Summary: The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. Brett wishes. He had exposed himself to the reality of the game, and didn't come away happy. Only after promising that we'll never let him talk us into another movie license game did he speak again. He suffered through a lot to bring you this. Don't waste it.
Enter the Matrix
There are a lot of choices to mull over when considering the lead paragraph for a review of Shiny Entertainment’s Enter the Matrix. I could look at a choice selection from the “Whoa!” oeuvre. I could use the tried-and-true “I know kung-fu.” Then again, I could try for something original with a few snarky words about Keanu Reeves’ attempt to do Hamlet in Winnipeg a few years back. Or make a comment on the geeks currently turning over every last line in The Matrix Reloaded for evidence of Kierkegaard and Kant.
But seeing as Enter the Matrix is just another marketing juggernaut masquerading as a game—and I’m going to gulp down a bottle of Tylenol if I see one more red pill-blue pill-style Matrix reference in the media—I’ll cut out the fancy pants clichés and say that this is just another marketing juggernaut masquerading as a game. This is a property, not a slice of interactive entertainment. It’s more confection than anything else, another way for the oddball Wachowski Brothers to make money off their tissue-thin conceit about machines turning the planet into the ultimate reality show. It’s about as compelling as the official novelization, the official Neo keychain, and the official Todd McFarlane action figures advertised in the back of the game manual. Which is to say, not at all, unless you’re a completist who scours Wal-Mart for every last tie-in product to toss into the closet in hope of finding a seller’s market on eBay a decade or so from now.
There are so many problems here it’s hard to know where to begin. What the hell, let’s start with the story, since Matrix fans are so into the Wachowski Brothers’ drop-out take on philosophy. Plot here was designed to weave in and out of The Matrix Reloaded, showcasing what a couple of the minor characters were doing while Neo was playing Jesus and trying to save the human enclave Zion from those nasty computers. The biggest name character here is Niobe, the Jada Pinkett-Smith ship captain introduced in the new film as some kind of hardass love interest for Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus. Yet she gets little meaningful screen time in the flick, and is hardly much of a drawing card here.
Neither is the other character you can portray, Anthony Wong’s Ghost. He’s even less of a player in Matrix movieland, a walk-on grunt who looks a little like Reeves while wearing the dark glasses in Neo mode. You just know he’s in the game for this reason alone, although you only get to portray him in certain situations. Both characters are so anonymous, even to Matrix fanboys, that the game might as well be starring complete unknowns. Maybe Shiny could have given Mark Hamill a role, seeing as he’s done so few game parts since Wing Commander 4.
SIDEBAR: The Zionist movement was an attempt by gentiles and Jews alike to convince the British Parliament to create a Jewish state. It originated in the late 19th century.
Anyhow, the goings-on here would still be incomprehensible even if Reeves, Fishburne, and fellow co-star Carrie-Anne Moss played the lead roles (in contrast, they’re barely seen, except in the odd clip taken directly from The Matrix Reloaded). I never got a sense of character, place, or events. A level started. I beat people up. I shot stuff. I moved on to the next scene. Consider this Third-Person Action/Adventure 101, albeit with a couple of spicy interludes featuring car chases and shootouts. The game box makes a point of asking what part you will play in the fight to save the human sanctuary of Zion, but even by the end of the game I didn’t have a clue how to answer that question. Unless it had something to do with beating the bejesus out of a dreary succession of cops and security guards. I got to know a lot about that, seeing as this is what I was forced to do throughout pretty much the entire game.
Level design is dreary and unimaginative. It’s as if Shiny set out with the goal of making a travelogue showcasing the most boring places to work in America today. The game begins with a foray to a crate-strewn post office and moves on to such thrilling locales as an airport, sewers, empty highway, nuclear power plant, and deserted city streets. Nearly every setting is sterile. Graphics are dark and faded, like the computers stole both free will and color in the process of turning human beings into Eveready batteries. Textures are of poor quality and animations are rigid and cartoonish. Niobe pumps her arms like a racewalker and cops often spin like Nadia Comaneci on a good day.
It’s like wiping your ass with silk
Gameplay reminds me a lot of last year’s console-only (thank heaven for small mercies) Minority Report: Everybody Runs, another product/game where the developers couldn’t think of anything more interesting than gun battles and fistfights against a production line of cop-like bad guys. Shiny tries to mix things up a little bit with the introduction of Focus, an option where you think so hard about computer-enhanced entropy that you can run up walls and boot people in the face and slow down gunfights.
Of course, something like this is expected in a game based on the movie franchise that introduced us to bullet time and gave us psychedelic 360-degree camera effects. But Shiny is a couple of years too late in its implementation, seeing as Max Payne brought these sorts of effects to computer gaming in 2001. Everyone’s favorite noirish cop-killer did a better job at integrating them into gameplay as well. Where you actually felt pressed in Max Payne, and were truly grateful that you could slow things down every once in a while, the option is pure frill in Enter the Matrix. Aside from the cinematic coolness of defying the laws of physics, there is no need to use Focus. Enemies can be taken out by running up to them and clicking the punch and kick buttons until they drop. Or by whipping out a weapon and gunning them down. You don’t even have to worry about taking damage with this approach to combat, since health is rapidly regenerated by standing still.
SIDEBAR: I still don’t know what the Merovingian’s French swears meant.
Not having to turn on Focus is probably a good thing, too, since it’s so poorly realized. Control in the game is a little tricky even at the best of times, thanks to an overly frisky camera that likes to show the back of your head more than the people shooting at it. But the screen-blurring effects that occur when you turn on the ability to run up walls and slow bullets to spinning streams of air turn your character into an automaton. The one saving grace is that all of your groovy kung-fu moves are automatic. You don’t need to really know what you’re doing, as long as you can hammer the mouse buttons with some sort of rhythm.
Still, this means that you can’t think tactically, or try moves more complex than running up the side of a wall. While everything does slow down in Focus mode, you appear to be in multiple places at the same time, and the camera can’t handle this. It jerks all over the place, inducing first frustration, then nausea, and finally “Who the hell cares?” as you give up and click the punch and kick buttons as fast as possible while pushing the mouse all over the place.
These atrocious controls make me somewhat glad that there is no challenge here. Master the game’s click-fu and you just have to run from Point A to Point B in every level, watch the cutscenes, and wait for the inevitable end teaser for The Matrix Reloaded. There’s an inevitability about your progression in this game that mimics a flim spooling to the end of its reel. And that’s hardly a positive here, unless you’re a Matrix geek who wants to get to the end as quickly as possible just to see how the game’s plot points tie in with those featured in the movie.
Aside from the single-player missions, there isn’t anything here of import. There is no multiplayer mode, no cooperative option, no way to modify or change anything with a groovy editor. The only accessory worth even a glance is Hacking, a feature you can call up after you start your explorations into the Matrix and have a save game to load. But even this is more style than substance. Click on it and you’re presented with a command-line interface where you can type in all sorts of console-style code gobbledygook to add weapons to certain levels and unlock secrets about the making of the game and movie series. Even if you were the sort of person to care about such things, you’d have a hard time seeing the point here. First of all, the game is so easy that you won’t need to hack any of the levels. Second, all of the other crap will undoubtedly be on the special edition DVD by Christmas. Besides, isn’t this sort of thing best left to another media format? This is supposed to be a game, right?
SIDEBAR: You’d think that a game based on a giant virtual reality simulator would be a little more… expansive.
4.3GB of gaming goodness?
A few technical quirks further mess things up for Enter the Matrix. Shiny forces a massive 4.3GB installation, presumably because of all the video clips. Presumably, anything else would have forced swapping amongst the four discs it takes to hold this bloated production. But so what? While it’s great to have an install-everything option, making it the only saloon in town isn’t a good idea, even in an age where an 80GB hard drive is considered small. And when you further consider that the game will be purchased by a lot of newbie gamers with less than cutting-edge systems, demanding such a huge amount of drive space is a big mistake. It also makes the game a real pain in the ass to install. Keep a book handy.
Frame-rate slowdown is another annoyance. Shiny appears to have ported the game from console to PC with little regard for niceties like stability, so we’re stuck with stutters at inopportune moments. The game stutters by design as well, courtesy of save points that stop the action every time you turn a corridor. Again, thanks for thinking of us, Shiny, but you went too far. Although few and far-between save points in a console port are a common complaint with PC gamers, there has to be a balance between convenience and immersion in the game. Asking “Do you want to save the game?” every minute or so prevents you from getting involved as efficiently as a stream of Jehovah’s Witnesses ringing your doorbell.
Speaking of annoyances, the game crashes whenever you Alt-Tab to the desktop. You’d think that the gazillions of dollars that went into the budget would have allowed Shiny to include a handy little function like this. And a cursor for menu navigation. That would have been a nice touch, too. As would the game consistently saving your gamma and brightness settings between loads. But I guess you only get so much for the reported $30 million it cost to make Enter the Matrix. Shame they didn’t have a bigger budget.
SIDEBAR: $30 million to make a game? Wow. And it’s going to scar the game industry irreparably.
Awful Level Design
SIDEBAR: Dan’s a mean dad.
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