The Matrix Online Final Hands-On - Retail Impressions, Starting Out

How does Monolith's newly released massively multiplayer game stack up to the competition? We're not sure yet, but check out our first impressions now that it's available in stores.

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Announced several years ago during the height of all the fervor about The Matrix, The Matrix Online has finally arrived. This massively multiplayer online role-playing game is in many ways comparable to the genre's popular entries, such as EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and City of Heroes. However, as anyone familiar with the movie franchise would figure, The Matrix Online has a number of its own twists. After dabbling in the free Matrix Online preview event held last week, we've jumped headlong into the newly released retail version of the game to get a feel for it (and to eventually bring you our full review). On first impression, The Matrix Online certainly seems different in a lot of ways from some of the other such games currently available, but how well the game finally shaped up really isn't clear. That is to say, we have our doubts. But so did Neo, right?

You can create a character who looks like she failed an audition for a Mitsubishi commercial in The Matrix Online.
You can create a character who looks like she failed an audition for a Mitsubishi commercial in The Matrix Online.

A subscription to The Matrix Online lets you create one character on any of the game's available servers, of which there are several at the moment. The game lets you create either a male or female "redpill" by choosing from several different builds and various faces, hairstyles, skin tones, and outfits. You don't choose a character class or anything like that, though you do pick a personality trait that influences your character's statistics--and therefore his or her leaning toward combat abilities, hacking (that is, magic), stealth, and more. One issue we immediately ran into was trying to come up with an acceptable name for our first character. Since beta testers' names have apparently been reserved, chances are whatever cool Matrixy name you can think of has already been taken. The game doesn't offer a random name generator, either. After trying about 10 different names we actually wanted, the game finally allowed us to settle on the admittedly unfortunate name of "Uninstall."

The character creation and first few minutes of your character's life are set up along the lines of what you've seen in the Matrix movies. You, as someone going about your mundane "life" while trapped in the digital prison that is the Matrix, are identified by the free people of Zion as a potential prospect. You hear the voice of Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith's character from the latter two movies) offering you the choice that Morpheus gave Neo: Take the red pill and awaken to the real world, or take the blue pill and continue your dreary life (or, in this case, quit to desktop). Take the red pill and you'll proceed into a brief tutorial covering the very basics of the game's interface and combat, which includes both ranged and hand-to-hand.

You then jack into the Matrix, where you can hop right into some basic missions for Zion or just run around and explore, getting into fights with computer-controlled thugs lurking in alleyways. You can also craft items by "coding" them.

The Matrix Online offers an open-ended character development system that doesn't restrict you in the same way that most online RPGs do by forcing you to choose a character class and then stick with it. Instead, you've got a branching skill tree here, and you can eventually "memorize" different abilities from all the game's different professions, which fall under three different categories: operative, hacker, and coder. So, effectively, you're not stuck being a martial artist or a modern-day mage. Instead, you can be a little of each, or one or the other, pretty much at whim. However, this system doesn't necessarily seem to be as open-ended as it sounds, since you still must gain experience levels to power up, and as you do, you'll spend ability points on your different stats. So your character will eventually have a leaning toward a different style of play.

But that will take a while. Starting out, characters in The Matrix Online are all pretty similar. You get a lousy revolver to start with but can choose to deal damage in hand-to-hand combat, as well as perform choreographed-looking moves. Hand-to-hand combat works with a system called "interlock," which is essentially the traditional massively multiplayer RPG combat-engagement mode between your character and your enemies. There's sort of a rock-paper-scissors system at work in the combat, which, coupled with the ability to execute various special moves on occasion, makes hand-to-hand battling in The Matrix Online somewhat more involved than the notorious auto-attack-and-wait cliché this genre is known for. Still, despite some cool-looking animations, combat in The Matrix Online has kind of a clunky feel, as damage will often register out of sync with the actual animations.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can get missions in The Matrix Online at any time courtesy of your cell phone and your list of contacts. You literally just press a couple of onscreen buttons, and then you'll get assigned to run to a certain place, beat someone up, or bring something somewhere. The starting missions, frankly, are pretty much par for the course and don't exactly make you feel like you're embroiled in the ongoing struggle between man and machine. Still, the developers promise that the game's storyline will evolve over time and will be based on players' decisions. And though you start out allied with Zion, the promise of siding with the game's other competing factions seems interesting.

There are no snakes or giant rats here, but these Death Merchant Pallbearers might as well be the same thing.
There are no snakes or giant rats here, but these Death Merchant Pallbearers might as well be the same thing.

The look and feel of the game shares more in common with Anarchy Online and City of Heroes than EverQuest and World of Warcraft, for obvious reasons. Beneath the slightly green-tinted visuals, though, the game really doesn't feel that different from other online RPGs. Since The Matrix Online is newly released, the world of the game is still sparsely populated, though it still runs a little sluggishly even on a system that far outstrips the game's system requirements. And while there are a lot of different social animations in the game, from assorted dances to handstands and much more (including some two-character animations, which are a nice touch), there isn't a ton of variety to the characters...at least not while they're all still low-level. Starting out, you really don't have many outfits to choose from, either.

The massively multiplayer market is more competitive than ever, and from our first impression, we're still skeptical as to whether The Matrix Online has what it takes to stand tall in this category. It's got some original ideas that aren't readily manifested in the early going, and the core action and gameplay don't feel as smooth or sturdy as we'd hope. This undermines the game's sense of style, which resembles that of the Matrix movies but just doesn't have the same sort of flair.

Take these first impressions for what they're worth. We've got many more hours to spend jacked into The Matrix Online before we deliver a verdict.

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