John Wick was a surprise hit when it came out in theaters October, 2014. Effortlessly cool, it was a perfect graft of a crime thriller onto a comic book world. The film felt completely new and exciting. In fact, it’s the world of John Wick that remains one of its most distinguishing features, and the one that VR Studios Big Red Button, Gameco, and Grab are looking to recreate with the help of Starbreeze Studios and Lionsgate.
Judging by the demo for the John Wick Chronicles VR game I got to try, I can tell you that the world hits that balance of thrilling first-person action and showcasing the unique John Wick universe.
The demo opens with the player picking up a gun and shooting the game’s logo to “awaken” in an opulent penthouse. I’m told that the game’s central location is in the Continental Hotel, the hotel for hitmen seen in the film. Hitting a button centered within an elegant wooden desk lowers a large screen that gives players a short clip from the new John Wick 2 trailer. A nice little bit of cross-promotional marketing for players who might have tried the demo at New York Comic-Con. The trailer cuts short however, and an ominous voice booms out over the PA system. The voice is there to tell the player, John Wick, that you’re about to die. Red dots from sniper rifles beam in through the windows and players are forced to duck and find cover.
Here’s where VR’s pros and cons meet. VR is a 360 degree experience and being able to physically move within a virtual space is one of VR’s most thrilling features. Unfortunately, until players have the ability to use full-room VR without wires, you’ll find yourself too conscious of the connecting wire behind your Vive headset to move as freely as you want to. While the actual ducking and dodging works perfectly, I sometimes found myself limited to 180 degree turns because of the wires and not wanting to trip.
Pressing another hidden switch opens up one of those old-fashioned, hand cranked elevators with the collapsible doors- the one’s you might see in an old Hollywood hotel, which is super cool because again, this is the alternate reality of John Wick. Taking the elevator lifts you away from the embattled sniper room and to the roof, where naturally more enemies await.
First-person shooters in VR always kind of remind me of the arcade game Time Crisis, the shooter/ducking simulator probably most widely seen at movie theaters. Of course for those of you who’ve had the good fortune of experiencing VR for yourself, you know that this is a shallow approximation. VR is far more engrossing than the average arcade experience, and it also makes it more overwhelming at times.
On the roof of the Continental hotel, you’re finally armed with a sniper rifle of your own. Holding the gun up to your face and pressing the left trigger button will allow you to look down the gun’s sight, giving you the chance to perform awesome (and powerful feeling) shots at far away targets. After the natural way of holding a gun in VR, it’s almost hard to go back to a traditional controller, or even mouse and keyboard. You might be less accurate at first in VR than with the other two controllers, but it’s way more immersive.
The demo also gave me a mini arsenal while on the rooftop. This includes an automatic rifle, two pistols, and two submachine guns. Dual-wielding is possible with the smaller guns, and it’s fun to try them out, but most of the enemies are too far away for any of the weapons but the sniper rifle and the automatic rifle to be useful. It’s not until the enemies start rappelling down helicopters and climbing up rooftops that they become close enough for your shorter range weapons to be effective.
Again, the wire causes some problem when you’re trying to shoot enemies to the left and right of you. Additionally, precision aiming with the shortsighted weapons, especially without a sight, is far more difficult than with the sniper, but I have to be honest, dual wielding weapons in VR is just more fun.
After dealing with several waves of enemies, and dying a few times (which is embarrassing because I’m told the demo is easier than the actual game,) you finally have to take on the big boss, or in this case, the big helicopter. Rather than unloading bullets into it, the encounter is more like a puzzle, forcing the player to shoot at specific weak points in order to take out the enemy. Here’s where VR demonstrates another of its unique attributes, forcing the player to demonstrate some real physical coordination when taking down the boss. Aiming at a small moving target with your whole body is way more difficult when you have to exert yourself to do it, but the sense of gratification that comes with winning is that much more intense.
Like the film, John Wick Chronicles’ best assets are the little details. The Vive controllers are represented with leather gloved hands in the game. There’s even a military watch on the player’s left hand that acts as the in-game timer for levels. Likewise, I like how detailed the environment felt, something Almir Listo from Starbreeze Studios explains is a high priority. Even after only playing two levels, they’re both filled with details that really drives home how upper-class the Continental Hotel is. No street-level thugs here, the criminals of John Wick are part of the one percent.
If there’s a couple things I would like to see with the full game, it’s that I hope the other levels are just as detailed, to help continue expanding the John Wick universe. The rest of my grievances are mostly related to wired VR experiences as a whole, tripping over wires, feeling constrained by spatial limitations, etc. As far as how the game plays, looks, and most importantly makes you feel, I can tell you that I had no problems. Combat felt natural, the visuals were crisp, and no motion sickness on my end, which is coming from someone who did once actually get sick from a VR demo.
“I think the most important is that you feel like John Wick,” Listo explains. “I think we did a very good job asking the question ‘What would John Wick do?’ And a good example comes from development regarding grenades. Let’s say you’ve got a gun in one hand and a grenade in the other, and because it’s VR we try to capture reality. So how would you pull the pin of the grenade if realistically you can only use two hands at a time? Well you can bring the grenade up to your mouth and pull the pin out that way, something very action hero/guns akimbo in my opinion.”
If there’s one thing Listo wanted to be clear about is how everyone, from Lionsgate, Starbreeze, and the actual John Wick team is on board for the project. The team plans on launching a deluxe bundle for John Wick Chronicles that will include the VR game, PayDay 2 with John Wick DLC, and even the movie. “It’s a multimedia approach,” Listo says. “Entire John Wick survival kit.”
John Wick Chronicles is expected to ship in February 2017 for HTC Vive and Playstation VR. You can follow its Steam page here for the latest updates.
Matt Kim is an entertainment and technology journalist with work appearing in other publications such as Inverse, VICE, Kill Screen, and more. Follow him on Twitter: @LawofTD.