Fans of the Matrix franchise are a hearty, dedicated breed. They’ve suffered through possibly the worst trilogy finale in history (the clich?d, murky and confusing Matrix Revolutions) as well as one of the most disappointing licensed games ever made (Enter the Matrix, a PC/Multi-console fiasco which was panned by players and critics alike). And yet, despite the disappointments, they keep coming back for more.
And so we come to The Matrix Online, a new entry into the rapidly growing world of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, from developer Monolith (known for impressive PC titles such as No One Lives Forever, Aliens vs. Predator 2 and Tron 2.0) and publisher Warner Brothers Interactive/Sega. For those new to this type of game, an MMO is a “shared universe” where hundreds, if not thousands, of players are simultaneously logged into the same server, forming teams and alliances fluidly, joining forces to combat the forces of Evil or, on occasion, each other. Players in an MMO can form pick-up teams, join factions, build their characters to near-legendary status in-game and even, in the case of The Matrix Online, work directly to influence the future storyline of the ever-evolving Matrix franchise.
The Matrix universe would seem to be the perfect setting for such a game. Warner Brothers and the Brothers Wachowski (the creators of the Matrix universe) have promised that The Matrix Online will contain not only cutting-edge gameplay, but also a continuously evolving “living” storyline created by the Wachowskis, realized by a staff of professional writers and enacted by special game-master-controlled virtual actors. This will doubtless prove to be exciting news for the legions of leather-and-sunglass wearing red pill wannabes that love the gritty, green-tinged slice-o-purgatory that is the Matrix.
However, in light of the franchise’s history of lackluster titles, missed opportunities and broken promises, the question must be asked: will The Matrix Online finally hit the mark with gamers, or will it be the final nail in its coffin?
Unfortunately, we cannot speak to whether or not the evolving story will grab and hold the attention of the notoriously fickle MMO crowd for the simple reason that it’s not yet been written. That’s the whole point – the story of the Matrix is still unfolding. If the developers can deliver on their promises, then the player can (and hopefully will) make a difference in the overall story, a prospect that should have fans salivating.
MxO‘s story begins where the last film left off – the Matrix is experiencing a time of truce following the sacrifice of Neo and the defeat of Agent Smith. A cease-fire has been brokered between the forces of order (the Machine Civilization, epitomized by the pucker-faced, suit-wearing killjoys known as the Agents), jubilant chaos (the frisky, cave-dancing, Matrix-jacking Zionists), and the fringe dwellers (rogue programs loyal to the virtually smooth Merovingian). The player has been targeted as a person capable of handling the Truth and has therefore been awakened from the virtual reality that is the Matrix.
Following a brief opening cut-scene, the player is taken to the character creation screen. MxO differs from many other MMOs in that no long-lasting decisions about the character’s future role need be decided at the time of creation, other than their basic physical appearance and sex. A beginner will not need to agonize over whether or not to build a fighter-type, a mage, a rogue, a crafter or something in-between; all of that occurs through in-game skill and advancement choices.
Once your character is built, you are offered the all-important red/blue pill choice and awaken to the Real World, an Operative-in-training for Zion. Your Operator, Link from the second and third Matrix movies, then leads you through a tutorial, where you will have a ton of terms thrown at you in rapid succession. While there you learn the rudiments of the HUD and combat system and even the basics of travel and how the skill system works.
Once in-game, you have the opportunity to explore the gritty vastness of Mega City, where you will be spending so many of your waking hours. The Developers have done a bang-up job on the game environment: the sky is a perpetual green-tinged, leaden gray, always threatening rain over the concrete-and-chrome, neon-glittering sprawl. Cars pass by in an endless stream, and pedestrians shuffle past, their eyes downcast as they travel the waypoints of their meaningless existence. The visuals are so lush that you very well may spend your first few hours in the City simply roaming around, seeing just how much trouble you can get into simply by sightseeing (quite a bit, as it turns out).
As you proceed, you will advance in skill, graduating from a simple Awakened being to the specialty of your choice. Whether you decide to follow the path of the Coder (whose specialty is item and weapon creation), the Hacker (specializing in healing, buffing and de-buffing) or the Operative (the soldier class, master of weapons and martial arts), all classes have some degree of combat skill, as well as solo-play ability, although some are more geared to team-oriented play than others.
Players familiar to the MMO experience will not be surprised to learn that MxO uses a fairly standard “zone” type approach that allows players of any level explore most of Megacity’s environs, with certain special areas off-limits until certain level plateaus are reached or access keys are discovered. Some of these areas (the Asian-influenced International District springs immediately to mind) are true works of art in themselves, with complex and lovely architecture, canals, neon, Japanese signs and stately temples.
Unfortunately, this graphic loveliness does not carry over to the same degree to the player and enemy models that you will be spending so much time staring at. While certain items, such as the games’ staggering array of clothing and wearable equipment options, are well modeled and textured, the player models themselves are stiffly animated and clumsy, with a late-90s-era feel. For example, as my character ran hither and yon on yet another Fed-Ex type mission, it was almost distracting how he seemed to simply float above the pavement with his legs churning beneath him. Leaping was even worse, with the model’s limbs sticking out at stiff, unrealistic angles. I have to admit that after enjoying other Monolith games like Aliens vs. Predator 2 and Tron 2.0, I was somewhat disappointed.
The franchise’s signature “wire-fu” martial arts are recreated with gratifying skill, however, filled with the bone-crushing, air-displacing, super-heroic strikes and leaps. The game’s use of sound is particularly good in this respect, capturing the aural “feel” of the films quite well. There were many moments that I found myself wincing in sympathy as my character performed the well-named “cheap shot” maneuver on yet another gang-banger’s squishy bits before they crumpled slowly to the ground.
The combat interface itself, however, is overly cryptic and hard to grasp. Like everything else about MxO‘s interface, combat is played out using rapidly-moving symbols, most of which are nearly impossible to make out as they flash past your screen. The Matrix Online manages to recreate martial arts using a system called “Interlock,” which allows for real-time kicks, blocks and throws between in-game models. While the player is in Interlock, he or she cannot maneuver or otherwise directly control the character’s actions, but moment-by-moment tactical decisions are still possible via the use of color-coded icons. These icons determine the relative speed, power and chance to disorient the opponent for each attack and can be changed from round to round.
If this sounds complex, it’s because it is. While the Interlock system can and does lead to some impressive fight scenes, especially at higher levels where advanced kung-fu, aikido and other martial arts fighting styles become available, the often cryptic interface has a fairly steep learning curve that will likely frustrate the more casual gamer. The Matrix Online is not a game that you can expect to sit down in front of and understand until you’ve played for several hours. Mastery will take considerably longer, only rewarding those players with the patience to endure the system’s initial impenetrability.
Of course, like most MMOs, the real draw in MxO is not the combat (as cool as it is to watch and control Matrix-style butt-whooping on your PC), nor is it the varied crafting system (a satisfyingly complex system using “code bits” harvested in loot drops as raw material, combined with the skill of the individual coder or hacker to make everything from clothing to weapons to other futuristic tools), but rather the complex interaction between your character and the thousands of other players and NPCs populating the world. While you begin your career in the service of Zion, you are presented with clues right from the get-go that other forces are at work in the Matrix, and they won’t be shy about asking for your allegiance.
Once you attain sufficient level, feel free to continue to work for Zion, or if you feel like donning a black hat for a while, choose to do some missions for the Agents of the Machine Civilization. If Euro-flavored, rubber gimp-suit decadence is more your style, then sign up to help the forces of the Merovingian – what side you chose to support is entirely your own decision. Be warned, however, that if you decide to play on a “hostile” server, then you risk having that spiffy new alligator-skin frock-coat you just had coded for you ventilated by an opposing Faction member, as you dance the night away in one of Megacity’s many dance clubs. Players that do not wish to worry about the possibility of Player-vs-Player attacks can play on dedicated servers that do not allow such behavior.
So, is The Matrix Online worth the steep price of admission? After all, this is a title that you not only have to purchase outright, but that you also have to continue to keep paying for, month after month. And this in a market already crowded with other critically acclaimed MMO temptations like World of Warcraft, Everquest II and City of Heroes.
The answer, like the Matrix itself, is a mystery, largely because of the game’s most enigmatic and compelling potential selling point – its promise of a continuously evolving Matrix storyline. If the game can deliver on the promise that Warner Entertainment has been making for months now, namely that the game will serve as a vehicle for continued top-notch storytelling under the careful direction of the Wachowski Brothers, then players that stick with the game will be happy campers indeed. A schedule of “Live Events” has been recently published detailing weekly events that will occur in-game. These events will feature new cinematics, scripted events and even interactions from human players controlling in-game “virtual actors.” At the time of this review, specific details about what exactly these Live Events will entail are sketchy at best, but the high level of commitment that Warner Online Entertainment seems to be ready to put behind the franchise is indeed impressive if not unprecedented.
Either way, this looks like a title to keep an eye on.
Gameplay: Players familiar to MMOs will instantly recognize the game’s standard mix of “go there, kill that, retrieve the thingie and come back to me” missions in the early game. Later, when Factions come into play, things get deeper and more tangled (if you can stay interested for that long), but the tasks you receive from your contacts are generally bland and generic at all levels. This paucity of missions will doubtless be corrected as additional game content is written, but right now expect lots and lots of the same basic content: retrieve the item, escort the brain-dead AI character across the city, kill everything in an apartment across town, etc. The overly cryptic and many-layered interface, particularly the combat and leveling systems, might appeal to the more hard-core gamers out there. However, this facet of the game is so very difficult to learn even the basics of, that it may drive away the casual gamer – quite a strange choice for a game that’s doubtless counting on broad fan appeal for its bread and butter.
Graphics: If your rig has the gear to push many, many polys, then you’ll not be disappointed in the Matrix’s world presentation. Atmospherics are crisp and foster a sense of realism that, if it had extended to the player and enemy models, would have given this game a much higher score. Unfortunately, the things you end up looking at the most are reminiscent of something out of a 90’s-era Quake engine title, with murky, pixelly textures and stiff mannequin-like animations for everything except Interlock combat. The loading screens used to equip your character between missions are low-resolution and confusing. Initial character customization options are sparse in comparison to other MMOs but are fleshed out later as you trick out your character in designer alligator-skin frock coats, leather corsets and wrap-around shades.
Audio: Audio is the game’s strong point, particularly the game’s characteristic Matrix-esque “wire fu” combat sounds. When your character does a flying reverse kick into some baddie’s head, and time momentarily slows and the camera spins, and you hear that special sound that can only be a Doc Marten delivered upside some fool’s skull in Bullet Time, well, then you’ll just have to smile.
Value: This is an MMO, so that means a monthly fee to continue to play. Of course, for that price you not only get a solid game, but also the chance to continuously participate in the living, breathing extension of the Matrix franchise, via MxO‘s continuously expanding plot. If Warner Brothers and the Wachowski Brothers can keep the story fresh and interesting and not fall back on the same clich?s that made the third film such a confusing mess, then MxO players might well be in for the ride of their lives. Only time will tell.
Curve: While the game does manage to achieve some innovations (Interlock combat, which allows for the first “true” martial arts combat system I’ve yet seen implemented in an MMO as well as the open world that lets you explore every room on every floor of every building if you want to), much of MxO is reminiscent of many other MMOs. Not that this is a bad thing; you’ve got to love a game that lets you play everything from an introverted, goggle-wearing code-jocky, who can literally decompile the fabric of the Matrix and reshape it into other objects, to a sleek, rubber-wearing death kitten, who happens to also be a master of firearms and seven different kinds of martial arts and who can kill you with a tube of lipstick. At it’s heart, however, MxO feels like just another MMO in sexy leather clothes. What will, just maybe, set this title apart is the incredible, but erratic talent of its creators and the unknown quality of its writers.
So, if you find yourself in possession of a few extra bucks and a few dozen extra hours a month, give The Matrix Online a try. As the game’s PR shtick goes, “The Matrix is just beginning to give up its secrets.” Let’s just hope that where the Matrix is concerned, Massively Online is the key that will finally unlock this franchise’s gaming potential.