Publisher: Warner Bros Interactive
Developer: Monolith Productions
Release Date: March 22, 2005
Pre-order 'THE MATRIX ONLINE': PC
Massively multiplayer games are hard ones to cover, as unlike any other genre, MMORPGs can literally take months for a person to really cover the entire game. Additionally, it can often take that long to flesh out the content and iron out the kinks. Obviously, this doesn't fit well with the timeframe of previews and reviews, which happen within days of the game going live and can only be based on the current state of the title. As such, The Matrix Online shows a large degree of promise, armed with a nearly limitless backdrop to which the developers can add content and a popular storyline to continue, but it is somewhat marred by what can only be described as uninspired in terms of its content, and incoherent in regards to nearly everything else.
[SPOILER WARNING] The Matrix Online's storyline picks up right at the end of the third movie, with Neo dead and his body held by the machines. The fact that the machines still hold Neo's body for their own purposes is possibly the most aggravating to Morpheus, who feels that Neo's body should be rightfully buried in Zion. The cataclysmic events caused by the virus-like activities of Agent Smith still shake the Matrix, with an uneasy peace formed between the humans and the machines. Indeed, for the sake of the Matrix and the billions of people in their pods, the war has ended, and now not only can the Zionists awaken people at their discretion, but the machines allow it. However, a group of programs and humans called the Exiles threaten to disrupt the peace between the two previous warring factions, with whom the Merovingian has allied himself.
In The Matrix Online, you play as one of the recently awakened humans, working loosely with the Zionists. Sooner than later, though, the player has the choice of working for the Zionists, the machines, the Exiles, or simply doing freelance jobs for unlisted mission contacts. Doing missions for one may drop your reputation with one or both of the other factions, and vice versa. Rather than constantly having to seek out mission contacts on foot, you can call many of them from any location via your character's cell phone to get the mission details and description. If you accept the terms, you are immediately given mission coordinates to get on your way. Not all contacts can be called, but having the ability to call some of them is a relief, given that the city can be a rather massive place.
Creating your character is a fairly expansive process, allowing you to select a wide range of clothing, body types, and personalities. Clothing in the game seems to be mainly just for decoration, and while some items will occasionally offer small bonuses to your character's skills or abilities, you won't see something like a "Hot Pink Vest of Reckoning." Rather, clothing seems to be largely a matter of you establishing your own personal look rather than armor or stat gains. Your character's personality affects your starting stats, the effects of which are easily changed by distributing your additional stat points that you get when you level up. This makes the personality choice really only affect your character in the very beginning, as opposed to setting the theme of your character throughout.
The character creation process is unique in that as you are creating your character, you do so from the viewpoint of an operator trying to get a location lock on a potential candidate to awaken. As you design your character, you see less and less people on screen until it is just your character in the center frame. Once you are finished, your character is finally brought to an awakening site, where you down the infamous red pill and wake up in the real world with a crane lifting you into bright lights. From there you are walked through a series of tutorials not unlike the things that Neo experienced in the movies, explaining the basics of moving and interacting in the world, using your character's skills and abilities, and the basics of combat.
Combat in The Matrix Online works really well in theory, but it actually feels a bit more disorienting than what most gamers are used to. There are two main modes of combat, close combat and free fire. In free fire, your character will use whatever weapon they have equipped to pour some lead into the direction of the enemy, at which time the enemy will usually just fire back in the same fashion. Close combat is much more interesting, but it's also where the disorientation kicks in.
There are actually two styles of close combat, solely using your fists and feet or using your feet and a gun. In either case, there are five actions that you can perform in combat. Combat in The Matrix Online is based on rounds in the same sense that Knights of the Old Republic was, in that you and the enemy each pick a move and the two go head-to-head after the outcome is determined. The five actions you can choose from are power, speed, grab, block, and flee. In each "round," what you chose and what your enemy chose each get a random number assigned to them, which is generated based on a variety of your character's stats (the higher number of which wins), and your character successfully performs their move. The combat actually looks pretty cool; when your character wins a block maneuver, you'll see your character flip around dodging bullets and blocking punches. Every once in a while when your character really hits the enemy hard, the game will enter a short bullet-time state.
However, combat is not exactly the well-oiled machine it can be yet. Often due to glitches, it can be hard to figure out what exactly is going on, whether it is due to the camera suddenly staring at your character's ankles or the icons on what actions are to be taken next glitching out, sending one icon out up against nothing from the other combatant. Changes in health and energy aren't taken into effect on your HUD until the end of the current round of combat, which means that you can't really plan your strategy on the current round's outcome until two rounds later. The main issue with the combat system though, is the lack of a real sense of cohesion in that you really never get a full sense of absolute control over your character's actions.
Before the title goes live, though, what The Matrix Online really needs is some content. Right now, the entirety of the game's content is the mission system, which seems to be wholly encompassed of missions following the template of "Walk X meters to location A, kill person / recover item B, while killing groups of enemies C and possible escorting person D to point E." For such a diverse backdrop to throw content onto, the missions sure get old fast. Additionally, while the city of The Matrix Online is a large one, for the most part, it seems like there is no real reason to be in any particular area. Since missions can be taken anywhere and are always in locations relative to your current position, there is no incentive to really hang around in any part of the city. Rather, it feels entirely too much like you are wandering around in a giant ambiguous city with no purpose other than to fulfill fairly uninspired missions.
The biggest downfall right now, though, that The Matrix Online really needs to fix before it goes live is the game performance. When players play The Matrix Online for the first time they might overlook the glitches in the combat system or the unimaginative starting content, as most MMORPG games share those same problems at their launch. However, The Matrix Online runs absolutely terribly in terms of its framerate for what can only be described as no apparent reason. On a PC that can run almost all of today's games maxed out with playable framerates, the same machine running The Matrix Online at conservative settings (800x600, average detail) was getting anywhere between 5 and 15 fps. Glitches can be overlooked, sure, but if your game runs slower than a slideshow populated by screenshots of the game on mainstream hardware you're just begging to catch some flak.
As a whole, The Matrix Online shows promise. A storyline as wide open and as popular as The Matrix was simply begging for an MMORPG from the get-go, but in its current state, The Matrix Online doesn't seem to really hold enough momentum to break the "Matrix game curse." Most of the problems with the game are ones that could easily be fixed in the first couple of months after launch, but they presently hamper otherwise promising features (seriously, the combat is cool when it doesn't feel like you have as much control as plugging your keyboard into a DVD player that is playing The Matrix movie and wondering why Neo isn't doing what you tell him to). While that may be a bit overdramatic, the fact of the matter is that most fans of the genre will see that The Matrix Online has quite a few promising features that could turn out to be really great, but the early adopters are going to have more than their fair share of bugs to live through. Look for more information on how The Matrix Online has progressed after it goes live later this month.
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