Whether you like it or not, The Matrix has become one of the most significant movies of the past decade. Akin to the film’s premise, its technical influence has irrevocably changed many aspects of our daily life. The most obvious example of this has been the copious use of bullet-time. Football games use rotating camera angles to capture every view possible for a developing play. Everything from beer commercials to fellow movies have imitated Trinity’s jumps, Morpheus’ philosophies and Neo’s fights. More importantly (to us, anyway), games like Max Payne have ushered in the physics-bending, time-altering action to further augment gameplay. Not to be outdone, Shiny Interactive and Atari have released Enter The Matrix, a game that jacks players deep into The Matrix to help the humans in their struggle against the machines.
"This is a war, and we are soldiers. What if tomorrow, the war could be over? Isn’t that worth fighting for? Isn’t that worth dying for?"
Morpheus, The Matrix Reloaded
Most movie/game tie-ins usually run on different development cycles, with very little involvement or interaction between the two. Enter The Matrix, however, fits in a class all its own. First of all, it has the special distinction of focusing on and explaining unseen moments of the film trilogy, a design element fully envisioned by the Wachowski Brothers as they started filming their sequels. To this end, the creators of the game had unprecedented access to film sets, actors and scripts. In fact, the Wachowskis penned the plot for the game, which doesn’t center on the crew of the Nebuchanezzar, but instead that of the Logos. The smallest ship of the fleet, the Logos is crewed by only three people. Sparks is the wisecracking cynical operator of the Logos, Ghost is the vessel’s stoic weapons officer, and Niobe is the brave captain behind the controls of the craft.
As you may be well aware of by now, The Matrix Reloaded and Enter The Matrix aren't sequels in the strictest sense; rather, they are episodes along the main storyline. If anything, the Animatrix DVD helps bridge the action between both the movie and the video game. Without turning this into a DVD critique or giving away multiple hints towards the plot of all three, I'll try to generalize all three. The Osiris, a fellow ship in Zion's army, observes the machines drilling towards Zion and recognizes the immediate threat to humanity. Frantically trying to escape their pursuers, The Osiris barely manages to deliver their message to a safety deposit box in The Matrix before they are destroyed. The Logos, hearing the Osiris' distress call, speedily tries to retrieve the message, deliver it to Zion, and launch a counter-offensive against the invaders.
Players take on the role of either Ghost or Niobe as you negotiate the Matrix, fighting off security guards, SWAT team members, and Agents, among other foes. Just like the first movie, Ghost and Niobe are skilled hand-to-hand combatants, who can eliminate most enemies with a few well-placed punches, kicks or throws. Most of these maneuvers will force your opponents to drop their firearms, which can then be added to your character's disposable arsenal. While Ghost and Niobe are good shots, their accuracy improves dramatically when they Focus their minds, entering bullet-time. Bullet-time also allows your warriors to avoid bullets and attacks while pulling off the spectacular somersaults and acrobatics that the series is known for, such as one handed cartwheels or running along walls. Each character has a finite amount of Focus that regenerates slowly over time, but can be replenished faster by defeating enemies in hand-to-hand combat.
Along with the brawling and gunslinging portions of the game, players will get a chance to explore both fighter's skills in a number of specific tasks. Since Ghost is the weapons expert, some of his levels involve sniping targets to clear areas or protect allies. He also provides covering fire during car chases, targeting oncoming police cars and Agent vehicles with automatic weapons. While Ghost rides "shotgun" (no pun intended), Niobe takes charge behind the wheel. In fact, as the best pilot in Zion's fleet, she's skilled with all vehicles, although her preferred car of choice is a muscle car, like a Barracuda. Niobe also pilots the hovercraft, flying through condemned tunnels and sewage pipes while Ghost covers the rear of the ship with gun turrets, a necessary evil considering the swarming Sentinels that pursue the craft.
One of the nicer touches found within Enter The Matrix is the glowing computer monitor-infused feel of the movie, such as the green accents that can be found in the backgrounds of every level. This is especially evident on the highway, where the cityscape emanates a distinct green haze. The attention to character detail is very specific, considering that they were cleanly modeled off the movie's cast. Ghost and Niobe actually look like Jada Pinkett Smith and Anthony Wong from Reloaded, which helps bring the player in the gameplay. This is further aided by the videos specifically filmed for the game by the Wachowski brothers. Nearing a full hour of transitional and story-driven footage, these clips give the player information that is otherwise missing in the feature film or the DVD.
Once you start getting deeper into the game, you’ll quickly notice that the quality of the graphics are somewhat degraded by the limited number of opponents and somewhat drab environments that the game features. This is merely compounded by the fact that some of the levels, such as the sewer levels, feel like they go on forever with minimal changes to level design. Add to this serious graphical issues, and you realize just how unfinished Enter The Matrix was when it hit shelves. First of all, the framerate can slow down to a crawl on every single system. While this might be understandable on a PS2 during heavy gunfights, this is unacceptable on high-powered PCs with plenty of RAM and the latest video cards. Xboxes and Gamecubes aren’t immune to these issues; there are numerous moments where the game locks up randomly for no apparent reason, forcing a reboot of your system and a loss of progress.
Secondly, some of the animations really needed better work. The running animations feel choppy, and don’t even get me started on the unnatural climbing motions. When you settle down into a fight, things appear to be a little more normal, but this leads to another problem, that of rampant clipping issues for both enemy and player controlled characters. For example, I don’t see any reason why a kick can move through one foe’s head, leaving them unharmed, yet severely damage the person behind them. This also raises severe collision detection issues, which you may notice when characters get hung up on walls or objects. Speaking about getting hung on objects, the camera can be incredibly poor to control, easily getting lodged into walls or focusing away from the action. This can easily lead to enemies ganging up and taking free shots on you.
Thankfully, the sound is much better than the graphical issues. Aside from a few lip-sync errors or random echoes because of audio feedback, sound effects and scoring are just what you’d want in a game/movie experience. Not only are sound effects pulled directly from the movie, but they’re also presented in true Dolby sound. For those of you that have stereo systems, the panning of sound from left to right channels and vice versa makes Enter The Matrix a solid treat for audiophiles. From the thick whoosh of bullet-time to the whistle of bullets flying past you, a properly configured sound system (or a TV with it’s volume cranked up) will envelope you with great environmental effects. The music fits just as well, with orchestral pieces and techno from the movie returning during dramatic moments or climactic battles. It’s not uncommon to hear Fluke, Juno Reactor or Chris Vrenna underscoring a major shootout or brawl, just as you might find in Reloaded. Bolster this with solidly delivered voice acting by the cast of the Matrix, and you’ll definitely get into cutscenes and dialogue without a hitch.
If anything, the only thing that does hinder the dialogue is the plot delivered to the actors by the Wachowskis. Granted, with the additional hour or so of footage and the two playable characters, along with the directing brothers’ imaginations, you’d expect wildly differing adventures for both fighters, exploring their individual personalities, skills, and battles throughout The Matrix. Instead, both characters go through a majority of the same levels with minor path deviations taken for each person. For example, rather than taking a way through an airport terminal, Niobe goes through the baggage area. What about more driving scenes for her, since she’s a masterful pilot? What about more duels or spiritual training sessions for Ghost? What about more specific action outside of the plot of both the original movie and its sequel – by that, I mean a few more missions explaining more about the Logos, Zion, or other facets of the Matrix universe? This game had the prospect for incredible depth. Instead, it settles for basic mediocrity. The lack of innovation also highlights how other titles, like Dead to Rights or Max Payne have implemented bullet-time, gunfighting, and plot advancement better than Enter The Matrix.
These weaknesses also severely reduce the replayability of the game. I spent probably ten hours at the most slowly going through every nook and cranny of the game with Ghost, but after realizing that there are very few differences between him and Niobe, I blazed through her missions in five hours at most. While I found myself truly interested in watching the “exclusive” video, I found that the minor differences didn’t advance enough of the plot to even be worth consistent replay. Plus, with efficient hacking of the save game, I could unlock enough footage earlier on, further reducing the replayability. Granted, the idea of hacking your saves is a creative “mini-game”; hell, it could be a serious challenge of DOS commands for the unpracticed, but after an hour or two, you’ll unlock just about all the secrets within the game, most likely never to return to this feature.
"I believe that this night holds, for each and every one of us, the very meaning of our lives."
Morpheus, The Matrix Reloaded
Let us all pray, Morpheus that the meaning of your lives doesn’t rest solely on the fate of Enter The Matrix. While the original plot and movie footage are an interesting look into the backstory between The Animatrix, Reloaded and the original film, the lackluster action, replayability and glitches severely hamper this title from truly being great. The most hardcore Matrix fan will probably eat this game up, but for action buffs, a rental will probably be the furthest trip down the rabbit hole those gamers will go.