Atari and Shiny's upcoming The Matrix: Path of Neo game for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and the PC is arguably the Matrix game fans of the movie trilogy have been hankering for. While 2003's multiplatform Enter the Matrix was a fair romp through the unique cinematic world crafted by the Wachowski brothers, it left many wanting more. The game's biggest omission was not letting you play as the big three, or even the big one, from the cast. Thankfully, as evidenced by its title, The Matrix: Path of Neo drops you into the boots and stylish black clothing of one Thomas "Neo" Anderson. The game will span the course of the three Matrix movies and let you guide Neo as he sets off to save humanity from machines (obviously copious amounts of melee fighting and shooting will ensue). We had the chance to get our hands on a near-final version of the PlayStation 2 version to see just how it's coming together and, more importantly, to see whether or not it's an improvement over its predecessor.
As we mentioned, Path of Neo will follow Neo's journey through the trilogy of films from simple computer nerd sticking it to the man to fashionably dressed, superpowered messianic dude sticking it to the machines. Though it may seem like an ambitious challenge to cram the three films into one game, Shiny had some superpowered dudes of its own to help make things go smoothly. Both Larry and Andy Wachowski served as writers and directors on the project, ensuring that the game's tale stuck to the film trilogy's standards. Better still, the pair took the opportunity to do a bit of fine-tuning on the overall story, which yields a new spin on things, as well as an all-new ending that's understandably being kept under close wraps. As a result, the game will contain surprises even for diehard Matrix fans who can recite dialogue by heart, which is more than a little cool.
The new tale will play out over the course of a collection of uniquely structured levels that will obviously borrow heavily from the films, but will also take some smart detours in the name of dramatic license and gameplay. At first blush, the game will likely seem like a fairly straightforward, and not altogether consistent, mirror of the events in the films. However, like the computer-generated world that holds mankind in thrall, there's more to Path of Neo than meets the eye. Everything starts out in fairly straightforward fashion. You'll get an eyeful of green code lines, cryptic scenes from the first movie, and a faithful approximation of the beginning of the film.
The game kicks off with Morpheus offering you the now-familiar choice of red or blue pills. If you choose correctly the action will proceed apace; if you choose incorrectly, then we hope you enjoy being kicked out of the game. Savvy pill poppers will start out in a tutorial area that's set in a familiar lobby, which is just asking to be shot up. While the level is your run-of-the-mill tutorial, there's more going on under the hood. The level is also gauging you as a player. You'll confront a selection of foes that will start with low- level security guards, and you'll work your way up to the deadly agents. Your progress against them will determine the difficulty choices presented to you when it's time to move on.
The next time you get control of Neo is when his world is about to blow up in his face. Agents swarm the sea of cubicles he works in and you'll have to "Solid Snake" your way through them, thanks to helpful hints via cell phone from the mysterious Morpheus, who seems to know your building incredibly well for someone not in it. The game departs from what we all know when Neo hits the outside of the building and attempts to make his way to safety. From here on out you'll be offered choices on how you want to progress. If you choose to, you can tough it out through the challenge of making it out of the building.
If you get nabbed, you can also choose to accept capture, which will drop you into a lengthy virtual reality training session that's a far cry from what was seen in the flicks. This sequence finds Neo making his way through a series of tests that reflect a winning mix of influences. Whether it's Neo's goofy training outfit, a Metal Gear-style stealth segment, an old-fashioned brawl, or even a tribute to one of the set-piece battles in Drunken Master 2 and a few other classic kung fu flicks, the series of sequences is extremely fun. You'll eventually wind up back on Neo's proper path, as seen in the movies, and you'll participate in all the choice action sequences from the trilogy. This includes the mighty "burly brawl" seen in the final entry in the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, where Neo faces off against a gaggle of multiplying Agent Smiths. Progressing through the game so you can get to the next cool action sequence is a strong incentive to tear through the levels, but Path of Neo now offers you an extra perk in the form of light RPG elements. This perk will let you power up Neo by selecting a set number of abilities from different tiered rings, essentially a skill tree that you'll move through. This will end up leaving you with a customized Neo that will be unique to you and your play style, as you'll only be able to choose from a limited amount of abilities on each ring.
Butt-kicking Made Easy
The unique, and sometimes challenging, game structure is balanced out by an accessible and extremely satisfying control mechanic that, while not flawless, works well. You'll start out with access to the most basic of Neo's moves: a simple punch, kick and jump, and eventually you'll find yourself kicking ass like any trench-coated hero in a pair of sunglasses should. The combat system does an excellent job of mirroring and expanding on what was seen in the trilogy and lets you use your fists, feet, firearms, swords, "bullet time," and your inner chi to open up copious amount of whoop-ass on your foes. Though the scheme isn't perfect, due mainly to a sketchy camera and some tracking issues present in our version of the game, it works nicely and is easy to pick up. More importantly, the control scheme yields a wealth of flashy moves that are extremely cool.
The visuals in the PlayStation version are currently an uneven mix of impressive technology and art, and some very unpolished elements. The core graphics engine maintains the previous game's attention to detail and does a commendable job of replicating the look of the environments and assorted special effects that were central to the three motion pictures. However, the character models and textures in the game are currently all over the map in terms of quality. Some sequences will feature a near photo-realistic depiction of Morpheus, Neo, Trinity, and the other familiar faces from the films, while others will make do with rough-looking approximations of the aforementioned folk. Animation is also a bit on the jerky side, although you will see hints of the cool choreographed grace with which the characters move in the films, just not often.
Also, as we mentioned previously, the camera can be a mighty cross to bear when you're in the heat of battle, sticking in odd angles and occasionally having some action-tracking issues during some of the fast-moving battle sequences. The version we played also featured the expected roughness in its loading and frame rate, which we hope will be smoothed over by the time it ships. On the plus side, the game features a wealth of video taken straight from the movie trilogy that has been reedited by the Wachowskis to better tell this unique tale.
As far as the audio goes, The Matrix: Path of Neo is a pastiche of familiar themes taken from the films together with a wealth of new material created just for the game from a number of notable artists. An especially cool aspect of the soundtrack is how it's mixed into the experience on the fly, incorporating various sound effects, such as a barrage of gunfire and columns exploding, neatly into the mix, making for a unique aural experience. As far as the voice goes, you'll hear a mix of sound bites from the films, plus a few newly recorded bits, as well as some soundalikes, which do a fair job of re-creating the cast.
Based on what we've seen and played, The Matrix: Path of Neo is shaping up to be an uneven follow-up to Enter the Matrix that has the potential to be saved by its gameplay. Though the visuals are inconsistent, the gameplay still manages to shine, thanks to a hard-to-resist sense of fun that isn't diminished by the spotty graphics or inconsistent pacing. The added bonus of the Wachowski's involvement and the promise of a new take on the trilogy's narrative from its creators, certainly gives fans reason to check out the game.
If you're not a dyed-in-the-leather-trench-coat fan of the series you may still want to check the game out too, as it manages to offer a fun, accessible experience. Hopefully Atari and Shiny can tighten things up to ensure the visuals do justice to the appealing gameplay. As it stands now, The Matrix: Path of Neo is looking like a promising game that may be hampered by spotty presentation. The game is currently slated to ship early November for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and PC. Look for our full review soon.