There are lots of films that deserve a good videogame adaptation, and The Matrix is definitely near the top of that list. It's got hacking, dark shades, skin-tight leather outfits, fast cars, kung fu and Bullet Time, and the sort of acrobatic action sequences that game developers have been cooking up without inspiration for over a decade. And the twist is that the "real world" is basically just a videogame anyway.
Developed by Shiny, with a plot scripted by the Wachowski brothers, it's easy to see why so many people are excited about the long-awaited Enter The Matrix. But is it this generation's GoldenEye, or another Minority Report?
Welcome to the game world
As everybody expected, the product of Shiny's labours is a third person action title that combines most of the film's code-rupturingly energetic pursuits, starring two characters from The Matrix Reloaded, which debuted worldwide this month. You can play from the perspective of either Ghost (Anthony Wong) or Niobe (Jada Pinket Smith), each of whom gets a different run of levels, and both big screen actors (along with a whole host of others) have lent their acting talents - voice and otherwise - to the proceedings.
The game takes place shortly before the events of the second film in the trilogy (just after The Final Flight of Osiris, one of the 'Animatrix' shorts, for what it's worth), and sees our two heroes racing to collect a transmission deposited inside the Matrix by the erstwhile crew of the Osiris, who stumbled upon something rather chilling during their last topside hover-about. After Ghost and Niobe achieve this, the plot takes a different turn and focuses on their efforts to help extract various other crews and generally kick the crap out of a never-ending onslaught of disillusioned police officers and SWAT team members, whilst sidestepping the attentions of various bullet-dodging "agents" hell-bent on their downfall.
Although the game doesn't let you control Neo, since his role as The One means he can pistol-whip even the rowdiest of punters one-handed with his eyes closed, both hero and heroine have their fair share of lethal kicks (circle), punches (triangle) and throws (both), along with a "Focus" (i.e. Bullet Time) technique (L1). Focus slows the action down and allows players to dodge bullets, via a combination of sidestepping (L2/R2) and leaping around (X), and lets us disconnect the enslaved Duracell soldiers from their machine-made prison with an elaborate array of fighting moves and Max Payne-style gunplay.
Complementing the action are various FMV segments directed by the Wachowskis (unfortunately devoid of their trademark special effects wizardry), a few car and hovercraft driving sections, a whole lot of scripted in-game events and a curious "Hacking" mode that reminds us of trying to bypass the shoddy network security on our old school computers to access 'the good stuff'. This being a title aimed at the mainstream, it isn't exactly brain-meltingly impenetrable, comprising an on-screen keyboard and a DOS-style interface with various "locked" commands to break open, but it will have you guessing for a little while before it yields the game's various extras - like concept art, recorded messages from Morpheus and the rest of the Matrix gang, a training mode and the ability to review FMV sequences unlocked in the single player game, and it soothes the mind when you're not fighting like Jet Li with a speed drip.
Annoyingly though, Enter The Matrix succeeds only in reminding us how brilliant the films were (and if you don't like them, we're expecting your flame in about five minutes time) falling short in the graphics, gameplay, level design, sound and even story department without surprising anybody - not even Infogrames' shareholders.
Visually, the move from FMV to in-game is a bit like seeing Jennifer Aniston remove her make-up. Or, you know, someone you find attractive. Character models are nicely animated, but scarily low-res, and the sharp-edged polygons of this clearly PS2-focused engine hardly suit the smooth leather outfits and complex fighting moves of the game's protagonists. It doesn't help that every enemy - whether they're security guards, SWAT teams, agents or what-have-you - was apparently bred from the same test-tube, that the vehicles have octagonal wheels, or that the environments centre on increasingly dull areas of the console's palette. From the grey-tinged, poorly textured and repetitive confines of a Post Office (which has more guards than Fort Knox) to the dull brown, steam-spewing vents of a sewer system and through the massive My First Quake Level-style hangars and aeroplanes, it's an apparently unending procession of visual mediocrity.
Further down the rabbit hole
Not content with poor visuals, Shiny has also left plenty of bugs in to emphasize the game engine's failings (or inability to get the game finished in time) and keep the player grumbling. Ghost and Niobe regularly fail to grasp ledges or jump correctly towards them, often get stuck on scenery, and can even tiptoe off the side of a gangway to perch on the thin air they think they're breathing. Clearly ETM is running on an old version of the Matrix.
Even ignoring these shortcomings the actual gameplay isn't much more engaging. There are supposed to be something like 3,000 moves (a frankly bizarre claim) in the game, but the most you'll see is in the high teens, as you mash buttons and twiddle the left analogue stick with L1 held down hoping to execute something blinding. There are some cool attacks, like taking a step up a nearby wall and kicking somebody in the face ala Neo at the end of 'the lobby scene', and defying physics by teeing someone up with a small kick before booting them halfway across the level, but we've certainly not seen 3,000. Or even 30. And the ones we have seen now bore us through repetition.
The other side of the combat is gunplay. You can equip a weapon (all the enemies drop them) with R1 and start firing by holding or blasting away with the same button, and by using Focus at the same time you stand a good chance of dodging incoming bullets and even launching yourself around like Max Payne. But it's exactly like Max Payne for the most part, with a camera that sits behind you and faces ahead. But because you're less likely to die, the game auto-targets enemies and there's a first person view that you can fire from but only sidestep in, the chances are that if you ever patched Remedy's noir shooter with the popular kung fu mod then you've already got a better game.
I need an exit!
As for the level design… we could go on all day. At times it's as if the levels were designed for a different game. We've had to replay missions several times just to suss out shotgun guard positions because they represent 99 per cent of the challenge, we've flailed around for ages trying to ascertain which bits of scenery we're allowed to climb on, we've had apparently useless "allies" introduced quite randomly, and suffered Game Over screens because they died before we could pick out nearby black-suited SWAT men against the brown and grey environments, or even figure out we were meant to protect them, we've had to run around empty, sprawling hangars and airport lounges trying to find ladders. [Gasps for breath.] We've had to run around conveyor belt levels trying to avoid upsetting the game engine with our footfall and plummeting into the firing line, we've drop-kicked enemies on gangways only to fly off the side ourselves, we've had to run down pitch black corridors switching to and from the infrared sniper rifle scope because the massive in-game help system, game manual and a million online walkthroughs wouldn't tell us how to equip the torch/scope to our regular MP5, we've had to stick to the rafters to avoid damaging clouds of tear gas, regularly falling down because the Lara Croft-wannabe ledge-hanging is hit and miss, forcing us to circle the guard-infested area looking for a way back up… Do you want more examples? We have about four pages' worth.
Admittedly, we play a lot of games at Eurogamer, so things like this grate on our souls like overzealous Parmesan-equipped Italian waitresses working on double pay, but surely with so much money and so much experience behind this project, somebody could have piped up somewhere and said "um, Dave, this isn't actually fun!" For a game which is basically about suspension of disbelief, this sort of enthusiasm-robbing nonsense is totally unacceptable.
As are the car and hovercraft-based driving sections (we particularly hated the "drive around for two minutes avoiding the psychotic police force before the invisible wall disappears" objective), as is the soundtrack's apparent dissociation from the game ("We've got the official music! Let's just stick it all over the place!"), and as is the ridiculous distribution of automated save points (five uneventful miles from the bit that kills you, generally). We're not sure whether we detest the health system, which lets you regenerate your way back up to 100 per cent if you can find a quiet spot, so we'll let Shiny off on that one, but like a lot of the game, it says "rushed" to us. "Do you want to jack back in?" No.
Let's be fair: Enter The Matrix has almost its fair share of good bits. The hacking mode is a bit of a laugh, the combat can be quite fun (and if you haven't played Max Payne you'll probably enjoy it even more), it's reasonably lengthy (more than the seven hours we've seen quoted elsewhere, especially if you play it on Normal and go for both campaigns), it has slow-motion sniping and some madcap running-away-from-agents rooftop chases, and it plugs some of the gaps in and poses more brain-teasing questions about a storyline that has most of the world hooked, but it is blighted on so many levels by the blundering stupidity of its malformed stillborn design that recommending it is beyond us. The blue pill never looked so tasty.