Enter the Matrix

Enter the Matrix

Written by Charlie Sinhaseni on 5/28/2003 for Xbox  

Take a renowned gaming studio, toss in a major movie license with a story written by the directors of the intellectual property, add in a heavy helping of the hype machine, set the blender to high and chances are you’ll get the indecipherable, lackadaisical mess that is Shiny and Atari’s Enter the Matrix. It’s a real shame that it had to be this way because the game’s premise and licensing seemed so promising. Oh well, it’s like they say, when something seems too good to be true it probably… well you know the rest.

In case you haven’t read what the hype machine has been spewing out for the past six months allow me to give you a brief idea of the game’s premise. While released simultaneously with the sequel to the first major motion picture, Enter the Matrix runs parallel to the Matrix Reloaded as opposed to recreating the events of the film. Choosing to place its focus on two new characters, Niobe, who appears in the Matrix Reloaded, and Ghost, an Asian badass who also appears in the movie but is never mentioned by name. Together the two will propel the storyline and try to fill in some of the holes left open by the movie via a set of both FMV and in-game cinematics that were shot specifically for the game. The movie's core cast, with the exception of brief appearances by Persephone, the Oracle, and Agent Smith, is notably absent.

I wish that I could say the gameplay of Enter the Matrix is the title’s main highlight but saying so would be an overzealous lie. It’s the aforementioned cut scenes that take center stage in this game, much to the point where they were actually left out in the preview builds of the game. To their credit they’re shot with the same production values as the scenes in the movie but they’re pretty pedestrian as a whole and don’t really do too much to advance the plot. In one sense you’re rewarded with a cinematic upon the completion of a mission but in another sense, they’re so weak and boring that it doesn’t really feel like a reward at all.

Depending on which character you choose you’ll receive a slightly different experience but the discrepancies aren’t too Earth-shattering. Choosing Niobe will force you to drive in the vehicle sequences while choosing Ghost will force you to fire in them. Sometimes they’ll take different approaches and paths through levels but again there aren’t very many changes. In fact they share the same basic moves and powers too so I’m not sure why the designers even decided to include the two-character storyline. It’s not like playing as Ghost will reveal something that you couldn’t see when playing as Niobe. Basically there’s no reward for going back and playing as the other character after completing the game, barring that you can actually make it that far.

Before we go on let’s make one thing clear, there are bound to be comparisons between EtM and Max Payne and with good cause, MP took the “bullet time” effect that the Matrix made famous and made it its own. The problem here though is that the comparisons between the two properties is basically unjustified, mainly because the guys at 3D Realms did a far better job of utilizing the Wachowski brother’s own invention. In many ways Max Payne beats the Matrix at its own game. In fact Enter the Matrix is actually a parody of itself in some respects, borrowing elements from many other games that have come into fruition since the release of the first movie. Kind of sad that the originator of it all has to borrow elements from supposed imitators but I guess that’s the way the ball bounces.

Shiny is perfectly capable of making an engrossing 3rd-person shooter, just look no further than the underappreciated MDK for an example of this. After checking that game out you could probably see why I was really shocked to find out just how poorly this game looks and plays. Most of the game’s problems can be derived from its control scheme which is more overtly complicated than it ever should have been. The back shoulder buttons are used to strafe, one button activates the focus (more on this later), black fires, while the rest of the face buttons handle the melee and jumping manuevers. It sounds simple enough in writing but when you actually get into the game it’s an entirely different story.
Combat tries to be a mesh of ranged projectile and close-quarters hand-to-hand but it’s more of a mush than a mesh. Firing at enemies never quite feels right because of the lagging camera that can’t accurately show your current target. Most of the time you’re forced to look at the character to see if their weapon is tracking anyone before you decide to fire. By the time that you realized that you’re being fired upon you will have probably have lost three fourths of your health or more. To put it succinctly the action is pretty bad and has very little continuity or flow to it. In fact sometimes even after your health has run out you can still run around the screen and do combat with enemies as the lines of code fall down the screen, signaling your death. This happens occasionally during the 3rd person scenes but happens frequently during the game’s numerous, not the mention boring and bland driving sequences.

Just like the movie, Niobe mans the helm of what appears to be a black Firebird while Ghost rides shotgun and takes out the enemies with his arsenal of weapons. While this could have easily been the redeeming factor in the game it proves to be another pothole in an already bumpy road. Most of driving levels are just plain horrible thanks to some shaky physics, horrid controls and generally amateurish level design. The first level can be beat just simply by driving around the level while killing time so that the toll booth opens up for you to proceed. Yea there’s cops chasing after you but they don’t do anything too particularly intelligent, like blocking your only way out of town or set up traps to hinder your progress. Essentially you’re a giant positive magnet and the cops are small negatively charged magnets trying to ram you into oblivion.

It’s amazing how much one simple change could affect the entire landscape of a game. There are some seriously sweet moves in the game that can be pulled off, such as cartwheeling sideways while shooting, but to pull it off you’ll have to hold the focus button, hold either one of the two shoulder buttons, press jump and tap the black button all at the same time. Now isn’t that just a little too overtly complicated for a simple cartwheel? By mapping out the strafe functions to the right analog stick and allowing the cartwheel to be performed by tapping the strafe this problem would have been avoided. Keep in mind that Max Payne let you pull off a similar maneuver with a simple press of a button and you can see where the game’s problems begin. It’s just really too bad that they never quite end either.

Borrowing some elements from Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid you can lean up against walls to fire around them. It’s just too bad that the control for this is painfully sluggish and unintuitive. So let’s say you poke your head around a corner to fire upon some foes you’d expect the camera to shift so that you can see right? Wrong, instead you’re forced to fire blindly and hope that you hit something. What this does is allows for enemies to sneak up on you and simply run past you and fire at you from behind. You’d think that the game would track the nearest enemy and let you dispose of him but then again, you’d be thinking wrong. You’ll be forced to push down on the analog stick, pray that the game decides to target the guy closest to you and then try to take him out.

As I mentioned above there’s a focus feature which essentially serves as the game’s “bullet time” the main trademark of the movie. On the bottom right of the screen there is a small meter that gradually fills when it’s not being used, holding a button will cause your character to focus and pull off all of those cool moves that you drool over in the movies. In this state of mind you’ll be able to jump farther (complete with over-exaggerated flailing of arms), perform evasive dodges, run off of walls, dive backwards and gain an advantage by being able to run faster and seeing the path of bullets in order to better avoid them. It also helps you in hand-to-hand combat by allowing you to react faster than your opponents so that you can take em’ to school with much more ease. In many ways it’s pretty lame as well. The only way to perform an evasive dodge, such as a dive or a somersault, is to be in focus mode. Why someone needs to “focus” just to somersault and cartwheel is beyond me. There’s an emphasis placed on hand-to-hand combat because it helps refill your “focus” meter but it’s negated by the fact that the meter refills pretty rapidly on its own. Again another good idea negated by some relative ineptness on the part of the game’s design and it’s a shame that it doesn’t end there.To show that the Brits aren’t the only ones who regain health by taking a breather Enter the Matrix allows your characters to regain health just by standing around doing nothing. Forget leaning on walls, that’s for wussy Brits like Mark Hammond and D.C. Carter, our heroes can regain health even when they’re moving, firing or engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Oddly enough there are health packets that have been carelessly left laying around in the Matrix but since our heroes can heal themselves on their own, their inclusion is successfully negated.

Another annoying quirk in the game has to do with the structure of the game itself. When you head into the level you’re usually underarmed. Now I’m pretty sure that Ghost and Niobe know about the dangers that they’ll be facing each time they head into the Matrix, wouldn’t it be nice to pack just a little bit of lead? You know just in case they have that chance encounter with that renegade agent? Neo and Trinity seem to have gotten it right (as evidenced by that awesome lobby scene from the first movie), why can't these boneheads?

Oh and now we get to the level design, or rather lack thereof. Most missions can be completed in less time than they take to load. Seriously, and most of them just involve running past a bunch of inept guards and through some generic looking doorway. It doesn’t help that every single portion of every-single level looks exactly the same with no noticeable or distinguishing features. The fact that every level is dimly lit, probably to hide the blurry and washed-out textures, makes finding the exit an even more daunting task. To make matters worse you’re usually sent out on a pixel hunt as you search for the trigger that will activate the next cutscene so that you can move on. To its credit the levels do get better as you progress but what’s the point of getting to the end of the game when the beginning is so drab and mundane? If running around blocky and poorly designed levels is your bag then this is your Graceland.

Don’t be fooled, the cinematic screenshot monster was out in full force for this game. You know about the cinematic screenshot monster, the technique that studios use to disguise horrid graphics via the use of strategically placed vantage points. Never have I seen it so overused though because in all honesty, this game looks great in screenshots but the look of the game during play is basically as different as night and day. Bland doesn’t even begin to describe the texture work in this game, sloppy, putrid and dreadful are more suitable adjectives.

It’s strange too because the character designs are actually pretty good, barring the insanely lame running animations which for some strange reason is present in both playable characters. The look of the weapons in some of the character’s hands never do look quite right either, especially the way the sniper rifle sort of flails around as you run around generic object number 15. As a start contrast the main characters feature some nice bump-mapping-esque effects on their clothing. You can actually see some of the texture on Niobe’s snakeskin robe as she races around the level. All of the sweet moves such as the wall run, the super jump (that thing where the guys wave their arms as they jump long distances) and the ever illusive forward somersault have been recreated here quite nicely. It’s a shame that the rest of the game’s visuals are rather weak, not just in comparison but in general.

Bland, that’s the best word to use when describing this game’s visuals. Levels have an insanely empty feeling to them thanks to the sparse amounts of detail and scenery emplaced in each one. There is little variety from scene-to-scene and very little to distinguish each one from the other. While they do vaguely resemble what they set out to be they’re pretty plain and pedestrian. The airplane hanger is composed of a blocky airplane and not much else except some boring and scattered scenery. Again the levels become more and more complex as you move along in the game but they’re really nothing to write home about. Honestly this game looks like it was made in 1998, even the fire effects appear to be a three-frame animated .gif, you know the type of fire that even looked cheesy in Duke Nukem 3D. Some particle effects or at least some sort of eye candy would have been nice. When a movie property is known for blowing its audience away with top notch special effects I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the same from its videogame counterpart. As far as graphics in a video game go this ranks amongst the middle to lower rungs, especially when compared against today’s graphic intensive marketplace.
Aurally the game sounds just fine as it features some pretty nicely recorded sound effects and some licensed music to accompany it. During specific parts of the game you’ll hear an audio cue that serves as a precursor of things to come. They’re of the techno variety and while I don’t know their specific names I do know that they’re little ditties that were taken from the actual soundtrack of the movie. Having licensed music doesn’t exactly make the game all that much better but it’s nice to see the lines of continuity flowing from the movie realm into the gaming realm.

Most of the gunshots and sounds of combat have been replicated quite nicely but probably not as well as you’d expect from such a blockbuster title. Gunshots lack that satisfying thud that makes audiophiles proud to announce that they spent 2 grand just to get their system to where it is. Positional audio is present thanks to Dolby Digital support but it’s basically useless and is relegated to a system of louder and quieter noises that are supposed to trick your ears. Because the game features professional actors the voice acting is competent but a little too dry and poorly delivered for my tastes. The lines are delivered with such little emotion or feeling that any other B-movie actor, with the exception of Van-Damme, could have just as well filled the role. In other words if they were to hire some random black chick to deliver Niobe’s lines as opposed to Jada Pinkett I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.

As for extras all you’re really getting are the hour or so of specifically shot cut scenes. To be honest I wasn’t too blown away by them, especially because they include a certain level of poor acting that doesn’t really justify the high production costs. With the exception of a lesbian kiss between Persephone and Niobe, there's not much here worth looking at. In order to get the full effect from the cut scenes you’ll have to have seen the movie. Characters, such as the guy in charge of the defense/Niobe’s love interest, aren’t properly introduced in the game and if you haven’t seen the movie it’s really easy to get lost. To say the least exposition isn’t one of this game’s strong points.

This game does have a few redeeming qualities although you’ll have to dig hard to find them. Some of the action is pretty fun in the latter levels, especially when you’re faced with tougher and more adept enemies. In the beginning the game is essentially a mash-fest but as you progress you’ll learn to fight with flair and precision. Some of the focus moves are pretty damn cool, especially the sideways cartwheel that Neo made popular in the lobby scene of the first movie. Some of the environments are destructible a la the aforementioned lobby scene but again it’s only in specific areas of the game that aren’t too structurally impressive. In the end though the game comes tumbling down thanks to an amazingly boring and slightly more advanced ship sequence that breaks back memories of Sega CD's Sewer Shark.

Even with all of the focus and Matrix-esque effects the game contains a genericness that it never does quite shake off. With each and every level I couldn’t help but wonder what could have been had more time or effort been placed into the design process. I’m well aware of the game’s long development cycle but apparently it wasn’t long enough. This newly released game has the look and feel of a game that’s three-years behind the curve. Sure this game has its moments but the bottom line is that the game just isn’t much fun and unless you’re the most die-hard Matrix fan you’ll probably want to avoid this one at all costs.
Bland, uninspired, ho-hum, boring, just a few words that begin to describe the mediocre action title that is Enter the Matrix. Seriously, this thing can't be seen as anything more than a disappointment, not just because of the hype but because of the overall weakness of the title.

Rating: 6.2 Flawed

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.


About Author

Gaming has been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. I can still recall many a lost nights spent playing Gyromite with that stupid robot contraption for the old NES. While I'm not as old as the rest of the crew around these parts, I still have a solid understanding of the heritage and the history of the video gaming industry.

It's funny, when I see other people reference games like Doom as "old-school" I almost begin to cringe. I bet that half of these supposed "old-school" gamers don't even remember classic games like Rise of the Triad and Commander Keen. How about Halloween Harry? Does anyone even remember the term "shareware" anymore? If you want to know "old-school" just talk to John. He'll tell you all about his favorite Atari game, Custer's Revenge.

It's okay though, ignorance is bliss and what the kids don't know won't hurt them. I'll just simply smile and nod the next time someone tells me that the best entry in the Final Fantasy franchise was Final Fantasy VII.

When I'm not playing games I'm usually busy sleeping through classes at a boring college in Southern Oregon. My current hobbies are: writing songs for punk rock bands that never quite make it, and teasing Bart about... well just teasing Bart in general. I swear the material writes itself when you're around this guy. He gives new meaning to the term "moving punching bag."

As for games, I enjoy all types except those long-winded turn-based strategy games. I send those games to my good pal Tyler, I hear he has a thing for those games that none of us actually have the time to play.

When I'm not busy plowing through a massive pile of video games I spend all of my time trying to keep my cute little girl fed. She eats a ton but damn she's so hot. Does anyone understand the Asian girl weight principal? Like they'll clean out your fridge yet still weigh less than 110 pounds.

Currently I'm playing: THUG, True Crime, Prince of Persia, Project Gotham 2 and Beyond Good & Evil. View Profile

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