Reviewed: May 28, 2003
Released: May 15, 2003
Ever since the original Matrix movie hit theaters the gaming industry has been saturated with all sorts of time-manipulating variations of action games. Whether it was the “bullet time” in Max Payne or the adrenaline boost in Dead to Rights, everyone wanted to hop on the Matrix bandwagon.
When the Matrix game was first announced several years ago I had to keep wondering what they were going to do to make their game stand out from all the copycats that were saturating the market and stealing their “thunder”. With Enter the Matrix arriving - in a brilliant marketing move - on the same day as the movie we can now find out.
Unlike the movie, I CAN tell you what the Matrix is and you don’t have to see it for yourself, although according to first week sales reports the game is already smashing sales records so apparently everyone is seeing this game firsthand. I almost have to wonder if there is anybody left to read my review that hasn’t already played the game.
Enter the Matrix is a mediocre game wrapped with a brilliant story. I dare say the story and more than one hour of custom movie footage (shot exclusively for this game) is worth the price of admission and having to tolerate some buggy and uninspired gameplay.
Rather than putting you in Neo’s trench coat and having you relive the events of the movie, the Wachowski brothers have crafted a complex and fiendishly clever story around the Matrix Reloaded. For the purposes of this review I will assume you have seen the movie. If you haven’t then consider this your “spoiler warning” and read on at your own risk.
While Niobe was more of a supporting cast member in the movie she is the star of Enter the Matrix. Actually, she is the co-star, as she shares the title with her fellow rebel, Ghost. The game’s story is cleverly interwoven with the movie so that whenever you weren’t seeing Niobe on the screen you are playing her in the game. The only other franchise to come even close to this level of collaboration is the Star Wars games, and even those pale in comparison to this project.
The level of storytelling will continue to impress even the most jaded gamer as gaps in the movie are filled in – gaps that you didn’t even know existed until they are filled in before your very eyes. And then when you go and play the “other character” you get to see even more missing elements fill in as you play the same level from a new perspective or explore entirely new levels specific to that character. The story is so all-encompassing that is starts with plot elements from the Last Flight of the Osiris - the Animatrix short film, and ends with exclusive clips from Matrix Revolution.
Even if there wasn’t a game on this disc the story and custom movie footage would be worth $10-20 for diehard fans of the Matrix. But most of us are wanting to actually play a game when we drop $40 on the counter and while Enter the Matrix does include a game it is almost secondary to the story. Often, you'll be playing just to see the next cutscene. Gameplay is broken down into a few styles that are based on the level and the character you are playing.
Fighting is easy to do and quite fun to experiment with. You have your standard punch and kick moves and you can combine those commands for a grab and throw. You can also disarm enemies, smacking them in the head with their own rifle butt or shooting them in the chest in some of the best disarming moves since Dead to Rights.
As cool as all these moves are they only get cooler when you enhance them with your Focus abilities. Focus is the ability to warp time and physics. With it you can dodge bullets, run along walls, or leap across city streets. Focus can be used to slow time so you can dispatch a room full of guards before they even know what hit them or enhance your aim so you can make flying leaps and target multiple enemies.
Fighting is very exciting and lots of fun for the first 3-4 hours of this 12-15 hour game, but after the first few levels you have done all the cool moves and it all starts to get repetitive. Sure, it’s cool to kick off the wall and kick the guard in the head or cartwheel across the pillared foyer shooting your MP5 at multiple guards in a scene taken right from the first movie, but these “Wow” moments get fewer and farer between as the game goes on. By the time you are ready to play as the second character your mind will be running on “autopilot”.
The lack of any functional gravity makes it impossible for the precision steering required to weave through traffic on the 101 or slalom your way through the aqueduct. You do have the ability to drive from the cockpit view or from a chase view. Neither changes the car handling but the chase view does seem to be more forgiving and if you are driving as Niobe you can see when to pop Ghost out the window to fire at pursuing cars.
The final chapter of the game has you flying the Logos (if you are playing Niobe) through twisting tunnels beneath the planet’s surface. There are only two sub-levels to this chapter and they are mercifully short considering how bad they actually are. You are locked into a cockpit view and must navigate tunnels that all blend together with only slight variances in lighting to indicate the way. Even the compass arrow can’t help you when your windshield is full of pixilated rock and “squiddy’s” are drilling into your hull.
Enter the Matrix does a great job of teaching you how to play. The in-game tutorial is ongoing and will give you “tips” even in the final level, although I have to wonder just how valuable the tip “To Brake use the BRAKE button” really is when learning to fly the Logos. By the time you actually get a tip you will have likely stumbled onto the move being described through experimental gameplay.
There were some serious issues and even game stopping bugs that severely hampered my enjoyment of the game from time to time. Playing as Niobe in the airport I would continually keep getting knocked off the upper catwalk of the luggage handling area during combat. Once I was off the catwalk I was walking on some kind of invisible floor and could not get back on the catwalk or fall to the floor.
Near the end of the game there is an entire chapter that has you doing nothing but running from Agents in what can best be described as a Dragon’s Lair style event. The compass is virtually worthless as you run through maze-like structures or city streets, and if an Agent gets close he will throw you to the ground and before you can run away will repeat the throw over and over until you die. Basically, if an Agent touches you it’s “game over”. Even though there are several (about 6) checkpoints during this running segment you will still find yourself dying and replaying these levels as you learn where to go and get the timing down just right to avoid Agents.
Saving isn't a problem in Enter the Matrix, but it can be annoying as hell. At times it seems that you are prompted to save every 3-5 minutes and often this isn't far from the truth. The game checkpoints frequently throughout each main chapter as well as after each cutscene. While it's nice not to have to replay significant portions of the game over it would have been even nicer to make these checkpoint saves automatic and more transparent.
There were times when the coolest parts of the game were being done for me by cutscenes. They would set you all up for this exciting action segment and you would be gripping the controller in anticipation and then you would slump back in disappointment as it all played out before you. It looked cool but I’d rather be doing it. It is a game after all.
The last thing to mention is the Hacking feature that you can access as soon as you have chosen a character and saved a game. Hacking brings up a DOS-like interface that will probably be alien to most gamers under 30. Actually, knowing DOS commands may prove more frustrating as I was instinctively trying to do commands that the programmers didn’t allow for.
While the Hacking part of the game is a great time waster there are plenty of benefits lurking beneath the text interface. By fully exploring every sector on you’re A, B, virtual, and ram drives you will be able to enter cheat codes, access transmissions from Morpheus, Neo, and Trinity, unlock a two-player versus mode, and even customize special weapons drops for levels in the main game. There are some logic puzzles and a picture puzzle, image galleries, and a video playback feature to watch all the movies in the game. You can also get bio/stats for your current character.
It’s easy to get lost in this Hacking interface for lengthy periods of time but chances are you can figure everything out in less than 90 minutes. Of course much of the content is locked in the beginning and is only unlocked as you progress through the game. Hacking is a nice companion to the main game and a brilliant interface for accessing cheats and bonus features.
Graphics range from above average to extremely disappointing. I’ve been hearing for years about all the work going into the motion capture to bring these characters to life. Niobe climbs ladders like a wooden puppet and Ghost run like he has a spoon stuck in his butt, but we all know “there is no spoon”. The fighting animation is second to none and all of the fight moves look stunning, both in real time and when focused. The disarm animations blew me away and flipping off walls or running along them or doing diving leaps and even circling a target in midair is tremendous fun and it looks awesome.
One thing that was missing were all the camera effects from the movie; namely the freeze frame and the trademark 360-spin move. I really wouldn’t want a button for it, but if they threw it in from time to time it would have been more Matrixy. Speaking of cameras, this is probably where I should mention that you have no control over the camera whatsoever. Not only is this a problem because you can never swing your view around to your liking, but touching the right stick (as you will instinctively do for most of the game) toggles your first-person look mode rendering you immobile until you tap it again.
I can understand why they had to keep the camera out of the hands of the player. Everything is certainly more cinematic when you play using “their” camera angles and I never really got screwed by the camera even though it frequently got stuck behind objects or walls and lagged behind the action. My only complaint was that I instinctively kept trying to adjust the camera and couldn’t.
Level design was pretty poor for the most part. The levels were not that detailed and only contained minimal objects. Everything looked like a set rather than a real-world environment. Textures were low detail and quite boring and the entire color scheme of the game was washed out and muddy. Everything had that signature Matrix green tint to it that just served to blur everything together. Combined with the fact that many missions are at night or in darkened buildings and you will find yourself struggling to see where to go or trying to spot enemies that are blended into the background.
This clarity problem is magnified when you are driving the car or the Logos. It is all too easy to smash into a wall that looks just like the dark but open passage next to it and navigating the rocky tunnels beneath the planet was a joke. No need to dodge the pipes – like the “spoon” they aren’t there, but the walls are and since the Logos doesn’t come equipped with headlights you will be bouncing off them frequently.
In a word, Enter the Matrix is “dark” and subsequently quite depressing visually. A few levels rose above the rest like the cargo plane for Niobe and Merovingian’s mansion including the stunning foyer set from the movie. The lack of clarity also extended into the HUD. The health and focus meters were obvious enough, but the ammo count for the various weapons was so transparent that I often had to move around so the text was against a dark background so I could check my rounds.
Kudos to the excellent quality of the video footage shot for this game that seamlessly cut with the CG movies that further blended into the gameplay graphics. Even when the game cut directly from gameplay to FMV it was flawlessly edited.
Owners of HDTV’s will enjoy the 480p scan and if you can tolerate some framerate issues the 1080i mode will blow you away. To my knowledge, this is the second game (Dragon’s Lair 3D being the first) to support 1080i. In all other modes the game runs at a flawless 60fps.
Aside from special effects one of the key components to the Matrix movies is the hardcore soundtrack, and the game doesn’t sacrifice one bit of musical quality. Rather than just migrating the soundtrack over to the game the designers have blended a mix of orchestra and techno tunes and cued it all to the action, so when you enter a room and proceed to kick the butts of five armed guards you’ll be doing it to some familiar techno beats. The only music that seems a bit over the top was the “danger music” during the final Logos levels. I’ve heard that music before – it was the theme music to the Doomsday device in the original Star Trek series.
The quality of the voice acting is by far the best of any licensed product to date. The entire cast is onboard, even Trinity, Neo, and Morpheus who appear only in voice form in the Hacking interface lend their voices to the project. Even the smallest of supporting characters from the film are listed in the credits in the back of the manual. The only original cast member not reprising their role in the game is Gloria Foster (The Oracle), who died in 2001.
Sound effects are excellent ranging from a wide assortment of firearms to the various punches, kicks, and thuds of more personal combat. You also have the wonderful sounds of slowed focus time where everything is distorted. Sounds are extended and lower frequency and bullets sound like they are traveling through water. Everything has a hollow sound to it and the “whooshing” effect of going in and out of "focus" is perfectly ripped from the movie.
I’ve logged about 12 hours on the Matrix and in that time I have finished Niobe, unlocked everything in the Hacking portion of the game (that I know of) and am about halfway through Ghost’s side of the adventure. I’m expecting about 15 hours total on the normal skill level.
Once you have worked with Trinity in the Hacking mode you can unlock the multiplayer mode and choose your favorite locations from the game/movie. Your fighters are specific to the arena you have picked, but since nobody really has any custom moves it doesn't really matter who you play. It's all looks and it quickly becomes boring since you are limited to normal hand-to-hand fighting with no focus time. It is still pretty cool to fight in the original Dojo from the first movie even if you can't run up the walls or smash through wooden beams.
Enter the Matrix has a few shortcomings and I suspect that most all of them were due to pushing this game out the door to coincide with the release of the movie. Personally, I could and would have waited until the DVD release of the Matrix Reloaded and so should Atari. That would have given Shiny a few extra months to perfect this title and fix a few of the bugs and gameplay issues.
Despite its numerous flaws this is still a good game that is going to sell millions whether I bash or praise it. In all honestly, Enter the Matrix probably isn’t worth paying full price for and if you can wait awhile there are four million copies out there and I’m guessing that about half of them will end up on eBay or in the used section of your favorite software store after their current owners get tired of the game.
If you simply can’t wait then go ahead and get it. There is plenty of fun to be had as long as you can tolerate some average graphics and a few levels of frustrating gameplay. The story alone is nearly worth the price of admission and makes a great companion piece to the movie.