Slapping a movie license onto a game is a sure sign that it'll stink the office out within seconds of the cellophane wrapper's removal. All being equal, the cost of the license alone normally robs a publisher of the ability to afford to produce anything more than sub-budget gaming toss. Even the mighty EA still hasn't made a truly memorable James Bond game after five fairly heinous attempts. Expecting a Matrix-inspired game to be any good is stretching the bounds of optimism, eh?
Except for once, the production of the movie and the videogame has taken place in parallel, with the Wachowski brothers not only writing and directing the game's plot but creating an hour of movie cut scenes using all the actors from the film. No crappy look-alikes or sound-alikes. This is Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss and co. in a Matrix game. Any attempt to louse this one up after all this periphery effort would be one hell of a wasted opportunity.
With Shiny handling development duties, there were lingering doubts that the project would fulfil its undoubted potential. The developer's reputation for producing ambitious, and visually arresting games was not in doubt, but the commercial failure (at retail) of its last three projects (MDK, Messiah and Sacrifice) didn't inspire huge confidence, and anyone familiar with the word 'slippage' feared that Enter The Matrix would suffer this ugly fate.
But damn our cynicism. For those who need to know these things, the plot of Enter The Matrix isn't actually a retelling of any Matrix movie past or present, but is set immediately after one of the nine Animatrix animated shorts (entitled The Last Flight Of The Osiris, and produced by Square, fact fiends), and shortly before The Matrix Reloaded.
The story goes that the Osiris is a ship that exists in the real world outside of The Matrix, and its crew learns that the Sentinels are about to discover Zion, the last human city. In order to warn the inhabitants, the crew jacks into The Matrix on a mission to deliver a package.
The first thing to note is the quality of the cut scenes, which are on a par with the movie throughout. With an hour's worth of scenes to witness, this is a stroke of unprecedented marketing genius; Infogrames knows only too well how obsessive the Matrix fanbase is and therefore has an excellent opportunity to introduce a huge non-gaming audience to the delights of button-mashing. Why publishers haven't gone down this road before now beggars belief – the synergies are obvious, and well done to everyone concerned for making it happen. We can only hope that this kind of co-operation between moviemakers and game developers becomes commonplace: imagine the next Terminator/Star Wars/James Bond projects taking the same approach...
You have to see it for yourself
As a scene-setting device, these movie sequences serve their purpose well (and fortunately can be skipped with a terse tap of the Start button), and often seamlessly move from CGI to the in-game location, and back again. It doesn't blend the two like EA managed in The Two Towers, but it's still nice to witness the continuity. They don't make the game as such, but they certainly build the atmosphere extremely well, and lend massive credibility to the proceedings. We're assured that playing through the game will add a layer of depth and understanding to watching The Matrix Reloaded, explaining certain events that might otherwise pass you by.
At the start of the game you get to choose to play as two of the movie's co-stars; Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith) or Ghost (Anthony Wong), who progress through the game on the same timeline, albeit from often very different perspectives, meaning you'll need to play it as both characters to get the most out of the game. Apparently Shiny made the obvious connection that allowing you to play as Neo would make the game somewhat easy, seeing as he's something of a Ninja God with abilities that would embarrass a superhero. Still, it's a bit weird playing as two characters you've got no connection with, although we're assured that once the movie's out (May 15th in the US, May 23rd in Europe) you'll want to play as them.
No matter. What of the game? In the same way that you can't really call Indiana Jones games a rip off of Tomb Raider, it's perhaps unfair to condemn Enter The Matrix for daring to use its own IP. Thus, while gamers will immediately spot the Max Payne similarities, which in turn inspired Dead To Rights and other titles, there are enough impressive moves and cool pyrotechnics in Enter The Matrix to render accusations of pilfering fairly redundant.
Cutting the hard line
The first thing of note is the ease with which you can pull off extremely cool manoeuvres in the game's main third person action sections. If you've seen a move in the movie, the chances are it'll be in the game somewhere. We're not convinced this claim can possibly be true, but Infogrames is boasting a total of 3,000 moves (doubtlessly between the two characters). Fighting in real time is a tad foolish, as you'll be toast before you know what's hit you. Use of the game's equivalent of bullet time, or 'focus' enables your character of choice to not only slow time down, but pull off some smug super-violence.
Initially you may struggle to master the subtleties of the combat system. Attempting to pull off multiple combos, as well as cart wheeling and wall-running antics might seem a little beyond you early on, but experienced players not only make it look extremely slick, but you'll be able to pull off all manner of gun-disarming and Vampire-slaying (yep, a stake in the heart) acrobatic nonsense with consummate ease.
The on foot levels follow a straightforward pattern of dealing with wave upon wave of baddies, moving through to the next section, and you'll eventually encounter some kind of boss nasty. Without spoiling the surprise, these kind of insane action sequences rarely let up, and if relentless action gaming is your bag, then there's plenty on offer here.
Graphically there are some extremely impressive touches; the moves and animation are extremely well executed, with convincingly detailed character models providing a never-ending succession of bone crunching artistry. Compared to Max Payne the animation is vastly superior and would put to shame most beat 'em ups we've seen. The interiors don't quite match up to the excellent character models, but you'll be too busy kicking the crap out of everything in sight to notice too much peripheral visual elements.
I'm not the one, Trinity
Other areas were a cause for concern; notably the slightly eccentric camera and an absence of credible AI. On the former issue, the Wachowskis have apparently deemed it necessary to dictate the view of the action. In theory this is a great idea, but we regularly encountered irritating situations where we couldn't see what the hell was going on, and in a third person action game such as this, that's the difference between life and death.
On the subject of AI, the game seems to have deliberately engineered a situation where you enter a room, clear it of baddies, move on, find more drones, etc, with hardly any call to utilise the rather basic stealth manoeuvres at your disposal. Even the health/focus system requires virtually no skill; with your health bar automatically rising to its maximum should you manage to avoid taking a hit for a few seconds, while your focus does the same. Gaming purists will see through this friendly, all action approach immediately, but for such a mass-market game as this, it's hardly surprising. It just comes across as a dumbing down exercise to keep the masses constantly in the thick of it. Whether this will conspire to annoy us remains to be seen, but the general formulaic repetitiveness might grate after 30 hours of Final Fight, Matrix-style.
Enter The Matrix does offer driving and flying mission to add variety, with an on rails driving/shooting section that can be played from two differing perspectives: one with you doing the driving, with the other shooting out of the car window, blowing up approaching vehicles, which crash dramatically towards you as they explode. Stood next to, say, the James Bond driving/shooting missions in Agent Under Fire, it doesn't quite have the visual flair, but they look like fun interludes from the on-foot sections that dominate the proceedings. The flying sections are said to resemble Descent, but as yet we don't know how these appear in the finished game.
The Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious
After three hours in Enter The Matrix's company, we're quietly confident that Shiny has come up with a flexible and intuitive combat system that will save it from being yet another movie tie-in disaster. It's clear that it's not absolutely perfect in several respects, but kudos to all concerned for going to so much effort to provide one of the best movie-game experiences we've seen. Whether it's just a canny exercise in interactive merchandising remains to be seen, and we look forward to finding out in the days leading up to its May 15th release.