I love Keanu Reeves. No, it's not just a hometown pride thing (he grew up in Toronto), but a genuine appreciation for his work. Given the right role (and he's had many over the years), his minimalist acting style becomes an asset, and I truly think he is one of the most under appreciated action stars. So when I heard that Lionsgate was partnering with Valve, HTC, WEVR and Starbreeze Studios to make a game based on John Wick, a film that stars Reeves, I got pretty excited.
John Wick is a stylish neo noir action crime thriller that pays homage to the gun fu films of John Woo, spaghetti westerns, and Jean-Pierre Melville's late-60s crime films. Reeves plays a retired hitman out to avenge the death of his puppy (his wife's final gift to him before her death) by the hands of a mob boss's son.
I had thought that its style and world-building would make an excellent setting for a game. It seems like I wasn't the only one thinking the same thing, but to our initial surprise, John Wick would debut in Virtual Reality first instead of as a traditional shooter.
At Paris Games Week, HTC showed some new content on its SteamVR Vive headset, including The John Wick VR Experience. This demo, created by WEVR, the developer of theBlu: Encounter, is a room-scale VR "companion experience" to the final game, which will be a traditional FPS from Starbreeze Studios. However, the title graphic above does refer to "John Wick The Impossible Task" as a game coming to VR, so we're not sure if this is connected to the FPS game or if it's just an extension of this demo.
Playing the Keanu Reeves Simulator, A Step Up In VR Visual Fidelity
The demo I tried contained Chapter 1 of the Experience, and like so many of the current Vive demos, it was fairly short. TheBlu: Encounter was very much a passive experience, and although you could move and look around the space, there was minimal interaction -- all you could do was observe the awe-inspiring whale swim by. In John Wick, there's much more that you can do, but again, I wouldn't go so far as to call it a game, as is the case with the other Vive demos I have tried.
You play as Reeves, and the demo takes place after the events of the film. It opens with you in the lobby of the Continental Hotel, a prominent location in the film. The demo was built using the Unreal Engine, and the amazing visuals faithfully reconstructed what I remember of the lobby from the film.
I walked up to the front desk, and some items were highlighted to indicate a form of interaction. A phone rings, and when I answer it, I'm told to enlist the help of the hotel manager Charon, (who is played by Lance Reddick of The Wire fame) to help me.
Meeting (Virtual) Lance Reddick
I ring the bell on the desk, and he appears, welcoming me, and I am immediately struck as to how close the virtual Charon looks to the character from the film. The environment of the lobby looked fantastic -- easily on par with the detailed settings of the Vive's Aperture Science demo -- but the Aperture experience had you interacting only with robots. Here I was standing face-to-face with a person I recognized, and the already high-level of presence afforded by the Vive's VR technology was further heightened by how real Charon looked. Of course, having him voiced by the actual actor added to how palpable he seemed, reinforcing the fact that audio plays a crucial role in creating presence in VR.
After being told by Charon that I needed to grease his palms, I opened a briefcase that contained money, a note, and a gold coin. It wasn't clear at this point what I needed to do next (which was to give Charon the coin, it turned out), so I had to break the illusion to ask the demo attendant for help. I did not remember that in the world of John Wick, the underground assassin economy runs on golden coins, not dollar bills.
One initially jarring issue was how my hands were represented in front of me. Other HTC Vive demos use a model of a game-world appropriate controller or, as the case with Job Simulator, cartoon hands to show you visually where they are so you can interact with objects. In the John Wick demo, your hands are also abstractly represented in contrast to the realism of everything else, and when I first saw them, I was briefly reminded that I was still in a game.
Virtual Locomotion Addressed
Once I handed over the coin, a button appeared to summon an elevator to my suite. It's one of those old-fashion metal cage lifts with the antiquated controls, and again, its fidelity immersed me further.
The use of this elevator was a good example of how to solve some of the physical constraints of room-scale VR. Your virtual play space can only be as big as the physical space you are in, and with the HTC Vive, that's limited to no more than 15 x 15 feet. This poses a problem when you want to create a game world that is more expansive, and one of the challenges VR game designers face is how to move the player around in a bigger world without making them sick. Going up in an elevator is one effective solution.
Down On All Fours, It's Bullet Time
When you walk into your suite, you can see a huge display on a wall behind a desk that has more items you can interact with. After pressing the glowing button, a video started playing on the screen, showing clips from the John Wick film, but reliving your character's life experiences in the third-person is interrupted by someone hacking the video feed. It seems to be the voice of Iosef Tarasov, a baddie whom you supposedly killed in the film. He naturally wants you dead, and shortly, the telltale signs of snipers appear -- laser sights start painting the room, and I dive to the floor just before the bullets started flying. By actually crawling across the floor the short distance to the elevator door, which was a little awkward when still holding the SteamVR controllers, I managed to survive.
Again, the audio further enhanced the immersion, and while rationally I knew that there weren't any bullets actually flying above my head, I instinctively felt compelled to keep out of their path. Presence!
A cool Easter egg I noticed on the floor was a clown mask decorated with the stars and stripes, a clear reference to Starbreeze's Payday series.
Over Too Soon, And Where Was My Gun?
Once I reached the elevator and took the journey down, Chapter 1 of The John Wick VR Experience was over, and it felt far too soon. There's obviously more to come, and there was even a reference to an in-game "training room." Although the level of interaction in the demo was much higher than many of the other Vive demos I've tried, it was missing one key experience, given the subject matter: There wasn't any gunplay, the one thing you'd expect from a John Wick game. Hopefully, the training room will deliver on that end.
The last part of the demo, and in some ways the most eye-opening sequence, wasn't even part of the experience proper. It was a title page with the credits for the demo: Standing in front of me again was Charon. This time, I could walk right up to and around him, and as I did this it struck me how real he felt.
Even though the graphical fidelity of his model was not substantially better than what I've already seen in other PC games at their highest settings, it was still incredibly detailed and life-like. Simply being able to walk up to a virtual character in VR that to my mind was the same size as me, rather than something much smaller projected on a 2D display, was mind-blowing.
Adding to the realism was that Charon could see where I was, and so he kept turning his head to face me. Once eye tracking hardware comes to VR, having a virtual character make eye contact with you is going to be even more impressive (and possibly scary!).
Being Keanu Reeves Was Excellent!
The John Wick VR Experience is certainly the most impressive HTC Vive VR demo I've had a chance to play so far, and I wish it wasn't so short. In spite of this brevity, the experience demonstrated how real interaction with a virtual character in VR can feel and how techniques like elevators can effectively address some of the challenges inherent in presenting larger play areas in room-scale VR.
I cannot wait to see what Chapter 2 has in store. Hopefully, it will allow me to fully realize my hitman fantasies and actually let me do what John Wick does best -- blow something away in virtual reality in the most stylish way possible!
Other than how impressed I was with the John Wick demo itself, the other big takeaway I got from trying it was that we are finally starting to get an understanding as to what actual room-scale VR gaming experiences will be like. Most of the initial SteamVR demos were experiences with a limited amount of interaction, and thus didn't paint an accurate picture of what a proper game will be like on the Vive, whereas The John Wick VR Experience does to an extent.
With the rumored announcement in early December of the retail Vive, and HTC's commitment to make it at a limited quantity available to buy this year, we hope that by this fast-approaching time there will be some completed SteamVR games to play on it, with John Wick likely being one of the first.
Update, 11/3/15, 10:40pm PT: The original Lionsgate press release clarifies the role of each studio involved in the John Wick VR game. WEVR is creating The John Wick VR Experience as a stand-alone HTC Vive only teaser for the full VR game, John Wick The Impossible Task, being created by Grab Games (opens in new tab). Starbreeze will then be publishing this game across multiple VR platforms.
Alex Davies is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware, covering Smartphones, Tablets, and Virtual Reality. You can follow him on Twitter.
I seriously watch it every time it's on HBO. I also have it on my tablet.