Whatever you might think of the last two Matrix films, The Animatrix, Enter the Matrix, or anything else with the word Matrix in it from the last couple of years, it doesn't make The Matrix: Path of Neo any less good. Path of Neo is the second Matrix game from developer Shiny, and after the disappointing Enter the Matrix, you might be wondering why you should even bother this time around. You should, simply because Path of Neo isn't too much like its predecessor. It clearly uses some similar stylistic touches, but it's mechanically a much better game--a game that's made even better by you playing as Neo, "the One," from the beginning of his adventures right down to the conclusion of the last film...sort of. Path of Neo also takes liberties with the story in order to get it into game shape, and serious Matrix fans might be put off by how the storyline is treated so whimsically at times. You also might find yourself frustrated by how flagrantly chaotic the action can be, and we're not necessarily talking about the measure of controlled chaos the game purposely creates, either. Still, Path of Neo gets more things right than it gets wrong, and there's an entertaining brawler to be found underneath its blemishes.
If you're a fan of the Matrix series, or even just someone who's seen the movies, you probably don't need us to reiterate the entire plot for you since the title of the game pretty much says it all. If you haven't seen the films, you probably should before you check out this game, as the narrative isn't coherent enough for those who are unfamiliar with the source material. Big chunks of storyline are told through cutscenes ripped right from the film. But they're edited in a decidedly music video-style fashion, jumping and skipping around quickly and providing only the bare essentials that you need to get by. The in-game sections aren't really all that similar to the films, either. You'll find yourself in plenty of familiar situations, like the massive battle in the park against hundreds of Agent Smiths from The Matrix: Reloaded, and the wicked martial arts training battle between Neo and Morpheus from the first film. But many of these sequences have been extended, and they branch off in wildly different directions from those of the films. Not to mention that the third film is almost entirely glossed over, as the game skips almost straight to the final battle (though perhaps that's not such a bad thing). So this isn't just a step-by-step retelling of the Matrix saga, in case you were wondering. Rather, this is a full-fledged, 10-to-12-hour adventure that strictly follows Neo's trials and tribulations, both borrowed and original.
The one thing that's a bit disconcerting about how Path of Neo weaves its tale is its wild tonal shifts. There are times where the game feels like it's going out of its way to try to retain the same serious, existential themes of the movies. For instance, in between the end of the first movie and the beginning of the second, you'll take on several missions where you'll be rescuing potentials from agents. Here you'll meet a wise old herbalist who treats Neo like a demon who has come to take him away from his life; a librarian who panics when the book she's trying to move keeps reappearing on the shelf thanks to a glitch in the Matrix; and a martial artist whose sequence is bookended by poetic backstory narration by Larry Fishburne. And then there are times when things will get all jovial, with plenty of goofy inside jokes and gags with nudge-and-wink references to video games in general, the Matrix films, patently obscure martial arts cinema, and plenty of other weird stuff. The ending in particular is absolutely ludicrous, though almost hysterically so. We won't give it away, but let's just say it's a far cry from the downer ending of the third film.
Enough about the plot...the whole point is that Path of Neo can be a pretty fun experience. Unlike in Enter the Matrix, where you were relegated to playing as supporting characters Niobe and Ghost, here you are Neo in all his glory, and as such, you'll get to do almost all the badass things that he was able to do in the movies. For the most part, Path of Neo is a pure brawler with a decent amount of weapon combat thrown in for good measure. You might think that there's a lot more to it initially, since the game starts with a stealth sequence and then transfers into an hour-long series of tutorial missions. But in the end, what you learn is that Neo can punch dudes real hard, and he can shoot them too. The highly choreographed fight sequences of the films are emulated in the game with fairly effortless controls. All you need to deal with is a basic attack button and a stun attack button. Alternating between these sets up plenty of different combos that are both effective and cool looking. The shooting works similarly, with an auto-target feature that locks in on your closest opponent. It's a lot of fun to watch these moves happen. There are few things more satisfying than sending a cop flying into the air and then just pelting him with bullets, or grabbing an agent out of midair and slamming him to the street.
Neo also gets other cool powers as well, many of which are unlocked over time via upgrades you can purchase in between missions. There's a code vision mode that lets you see the Matrix in its pure, coded form, often revealing hidden enemies, doorways, and things of that nature. Neo can also use telekinesis to move objects around and to stop and redirect projectiles and bullets. Of course, all of these things can be done in bullet time. By pressing and holding a button, everything will slow down around Neo, and he'll be able to land attacks more easily. It's not a guaranteed hit by any means, and you can still be blocked by an enemy. But it definitely ups the effectiveness of your attacks, as well as your dodge moves, which go from neat to damn near spectacular in bullet time.
Bullet time doesn't counteract the one key flaw that keeps Path of Neo's gameplay from being truly great. For as much wonderful chaos as the gameplay engine is capable of producing, it's also damn hard to keep track of, even in slow motion. Since there's no hand-to-hand targeting, you're basically punching and kicking in all different directions. In small groups it's OK, but when you're fighting off a gang of similar-looking agents or cops, and because of how easy it is to just launch into elaborate, lengthy combos, it can become intensely difficult to keep track of who you're hitting and where hits are coming from. Not to mention that the camera has an awful habit of going spastic at the most inopportune times, frequently causing you to take more hits than you would if you could actually keep your eyes on the prize. Unfortunately, these problems conspire to give the combat a looser, sloppier feel.
It also bears mentioning that when the game tries to stray too far from pure combat sequences, it isn't very good. The lone standout is the decent turret shooting sequence that emulates the big helicopter rescue from the first film. Otherwise, it's just stuff like that half-baked stealth episode at the beginning of the game, as well random bits of puzzle-solving that require little thought to solve but can be a bit opaque in design. There are even some combat sequences that just feel extraneous. For instance, there's a whole three-tiered sequence added to the scene in the Merovingian's house from the second movie that combines both the puzzle-solving and the combat, and it's ultimately the least enjoyable part of the entire game. However, it doesn't mean that every original sequence written for the game is not enjoyable--it just means that several of them stand out as unnecessary padding in an effort to make the game a little longer.
With the amount of particle effects, debris, and crazy action going on during Path of Neo's fight sequences, it doesn't come as a major shock that the core graphics don't look very good at all. The character models look especially heinous up close, with seriously low-res-looking faces that look damn near mutated at times. Fortunately, apart from in-engine cutscenes, you're rarely looking at the models that close, and from the default in-game perspective, everything looks at least decent. The amount of destruction you can cause is really impressive. When you're playing that big lobby shoot-out from the first film, you'll see all the pieces of scenery breaking apart as it's pierced by bullets and bodies. Unfortunately, the more madness onscreen, the worse the frame rate gets, especially in the PlayStation 2 version. Both console versions take big hits, though, to the point where the game seems to be running at half of its normal speed during specific sequences.
The audio fares quite a bit better. Although Laurence Fishburne is the only main actor to return and voice new dialogue for the game, the soundalikes that Shiny picked up to play Neo, Smith, Trinity, and the rest of the bunch are all more than competent. The actor who plays Neo, in particular, really nails Keanu Reeves' befuddled surfer intonations, and the actor who plays Smith gets that whole snarling indignation thing down pat. Of course, all the film footage has the dialogue from the original actors, so it can be a touch off-putting to hear one voice for Neo, and then another voice moments later. Little of the original film's music seems to have made it into this game, which is a shame since the first two films in particular had amazing soundtracks (both score and licensed). But what's here is good, if a bit underwhelming for what previous Matrix efforts have offered. The sound effects are done very well. Guns sound just like they did in the movies, as do the sounds of bullets hitting people and the environment. Although the sound can become cacophonous during particularly intense battles, it's not necessarily bad, because it just adds to the intensity of it all.
While The Matrix: Path of Neo isn't going to win over anybody who doesn't currently give a flip about the franchise, this is a game that fans ought to look at. Certainly plenty of people have yearned to be able to do all the crazy crap that Neo could pull off in the movies, and Path of Neo delivers in this respect. Undoubtedly some fans will take serious issue with the untidy editing and bizarre tone, and the gameplay might be a bit too much to deal with for those who prefer their action with a tad more method to its madness. But beyond these problems lies an appreciable amount of high-flying action that's well suited for what The Matrix has always been about: kicking ass and looking cool doing it.