Scrolling Pixels: How bad are The Matrix video games, really?

2 Feb 2015

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Still from The Matrix: Path of Neo

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Scrolling Pixels is Dean Van Nguyen’s monthly column focusing on retro gaming. Check back on the first Monday of every month for the latest instalment.

I recently re-watched The Matrix trilogy expecting the whole thing to have aged terribly. The pre-Millennium bug computer hysteria, quasi-religious themes and dated tech, I thought, would grate on me, a major fan boy of the series when it first came along.

Much to my surprise, however, the movies actually feel more relevant now than they did in 2003, when sequels The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were released to an indifferent shrug from most fans. Computer hacking seems more prevalent than it’s ever been. In the past year we’ve reported story-after-story of cyber-criminals accessing personal information, private photographs and other sensitive data. In some cases, it’s governments utilising the internet to exert a level of control on its population. And with the advent of social media, humans really do find themselves living a significant portion of their life through computers. Just last week a survey was released that found we spend more time communicating with friends through the web than we do in person.

Sibling writing and directing team the Wachowskis weren’t the first filmmakers to dramatise a world where man battles machines, but released in 1999, the original Matrix did foresee the prominence the internet would have on everyone’s lives. Since then we’ve invented terms like ‘digital footprint’ to describe how much of ourselves we hand over to this new world. Privacy is over – Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg said so himself. And Elon Musk believes artificial intelligence is something to be genuinely feared. So much so, in fact, that the chairman and CEO of Tesla Motors has compared its development to “summoning the demon”.

'Free your mind'

In case you’re among the uninitiated, The Matrix series follows Neo (Keanu Reeves), a computer hacker who discovers the world it is actually a computer simulation created by a race of machines which have become Earth’s dominant entity. This simulation – called The Matrix – allows humans to live a virtual life in a world similar to our own while the machines grow and harvest people to use as an ongoing energy source. Prophesised to be 'The One' who will free humanity from slavery, Neo, alongside his captain Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and other soldiers in this future war, must battle the sinister AI inside and outside of The Matrix.

2003 might have been dubbed ‘The Year of The Matrix’, but if anything, 1999 was the perfect setting for the series to really make an impact. The world was gripped by the aforementioned Y2K frenzy that made us truly question the control we had over machines, and the movie was a perfect flagship of the up-and-coming DVD market (it was my first ever DVD, in fact, and came bristling with extras that really highlighted the format’s potential). Plus, with its original use of special effects, 'bullet-time' gimmick, Hong Kong-influenced wire work, dapper fashion and kicking techno soundtrack, it made the year's much hyped Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace look like a lumbering dinosaur.

Four years later, the world had changed. Old-fashioned swashbuckling epic Pirates of the Caribbean had just hit big, and the Wachowskis' word-heavy saga just didn’t tap into the cultural zeitgeist as it had previously. Buoyed by this success of the original, the filmmakers had plotted a huge expansion to The Matrix universe. Not only would 2003 see the release of two expensive sequels, there was also the nine animated shorts that were later compiled as The Animatrix DVD. Not to mention videogame Enter The Matrix – perhaps one of the most ambitious games ever made.

Enter The Matrix

I was a big defender of The Matrix sequels back in the day, though I do concede that the gamble of spreading the storyline over a multitude of platforms was a mistake by the Wachowskis. Released between both sequels, Enter The Matrix (available on Playstation 2, Xbox, GameCube and PC) filled out the plot of The Matrix Reloaded, meaning huge sequences were left out of the film and only fully explored if you played through the game. On top of that, characters prevalent in Enter The Matrix became central to the plot of The Matrix Revolutions, which meant following their stories was important in developing a bond that would help audiences understand why they were being placed in key roles. For example, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Niobe, a playable character in the video game, figuratively and quite literally puts Morpheus in the passenger’s seat during a climactic sequence in the final movie that sees her piloting a ship under attack. For those who hadn't spent hours helping Niobe get to that point on their consoles, it must have seemed a bizarre decision by the writers.

If the sequels were greeted with a lukewarm reception, reaction to the game was entirely chilly. Video games released to coincide with Hollywood movies are almost universally awful. I suspect this is because of the time restraints placed on developers as they rush out a product to sell around the film's hype and, indeed, Enter The Matrix does feel unfinished. You played as either Niobe or Ghost (Russell Wong), soldiers in the war against the machines who, like their big screen counterparts Neo, Morpheus and Trinity, operate out of a hovercraft in the real world where they hack into The Matrix.

Enter The Matrix proved a failed experiment for the Wachowskis. The public didn't seem to take to the concept of this perfect marriage between PlayStation and cinema seat, and the game has become emblematic of the negativity surround the sequels. But that's not to say this flawed product is without merit. The hook of being able to perform the high-flying, all-action setpieces of the films is fairly well-captured once you get to grips with the tricky control system. Left analogue stick, as expected, is used to move your character, though the right analogue stick only allows you to look around in a first-person view when you're not moving, meaning getting the camera to swing the way you want during a shoot-out requires a lot of luck.

There are a few nice moves though. At any time you can activate bullet-time (called 'Focus' in the game) which slows down time and allows you to perform all sorts of jumps and tumbles as you dodge bullets and shoot mid-air.The most satisfying for me was the cartwheel bullet-dodge while simultaneously firing an M16 at your enemy.

Ammo is a little sparse, particularly with how trigger-happy The Matrix movies are, and the game really feels unfinished during the dull and dated driving sequences, that sees you either mounted on the side of a moving car and firing at pursuing vehicles, or attempting to drive a car that handles like a shopping trolley on rollerblades. However, where Enter The Matrix does impress is in its production values. The music comes straight from the movie's soundtrack and really helps sell the experience, while no expense was spared when filming the hour-plus of original footage, directed by the the Wachowskis themselves, which could seemlessly be edited into The Matrix Reloaded if you wanted to complete the narrative.

One of the great things the game does is give players a real feel for being inside The Matrix itself. I always felt it was never the Wachowskis intent for viewers to question whether our own reality might well be synthetic and virtual. The Matrix is much more taciturn – like it was designed by a machine, in fact. And it appears much smaller than Earth and sparsely populated. The game succeeds in nailing these aesthetics, adding that familiar green-ish hue that soaks the artificial world.

Before we move on, a note on the second game of the franchise: The Matrix Online was a World of Warcraft-esque MMOG released in 2005. I didn’t play this one when it came out (to be honest, I hadn't even heard of it before researching for this piece) and, as the game's servers was closed in 2009 due to low subscription orders, I can’t go back and play it now to give you an opinion. That might itself speak volumes, but for the record, upon its release IGN called it an “only really enjoyable game for hardcore fans of the franchise".

Path of Neo

Also released in 2005, The Matrix: Path of Neo corrected many of Enter The Matrix’s flaws. Another third-person action adventure game, the movement and camera system was replaced by the more familiar structure of using the left analogue stick of move your character and the right analogue stick to move the camera view – a much more fluid system.

With enhanced graphics, the game really seemed to be pushing the PS2 and Xbox to their limits visually. There was a lot more fun kung-fu to do and special moves to play around with, but perhaps most importantly, Path of Neo (again directed by the Wachowskis) was freed from the shackles of having to tie into the movies, meaning it feels like an out-and-out video game.

Rather than adding to The Matrix universe, Path of Neo played like a compilation disc of segments from the trilogy, meaning gamers could play out its most famous scenes, like the lobby shootout, rooftop assault and the Agent Smith slugfests. Pulling off some of the more impressive moves still required up to three trigger buttons to be used at once, but the game added new abilities to Neo's arsenal slowly, allowing players to get to grips with the character little-by-little.

Path of Neo didn’t make too many waves though, with the public perhaps still unwilling to dive back into a saga many felt let down by. But it's actually a really solid adventure title, just one that became lost in a haze of negative backlash. I wonder without The Matrix stamp on it might it been received more openly.

The franchise isn't perfect. There's the Wachowski's tendency to present plot exposition as impossible-to-follow dialogue scenes, cringey Neo and Trinity love story, and oh my, Keanu's acting. At least the directors managed to mine a few laughs from his po-faced deliveries. But like the films, there's a lot to appreciate about the games. If you've still got sixth generation console, try jacking back in.

But, to give the final word to Morpheus, "I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it."

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Dean is a freelance journalist and editor covering media.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com