Omens and portents. I approached Enter the Matrix with so much “it’s going to suck” baggage that I almost didn’t give it a fair shake. The negative buzz on the web was deafening, and I had my own considerable doubts (as I expressed in my blog) that the release of a major game across multiple platforms could be successfully synchronized with the release of a major motion picture without either the game or the movie suffering, probably the former. And then there was the brief and somewhat disappointing spin I took through the EtM demo back when I was immersed in the thoroughly excellent GTA: Vice City, against which I suspect many games would pale. But, professional that I am, I’ve been playing EtM for about a week now, and I’m going to go against the popular grain by saying there is much to admire in this title. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it misses greatness by a country mile because of dozens of things that they’ve done wrong, but I’m enjoying myself well enough on my trip down the rabbit hole, and I can say as a game reviewer with 3 years plus under my belt that there are worse games out there way worse.
I personally find there to be a dearth of fighting games on the PC. And I don’t mean things like Mortal Kombat ports or Street Fighter, but a fighting game with a plotline like Fighting Force (Eidos Interactive, 1997) or Oni (Take Two Interactive, 2001). While there is a lot of shooting (and some ghastly driving more on that later) that goes on in EtM, I would primarily classify it as a fighting game. The controls are clearly laid out for a gamepad, but with a little dexterity is adaptable to a keyboard and mouse, leading to a staggering number of cool kicks, punches, sweeps, blocks, and throws. You can truly generate some very action-hero-looking combats. The inclusion of focus, which is pretty much exactly like Max Payne’s bullet-time, allows you to furthermore run along walls and summersault while shooting a weapon. Unlike bullet-time however, focus replenishes at a speedy rate, allowing you to spend much of the game in focus. I really like the physics of the fighting models, and guys you pummel can fall in, um, realistic probably isn’t the right word (because a guy you kick isn’t going to fly thirty feet) - I’m going to go with ‘cinematic’ ways. The camera angles detract a little in the fighting mode, as it sometimes shows you and not your opponents, or gives you some other angle that makes it impossible to defend yourself. I’ve seen Tomb Raider games and such with the same problem, and it would have been nice if they had taken the time to stomp that bug out a little more. I found the shooting portion of the game considerably less satisfying, as you don’t really get to aim at your opponent. The computer picks an opponent, I think based on range and the general direction that you’re pointing, and you shoot kind of towards that target. If you’re using a shotgun at short range you’ll generally score a hit, but with a handgun at long range you end up wasting ammo more than anything else. When you focus your aim becomes considerably better with all weapons, but by and large I preferred to close with my enemy if possible and beat the snot out of them. There is a fair collection of handguns and automatic weapons in the game, but I didn’t come across a rocket launcher or any other heavy weapons, nor were there any futuristic sorts of weapons. And as a sort of tangentially related topic, the game is quite limited in the different types of enemies that you’re going to get to shoot at and beat up cops, SWAT, Agents, some werewolves up at the chalet, and a few characters from the movie.
The first major disappointment that smacks you in the face right away is that you play EtM as either Ghost or Niobi that’s it. Coming soon: the anonymous cop addon pack. Who are these people? OK, so Niobi has a sorta major role in the movie in a minor sort of way, but Ghost has less screen time than Carrie Anne’s undersized breasts. Why couldn’t they have made the game playable as Neo or Trinity or Morpheus? I don’t know, except that perhaps by trying to create an alternate plotline from the movie with the events occurring at the same time as the movie’s events, they were stuck using characters that you don’t see much in the movie. What’s Ghost doing while Neo is fighting 50 Smith’s in the schoolyard? Now you can find out. And yet that theory isn’t perfect, because many of the things that Neo does in the movie you end up doing in the game as if he hasn’t done them. There’s a whole scene between Neo and Persephone from the movie that is duplicated in the game between Ghost and Persephone. Did they feel a need to rip off from themselves? Anyway, it makes a little difference which character you choose to play because, while they follow the same plotline, they’re often in different places during the individual missions. When their paths do cross, and if you play the game through as both characters, you get to see the action from the two viewpoints. For example, get into a car as Ghost that Niobe is driving, and you end up manning the guns, but if you play as Niobe, you get to drive while the computer controls Ghost’s shooting. As I ponder that I can’t think of another game that has done that, and it’s somewhat nifty. The downside to this is of course that both the Niobe and Ghost missions are VERY similar. Play through one, and you might as well have played through both more or less.
Even worse, though, is the driving (and hovercraft flying) which has to be the low point of the game. The physics models are atrocious, and the cars are very odd to drive a ten good minutes of thought, and I can’t come up with any way to describe how odd it is. The AI of the other drivers, and often your own driver when you’re busy literally riding shotgun, behaves like they are driving bumper cars. The inclusion of the driving does allow them to include the footage from the movie of the two semis colliding, but otherwise I wish they had chosen to leave out the driving entirely.
The plot of the game continues that which was begun in the Last Flight of the Osiris, and is then continued more or less in the movie, using a mixture of original footage shot just for the game plus scenes pulled from the movie. The difference is that the game cutscenes are pretty short, and don’t adequately explain what it going on. If I hadn’t seen the movie (I mean the second movie, not just the first), I suspect I wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of what the game is about. Who’s this keymaker, who are these two albino creeps, and what’s with the chick in the beige rubber dress? All of this is terribly unclear from the footage in the game alone. If you have seen the movie you’ll notice that you travel to many of the same locations: The Chalet, the freeway, the skyscraper, Zion, etc.
EtM includes a hacking mode I’m not quite sure of the purpose. It gives you access to some training and testing modes, as well as activating the usual cheats like unlimited ammo and health. There’s also some goofy stuff like a message from Trinity and a message from Morpheus. It seems to make a bigger deal than it is worth out of the kinds of things that can often be found by activating the console mode of most games. Maybe if I played around with the hacking mode more I’d have found something earth shattering, but in the hour or so I gave it I didn’t.
The graphics are good. Not great, good. Clipping o’plenty, and no real effects other than smoke and fog. The bullet tracks in focus mode are fun to watch and dodge (Hey, wasn’t Neo supposed to be the only one who could dodge bullets?). Sound effects are likewise OK. Voice acting is better than average these people are professional actors after all.
If they hadn’t rushed this game to match the release of the movie, if they had ditched the driving, if they had cleaned up the camera a little, if they had given me the targeting ability of every other first person shooter in existence, and if they had let me play as one or more of the major characters rather than just a couple of second bananas, then they would have really had something. I realize that’s a lot of ifs. Taken as a whole it results in a fighting game that is just a little better than OK, heavy on the disappointment, as we all mourn the game that could, probably should, have been.