I watched John Wick for the first time a few days before GDC, specifically so I could go play a demo for something called John Wick: The Impossible Task — one of the first major VR first-person shooters. The film was such a great combination of beautiful choreography and over-the-top melodrama — we're talking about a movie in which a hitman takes down an entire crime empire to avenge the murder of a puppy — that checking out The Impossible Task was one of my most highly anticipated events of the show.
Created by Payday studio Starbreeze along with Lionsgate, VR film studio Wevr, and developer Grab, The Impossible Task will be released on the HTC Vive sometime this year, in time to play it before the John Wick sequel in early 2017. At GDC, I saw it in what seemed like a fairly early state. The film's central star, Keanu Reeves, isn't featured, and the demo is divided into two tangentially related sections — one for story, one for action.
The first part is a cinematic vignette set in the Continental, the film's secret club and hotel for assassins. After putting on my headset, I materialized in the lobby, a briefcase on the desk in front of me and two large ghost-hands (which I suppose could theoretically be modeled on Reeves') in place of my own. It wasn't my first time in a virtual reality recreation of a specific movie or TV set, but it was the first time I've been able to semi-realistically interact with one, walking around and picking up objects with the Vive's motion controllers.
It's the first time I've been able to physically interact with a virtual movie set
The feeling is delightful — not so much because of the way it looks, but because of the way you're led into physically acting out a movie scene. As I got used to my new hands, I popped open the briefcase, tossing around (and then sheepishly replacing) a stack of cash. Next to it, I noticed a familiar gold coin, one I'd watched the "real" John Wick take out and slide across the hotel desk in the film. I tried picking it up and dropping it on the counter, not expecting much to happen. But the concierge — an only barely uncanny-valley-tinged digital avatar of actor Lance Reddick — immediately noticed and collected it, sending me up to my room.
I couldn't confirm precisely when in the John Wick continuity The Impossible Task takes place, but it doesn't matter all that much, because the character exists in an eternal drama-generating revenge cycle. In the hotel room, a clip from the original film is interrupted by static and a sinister voice, revealing that one of the hundreds of people John Wick has killed is actually still alive. A laser sight beams through the window, and it's clearly time to duck — again, physically, trying to avoid falling on the Vive cables. As I evaded sniper fire, I noticed a red button under the counter and hit it, crawling into the antique elevator that appeared behind me. I got in, reached up to pull its lever, and the sequence ended.
The second portion contains the thing that I (and probably most people curious about the game) was really looking forward to: the shooting. John Wick features a kinetic and distinctive kind of gun-fu that calls out for a video game adaptation — it's not clear whether it's practical, but it looks incredibly cool. Unfortunately, The Impossible Task demo's second section could really belong to any VR first-person shooter. It's a generic training room with a row of pistols, submachine guns, and grenades, all for use against human-shaped pop-up targets.
It's hard to complain about the gunplay too much, because shooting with motion controllers in VR is always fun. And there are a few nice touches, like the fact that you can pick up virtual grenades with one hand, hold them up to your headset, and mime pulling the pin with your teeth. (I narrowly stopped myself from trying to literally bite the controller.) Still, the setup feels like a placeholder for real play, especially when stand-in-one-place-and-shoot Vive games like Raw Data and The Brookhaven Experiment have made so much progress in establishing distinctive tones and combat mechanics.
It's a fun first-person shooter experience, but it doesn't feel like being John Wick
This is particularly worrying because John Wick's choreography could be tricky to capture in a VR video game. It's easy to imagine an awesome room-scale adaptation of a movie like Equilibrium, whose most iconic action sequences involve standing still and shooting at enemies in all directions. But John Wick is all about relentlessly advancing through locations with a combination of close-range gunplay and hand-to-hand combat, which is harder to simulate in a small space with limited mobility.
The Impossible Task team is apparently still figuring out how to balance the game's two sides; they plan to release a core experience, then build more of whichever sections people turn out to like. "Whatever is fun is what we're going to do," says Starbreeze brand director Almir Listo. It's a little strange to hear about splitting up narrative and gameplay in 2016, and not hugely reassuring. But for now, VR is a new enough medium that I'd rather see rough experiments soon than totally mature games years down the line.