactics game, it allows you to see the fight the same way John does: as a giant puzzle. Who do you take out first? What can you do to slow your target down? How do you get to that sniper nest without giving them a clear shot at your gray matter? It helps turn a high-octane action thrill ride setpiece into a question of priority and execution like the first-person puzzle game Superhot.
There are some annoying things about the announcement of John Wick Hex. The fact that the game is being dismissed by some for “looking like a mobile game” since it goes more for stylization over realism. The fact that its PC release is yet another Epic Games Store timed-exclusive in the company’s power play against Valve’s Steam platform. The fact that there’s still not much known about it other than it exists. But, I sincerely want to see more games like John Wick Hex. Licenses in the hands of accomplished and trusted developers who are allowed to bring their spin to things. Studios being more lenient and cooperative with movie tie-in materials. And games that don’t just try to imitate movies, but remember their strengths in adapting them to interactive experiences.