We had a chance to try out a demo of the upcoming Matrix game for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, and PC at a press event in Los Angeles last night. The game is being developed by Shiny Entertainment and is slated for release this May in conjunction with the release of The Matrix Reloaded movie. While the game will obviously have ties to the upcoming film, it will feature an original story--developed in conjunction between Shiny and Larry and Andy Wachowski--that will intertwine with and expand on events and characters from the film. The game focuses on two characters, Niobe and Ghost. You select one character to play as from the start, and you'll see different levels or play different roles in the action depending on your selection. The demo we played, while still early, gave us a sample of the fighting, driving, and flying levels in the game.
The first level available was the Chateau, which features a different stage based on whether you play as Niobe or Ghost. When playing as Niobe, you'll play in the Attic stage, which opens up in the attic of what appears to be a mansion. As you work your way through the level, you'll encounter vampire enemies that you'll engage in hand-to-hand combat with and dispatch with wooden stakes. After facing off against a liberal helping of vampires, you'll take on a boss. Once he's dispatched, the game shifts to a cutscene that ends the level. When playing the Chateau level as Ghost, you'll play in the Great Hall stage, which begins in the interior of the chateau. You'll go through, exploring rooms and facing a wider range of enemies than you saw as Niobe. The most notable addition to the enemy roster is the inclusion of gun-toting thugs who delight in taking potshots at you from afar as you duke it out with their compatriots.
The Chateau level let us get a feel for the game's combat engine, which is one of the most highly anticipated elements in the game and will likely be one of the most scrutinized, given The Matrix movies' impressive fight sequences. You can move around with the left analog stick and punch, block, jump, throw, open doors, holster your weapon, and disarm enemies by pressing the appropriate face buttons. There's also a "focus" mechanic, which is essentially the "bullet time" effect seen in the films. When triggered, it slows down time, allowing your character to perform a different set of moves, such as running along walls and unleashing alternate combos. Your focus ability is limited by a meter, which is limited to 33 percent at the start of the game, but you'll increase your maximum focus--and thus expand the repertoire of special focus moves available--by defeating certain bosses. The focus meter will replenish to the one-third mark if you avoid using the move, and higher levels of focus are accumulated by defeating enemies and pulling off certain maneuvers. The combat is still coming together in the build we saw, but it was still pretty solid. There were some obvious rough spots, but the move set available to the two characters certainly helped capture some of the look and feel of the now-classic fight sequences in The Matrix films.
The game's HUD is clean and informative, and it doesn't get in the way of the action. You'll find bars that measure your character's health and focus meter. A box in the upper left-hand corner of the screen serves two context-sensitive uses. When your character is near doors, the box will reflect the action triggered by using the square button. In other situations, it will show your secondary weapon, such as the aforementioned wooden stakes. A similar box in the right-hand corner pops up when you draw a gun to show the type of weapon you're using. Finally, a box in the top center of the screen contains a navigational arrow that points you in the right direction as you make your way through the rooms and hallways in the chateau.
The next playable level was a driving stage called Find the Land Line. While playing as Niobe, you'll be able to make use of Ghost as well. The main goal of the stage is to reach a set point in the city you find yourself in. While things start out easy enough, they become much more complicated as police cars start chasing you. In addition to simply chasing you through the city, the police will attempt to ram into you and fire at you from their cars. To make matters worse, you'll find that the path to your goal is blocked by a raised drawbridge. When you hit the bridge, you'll be required to stay alive for two minutes while you wait for the bridge to lower.
The control in the driving sequence was easy to pick up. You'll be able to steer the car with the left analog stick and accelerate with the appropriate face button. The right analog stick will also let you brake and reverse your car when needed. Holding down another button will have Ghost pop out of the passenger side of the car. When police cars come within a certain range, he will automatically fire on them until they explode. Although the level starts with a camera angle situated just behind Niobe, you'll be able to switch to a third-person view to get a better feel for your surroundings.
The final playable level in the demo was a stage called Tunnel of the Real. The stage is set in a flying level called Onboard the Logos, and it puts you in the role of Niobe and asks you to pilot a hovercraft through a winding tunnel while being chased by sentinels. The gameplay in the stage is straightforward--just make it to the end of the tunnel while avoiding the sentinels and any other obstacles. In talking with representatives at the event, we were able to find out that the Tunnel of Real stage will differ depending on which character you choose to play as.
The graphics in the game were clearly still coming together and offered a mix of strong visual elements with some less-polished ones. The character models for Niobe and Ghost were detailed and moved pretty well thanks to extensive use of motion capture. However, there were still quite a few points where the pair moved as though their arthritis were flaring up. We expect the animation to be improved as the game is tightened and tweaked in the coming months. We have to say we were quite pleased with the animations featured in the fight scenes that had been choreographed by Wu Ping. The enemies in the game weren't quite as detailed as the two leads, but they did look quite good. The environments were detailed and featured a number of interactive elements, such as breaking glass and other objects that would be disturbed around you during a fight. The city the driving level was set in was detailed and featured destructible elements ranging from road dividers and street signs to storefronts. The flying level called to mind old-school rail shooters thanks to the first-person view, tight confines, and hordes of sentinels creeping into your crosshairs.
While the different versions have noticeably different levels of detail, Shiny's dynamic level of detail engine uses the same models and textures in all cases and then adjusts for the particular abilities of each hardware platform. For example, the PC version (which uses traditional PC shooter controls) and Xbox versions can use higher quality, compressed textures and models are rendered at higher polygon counts and with more detailed skeletal animation. While the PlayStation 2 version has been in development the longest to optimize the engine for the hardware, the only fundamental engine differences are mundane start screen requirements. The game's audio was hard to judge, although it is set to feature the voices of the cast, as well music taken from the film.
While the demo of the game gave us a taste of what to expect from Enter the Matrix, there was quite a bit we didn't see. Fortunately, we were able to glean some more information from the assembled Shiny reps. The game's story will be told via a combination of three approaches: cutscenes using the game's graphics engine and motion-captured movement from the movie's cast, FMV sequences created specifically for the game by the Wachowski brothers, and an hour of live-action footage shot during the filming of The Matrix Reloaded. As far as gameplay goes, the levels in Enter the Matrix are expected to break down to 70 percent fighting, 15 percent driving, and 15 percent flying. In addition to the main game, Enter the Matrix will also feature a hacking minigame that will function much like a text-based adventure and let players open up secrets in the game. We weren't able to find out whether there will be swordfights during the fighting sequences or whether there will be features specific to each version of the game. Representatives from Shiny stated that the goal is to take advantage of everything each console has to offer in terms of technical merits. Whether or not the team will be able to implement everything remains to be seen.
Enter the Matrix definitely has potential. The varied gameplay is engaging, and the combat engine does a fine job of capturing the look and feel of the film series' fighting sequences. If Shiny can tighten up the rough spots in the game, Enter the Matrix should be a very strong title. The game is currently slated to ship this May for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, and PC. Look for more on it soon.