I never played the 1st Edition, so this review considers only the mechanics of 7th Sea 2E on its own objective merits. Also bear in mind that I have an interesting opinion of John Wick works in general, in that I tend to think the ideas are really unique, but the rules are a little too light for me. 7th Sea 2E, however, turned out to be just right for my taste.
In brief, if you want a fast-paced, action-oriented system without a lot of number-crunching, this is a great way to go. In essence, 7th Sea 2E expects both the players and the GM to actively tell a story, rather than react to strict rule conventions and what I like to call "gamey circumstances" (IE, "do the math, try to decide what your best course of action is").
The presentation of the book is nice and clean. The art is lovely, the world is intriguing, and everything is laid out in a fairly aesthetically pleasing and easy-to-read way. If you want rich lore, 7th Sea 2E is going to deliver. There's a lot to read, mind, but it does an excellent job of mixing various historical cultures with unique, original concepts to place you in a familiar, yet exotic world.
Now let's get to the meat: The gameplay. First, something I'm taking some getting used to is that the game isn't designed for traditional, hack-and-be-hacked combat. Actions are conducted in the framework of "Risks", which utilize a dice pool to generate "Raises" that can be used to affect the scene. You do react to circumstances at times (these elements are called "Consequences" and "Opportunities", which you buy off or simply buy, respectively, with Raises).
Otherwise, and generally speaking, you take action using Raises, and I emphasize this for a reason. In most systems, you choose your action, and your action dictates what you roll to determine success. In 7th Sea 2E, you take your action after you roll by simply spending a Raise. What do you want to do? Spend a Raise, and you do it. In this way, players alter the course of the scene itself more often than they react to circumstances.
"How do you know what to roll if you take action after the roll?" This is the "Approach". Your Approach defines your general strategy for tackling a Risk, as well as what your dice pool will be. Anytime you wish to do something the GM judges to be outside the scope of your Approach, you have to spend an extra Raise. For example, if I approach a Risk saying "I cut my way through to the foul Count, my blade dancing like a dragonfly on the water." Clearly this is a physical, combative approach. But let's say the GM informs me during the course of the round that a spear trap is headed for an ally, and I decide to grab it and brute force it from extending all the way. Very different than my Approach states; I'd have to spend 2 Raises to do this.
In general, Risks are conducted on one of two stages: the "Action Sequence" or the "Dramatic Sequence". Action Squences are quick, visceral periods of excitement, and where combat will generally take place. Dramatic Sequences are longer narrative periods, spanning hours, days, or even weeks. The danger of an Action Sequence is physical harm; the danger of a Dramatic Sequence is deciding how to spend your resources to get what you're after despite all potential obstacles.
The reason I say combat is nonstandard is because of the way it flows seamlessly with all the other action occurring within an Action Sequence. Could you do a typical back-and-forth combat sequence using these rules? Absolutely. But the design is to mix it up, swashbuckling style. For example, rather than simply saying "I swing my sword," you're expected to have the option of saying "I rush up to the balcony for a superior vantage point." Then, assuming your foe is still beneath you, your next action could be "I lunge from one balcony to the next, cleanly slicing the rope holding the large chandelier so it fall on the Count!" Now the GM might think "Hoo, that's probably 4 Wounds, easy." And he'd have to spend Raises for the Count avoiding the damage. Likewise, there may be situations where you flow from running across a rooftop, to fighting a foe, to continuing to run, to sliding down a rope onto a moving carriage, to dueling the villain atop that carriage, all in the same round of action.
NPCs are handled in a very concise, effective manner. They come in three forms. Brute Squads are your mooks. They come in groups and act all at once, bearing a single stat, Strength, and possibly a special effect they can employ. Strength is the number of people in the Squad. It's applied as damage to a single target at the end of a turn order, and every Wound sustained by a Brute Squad is the death of one of its members.
Villains are the extremely dangerous foes you'll face over several sessions. They have two stats - Strength and Influence - and can also possess the Advantages your PCs have access to. Strength and Influence together make up a Villain's dice pool, making them extremely dangerous to take on without thinking. However, Influence can be eroded through play, encouraging players to topple a villain by taking on his empire, slowly weakening him through several sessions. Conversely, Villains can attempt to regain Influence through schemes the players can attempt to interfere with. Honestly, it feels a little like a tabletop version of Shadows of Mordor's system of Orcish power structure, if you've played the game.
Monsters are a bit of a cross between Brute Squads and Villains. They have Strength ratings, and can also carry a few Monstrous Traits that make each monster uniquely dangerous.
The crux of NPCs, in my mind, is this: they are quick to make and play. This means a reduced burden on the GM, who can focus more effort on actually running a fun game. What makes each Villain unique isn't their character sheet, but how they behave. How they utilize their power and influence. It's very much a writer's system in this regard.
Sailing mechanics are also nice and streamlined, and poised to be easily house ruled if you find them a bit too lacking in complexity. You have a ship that has a tangible history, that can take so much punishment before it's useless. You have a crew that you can split into up to two Brute Squads to have at your disposal. You have Cargo, bought or looted, that you can sell for Wealth, which must be divided to your crew each session lest they grow mutinous. It's quick, it's clean, and it does its job well. (It also comes with a lot of fluff about seafaring in the world of 7th Sea 2E's setting, which helps those of us who have minimal knowledge about sailing to roleplay with.)
ALL IN ALL, I find myself thoroughly enjoying 7th Sea 2E. D&D it is not. If I had to compare it to anything, and I can only do so in terms of crunch, it's closest to Cypher or Fate. More crunch than Fate, less than things like Basic Roleplaying; roughly on par with Cypher's degree of number crunch, if just a tiny touch more. What it is, is a smooth, relatively lightweight system that emphasizes collaborative narration. I strongly recommend it for small groups who enjoy writing the scene as they play, or larger groups who want a little less bookkeeping.
[5 of 5 Stars!]