Enter the Matrix

Review by Steerpike
May 2003

The World's Longest and Most Meaningless Movie

Being a red-blooded American male who likes hot women dressed in leather, kung fu, clever plotlines, and big gunfights, I naturally enjoyed The Matrix. Being an educated individual with little patience for intellectual patronization, endless expository dialogue, and lectures about the nature of causality, I naturally found The Matrix Reloaded hugely disappointing. Being a Sacrifice fan who is still mad at Shiny Entertainment for failing to make a sequel, and a student of gaming history who knows how good movie-franchise games usually turn out to be, I was dubious at best about Enter the Matrix. And this game, by far the most expensive ever made and sporting a plotline nearly integral to understanding the second movie, is indeed the mediocrity that I feared it might be.

Enter the Matrix follows the adventures of Captain Niobe and the crew of the hovercraft Logos. Niobe, played in the game as in the movie by the delectable Jada Pinkett-Smith (indeed, the whole cast of the movie appears in the game at some point or another), along with her first officer Ghost, are the two principals in a story written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, who quite frankly flexed their narrative muscles much more expertly in this game than they did in The Matrix Reloaded.

Twisting in and out of the movie's plot, Enter the Matrix immerses you in adventures corollary to—and occasionally directly alongside—the travails of Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo. An army of crazed machines is digging toward Zion, the last human city, and it's up to you playing as either Niobe or Ghost to do what you can to save humanity from its own fiendish creation: a savage artificial intelligence that has enslaved the species by plugging it into a computer program that simulates normal existence while drawing power from the heat generated by six billion human bodies in tanks of pink goo. The handful of "free minds" not enthralled by the Matrix computer program move freely between the virtual and real worlds, combating the nefarious programmatic constructs of the AI.

Niobe and Ghost follow somewhat different paths through the game; each is an expert at different things and you'll have to play Enter the Matrix twice to enjoy everything. Enough of each course is similar that you will find yourself replaying a significant portion of it if you choose to go through the game a second time to see both stories. Niobe is the pilot/driver; some of the more thrilling levels in Enter the Matrix deal with piloting either land vehicles (in the Matrix itself) or your hovercraft, Logos. Ghost, who does get the opportunity to drive now and then, is really best when it comes to riding shotgun and providing support for Niobe. Outside the vehicle levels, both seem more or less equal to the tasks at hand.

This review is of the PC version. Console players, I'd be curious to hear your take on the myriad ports—a massive worldwide release on May 14 included all major platforms—so shoot me an email at Steerpike@fourfatchicks.com if you found your experience to be notably different from my own.

Hello, Cray Supercomputers? I Need to Place an Order

Enter the Matrix wins the award for the most staggering system requirements of any PC game. Minimum processor speed, at 800 MHz, isn't so bad; GeForce 4/Radeon 8500 and 4.3 gigabytes of hard drive space, on the other hand, are going to limit the potential PC audience for this game. The tradeoffs for these demands are blisteringly fast load times, comfortably high frame rates, and a relaxingly smooth gaming experience implying that the requirements were a conscious decision intended to enhance immersiveness, not the product of bloated code. But I wouldn't recommend that anyone spend money to upgrade specifically for this title. Because though Enter the Matrix is a vaguely entertaining game, it is by no means spend-money-to-upgrade good.

If you liked the hand-to-hand combat of Oni and the slo-mo gunplay of Max Payne, then Enter the Matrix is the game for you. Despite serious flaws, it elegantly combines elements of the two with sufficient artistry to escape overt comparison but brings little else that is stylistically new to the table. Gamers should prepare themselves for frenetic action, a cleverly constructed storyline, and thematic tie-in to the movies that marks Enter the Matrix as the first game that truly builds on an existing cinematic experience, rather than being a mere product of a franchise.

Machines Don't Need Testers

Game developers could stand to learn a lot from Enter the Matrix, especially on the subject of securing good writing, talent, and effects sequences for cinematic games. Because the entirely professional movie cast and crew is employed, the game features slick production values unrivaled by anything else out there. It's a good example of the nebulous line between cinema and mediated interactive environments such as games.

But the problem is not with the story or the script, or even with the talent. Problems with Enter the Matrix fall into two distinct and equally crippling categories: first, it contains bugs of nearly every description, from the minor to the crashworthy. Second, it sports ill-conceived design that keeps players focused on the deleterious aspects of the game rather than enthralled by other, superior, sections. Since these two aspects of the game fall entirely under Shiny's purview, I lay all the blame at the feet of a company still occasionally hailed as a leader in the evolution of games as a new narrative art form. Enter the Matrix comes across as a sloppy game, with flaws that would have been corrected in testing had the release not been timed to coincide with the movie.

Some of the graphic work is terrific, including particles, fogging, and fire effects. Niobe and Ghost are both heavily motion-captured but would look better if their joints would quit popping so badly; what few shaders are used are employed to great effect: subtle reflections off a pair of sunglasses or a snakeskin jacket. And the cinematic cutscenes are so obviously the work of the Wachowski brothers that watching them is almost like watching another Matrix movie. Everything from the slow motion segments to the moving camera freeze frame technique that won them a special technical achievement award is present in this game.

But the graphics, while good, do feature console port leftovers such as ugly joint-popping and minimal use of shading technology. Shadows cast by objects are few and far between (the game has no dynamic light) and flicker so badly that they'd have been better off without them. Shifting textures and clipping problems cause entire objects to disappear into one another both in the game and during cutscenes—honestly, developers, is it that hard to create a good collision algorithm?

The sound, too, suffers from a Januslike schizophrenia also caused by this game's rushed production schedule. Musical sequences pulled right from the movie help enhance the action and further underscore that this is very much a Matrix game; sound effects, voices, and the like are well-synced and employ some really spectacular environmental effects. But sound crashes infuriatingly often, blaring into a static feedback so deafening that people down the street know I'm playing this game. The only escape is to quit the app altogether, start over, and hope for the best. The designers also fell in love with music and reverb, so voices are often drowned out by the soundtrack or are too echoey to understand, and the voice volume slider in the game options defaults to maximum.

Enter the Matrix also crashes—a lot—either freezing up or dropping out to Windows unexpectedly. I imagine a patch is on the way; even the most damning reviews (and this is not intended to be one of them, though they will be out there) won't stop the Matrix juggernaut from carrying on. Millions are seeing the movie despite damning reviews; the same will happen with the video game.

Ultimately, this game is a console port. The inability to save at any time is proof of this (the game offers to save for you between segments), and obtuse controls that would be far better suited to a gamepad than a mouse cement the issue. Enter the Matrix doesn't take advantage of most of a PC's vastly more advanced technical capabilities, from graphics to memory to saves, and the result is a highly unsatisfying game that I imagine will also be highly unsatisfying to console gamers.

Like in a movie, there are warning signs for a bad game. In a movie, if the studio denies a filmmaker nothing (to the point of looking the other way while they blow $60 million on a 14-minute chase scene), that should set off alarm bells with potential viewers. In a game, the inability to save at any time and, much more egregious, making game cheats available in the Main Menu (as they are in Enter the Matrix) should do the same. Any time a game is so weakly constructed as to allow cheating from the Main Menu (cleverly called "Hacking" here), we should know that what's under the hood will be seriously lacking.

Pow! Biff! Sock! Blam!

Enter the Matrix is a third-person game, but it sports such obtuse camera control (or, rather, a complete lack of camera control) that the player is often at the mercy of foes that cannot be seen. If the camera were a more trustworthy ally, the game would receive much higher marks for general control, as I'm pleased to report that Enter the Matrix is the very first game I've played where I've felt no desire to remap the default keys in any way. Despite the complexity of what's happening on screen, the actual control scheme is quite simple—WASD, the mouse, and a handful of other keys are ample.

Like The Matrix Reloaded, Enter the Matrix tends to focus more on chop-socky combat than techno-powered gunfights. Firearms are available, of course; ammunition, however, tends to be limited. And while you have the opportunity to pull off some of the supercool movie moves like the cartwheel-while-shooting or dodge-bullets-in-slow-motion, flaws in the gun combat system make such maneuvers rather inane.

There is, for example, no clear method of aiming. You shoot wildly at opponents. When you "focus your mind," Enter the Matrix-speak for Max Payne-like Bullet Time, you shoot better. But unlike Max Payne, a game in which you shoot where you're looking, the mouse has nothing to do with what you're aiming at in Enter the Matrix.

Meanwhile, the kung fu elements of the game are much more expertly implemented, if it weren't for a desperately thick camera that inevitably fails to be where you need it to be in order to see what you're doing. Since both Niobe and Ghost are motion-captured, the combat engine works hard to make all hand-to-hand encounters look very cool—it never seems like you're repeating the same move over and over again, even though in point of fact that's exactly what you're doing. Left mouse is punch. Right mouse is kick. Hand-to-hand combat is just a lot of clicking.

As mentioned above, Enter the Matrix will endure a lot of comparisons to two games: Oni and Max Payne. The hand-to-hand combat in this game is much simpler than the complex, multi-button combos of Oni; falling into the category of "minutes to learn, a lifetime to master." Yet despite Oni's occasionally ridiculously complex fighting moves, its camera and controls are sufficiently tight to limit the frustration factor. The clickfest that is hand-to-hand combat in Enter the Matrix makes you feel like you're watching the game, not playing it.

Focus, Baby, Focus

Moving back to "focus." The cool factor of this power would be significantly greater had we all not already played Max Payne; essentially, you hit shift and time slows down. When you're "focused" you tend to be better at things than when you're not; your attacks do more damage, you shoot more accurately, and of course you can run around on the walls and perform some of the more amazing wire acts we remember from the films. Like Bullet Time, focus exists in limited quantity and replenishes slowly. There is almost always ample focus available for quick use (I, at least, tended to use it in very short spurts), but once again the uncooperative camera and simplistic controls makes mastery of focus very difficult.

The camera's unpredictability is comparable to the unpredictability of how you behave near surfaces such as walls or crates. In most cases, you can lean against them for cover and even peek (and shoot) around them while still protecting most of your body; however, in some cases you can't—even when it seems perfectly plausible. Surfaces don't adhere to reliable laws of game physics. Rather than a glaring flaw, minor issues like this strike me as further proof that Enter the Matrix was very rushed and released with insufficient testing.

I also wonder about some of Shiny's decisions involving powers available inside and outside the Matrix. While most of the game takes place inside the Matrix, your character's health slowly replenishes over time, along with focus. That's great. Yet you can still fall to your death in the Matrix, despite access to focus; you can jump farther when focused, but you can't leap tall buildings in a single bound; and you're generally better at pretty much everything you try, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason to how much better you really are. Compared to the Bullet Time in Max Payne, focus has a lot of deficiencies.

It Ain't All Bad

Much of Enter the Matrix resonates more effectively with the overall Matrix mythos than the second movie did. The cast tends to look and act cooler in the game than the movie; there are fewer grueling bouts of creaky exposition. Jada Pinkett-Smith has the perfect attitude for a Matrix character, and Anthony Wong's smooth and unrufflable portrayal of Ghost lends adequate emotional attachment to his role.

The story is so expertly interwoven into that of The Matrix Reloaded that it's clear why the Wachowskis prefer to see the game and movie as little more than two halves of a whole. It's also interesting to observe the activities of a group seen only briefly in the film, because this sort of sideways narrative is useful for reminding the audience that dozens of stories are going on around us all the time, and those we actually experience are limited to those we are fully privy to.

Though I think it would be difficult to overstate the clumsiness of the game's level design, which is labyrinthine for the sake of labyrinthinism, or the maddening camera, it's also necessary to point out that everyone came out of The Matrix wishing they could emulate those cool chop-socky moves, run around on walls, dodge bullets, and so forth. The fact that gamers already had the opportunity to do so with Max Payne doesn't necessarily diminish the cool factor you feel when engaged in some combats, especially those involving the inimical and ubiquitous Agents—who are significantly more threatening in this game than they seemed to be in The Matrix Reloaded.

There Are No Rabbit Hole Metaphors in this Review

So Enter the Matrix is not an abject failure; it fails on many levels, is irritating on many more, but ultimately its ratio comes out to about 60:40 bad to good. That's not a very impressive score, especially from a company as revered as the mighty Shiny Entertainment, producer of some of the greatest and most fascinating creative executions of gaming in the past five years. What really burns my boys is that the Wachowskis, ostensibly filmmakers, made a mediocre movie and a great game; Shiny, ostensibly a game development house, made a mediocre game that would have been a great movie. Go figure.

For the inability to save at any point, for obtuse camera and fighting controls, for subpar level design, for irritating crash and sound bugs, and for the failure to make any effort to improve the technology behind this console port, Enter the Matrix enjoys the dubious distinction of a Rotten Egg award. And for Shiny Entertainment, a loud "shame on you" for kowtowing to a surefire movie franchise with a game of inferior quality rather than sticking to creative guns and bringing us more of the work we've come to expect from such a body of talent. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Shiny Entertainment
Publisher: Infogrames/Atari
Release Date: May 2003

Available for: Game Cube Windows Xbox PlayStation 2

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System Requirements

Windows 98/Me/2000/XP
PIII 800 MHz/AMD Duron 800 MHz (PIII 1.2 GHz/AMD Athlon 1.2 GHz recommended)
128 MB RAM (256 MB RAM recommended)
4.3 GB free hard disk space (7200 RPM or faster recommended)
GeForce 2 256/Radeon 8500
Sound card
4X CD-ROM drive
DirectX 9.0 (included)

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