I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life
The Matrix was red hot when I was in high school. I remember the anticipation my friends and I had for the upcoming Matrix Reloaded. I also remember the subtle disappointment that crept in when it was released. It wasn’t horrible, I guess it just wasn’t what we were hoping for. Matrix Revolutions kind of just nailed the coffin shut. What a dark time.
Around that time came Enter the Matrix, which probably still stands as the most ambitious attempt to tie a game into a movie series’ canon. The Wachowskis were heavily involved, the live-action cutscenes had the same look as the movie, and parts of the plot were heavily extrapolated in the game. From a narrative perspective, it fit so well, but when it came to gameplay, well…
I wasn’t terribly impressed by it as a teenager. My favorite part was the way you could unlock cheats through this command line mini-game. It was really cool, and someone obviously put a lot of work into it. The rest of the game, though. Somehow Enter the Matrix is even worse than I remember.
Never send a human to do a machine’s job
I find it amusing that the complaint I remember most about when Enter the Matrix was going through the press wringer is that you don’t get to play as Neo. He features very little in the game as a whole, even though the plot is parallel to the movie. Instead, you play as either Naobi or Ghost, who are featured in Matrix Reloaded in more minor ways.
The plot might be the one reason to ever return to Enter the Matrix. As I said earlier, the Wachowskis filmed over an hour of cutscenes with the actors. Without any introduction to the materials, you might’ve mistaken them for being pulled directly from Matrix Reloaded rather than having been made for the game. Some elements that were glossed over in the movie receive greater detail in the game. The recall of the captains, the highway chase, and the sabotage of the power plant all cross over with the movie, lending greater context to the plotlines.
I’d make the comparison and say that this is like Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, but that was a plot inserted in and around the existing material. Enter the Matrix was designed to sit alongside it, and while this is tantalizingly ambitious, it would not only prove to be the game’s downfall but would also cheapen the movie.
How do you define real?
The most major issue that arose from having Enter the Matrix be intended as a companion piece is that it had to come out in unison with the movie. Although Enter the Matrix did have a reasonable development time of about 2 years, it’s plain to see that it wasn’t finished. There are a lot of great ideas and small touches, but I’d have a difficult time fingering one that feels tight or polished.
If I had to theorize, I’d imagine that the development time wasn’t sufficient due to both the difficulty in working closely with the Wachowskis and over-ambition. I’m not implying the Wachowskis were demanding – I haven’t seen either side of the development stating complaints – it’s more that they were already busy directing the movies and coordinating with animators for the Animatrix.
That’s enough theorizing, however. The result is that the game is a mess. It’s the debris from a city-destroying meteorite impact. Contemporary reviews weren’t great, and more recent retrospectives seem to dance around the game’s failing, but often while playing through Enter the Matrix, my brain conjured images from Superman for the N64. I’m not saying it’s as bad, but the way that nothing seems to click into place is just eerily similar.
Not like this
That’s not to say there’s nothing of value in Enter the Matrix beyond the high-quality cutscenes. A lot of its idea would have been neat if they were executed with a greater degree of polish. The interplay between hand-to-hand combat and gunslinging is, uh, present. You can point to Max Payne as being a better Matrix series, but they games are more about shootouts and omit the martial arts that contribute to a lot of fight scenes.
However, actually getting in a shootout is as basic and boring as it could possibly be. Drawing your weapon and firing is the same button on the Gamecube controller, and you merely need to vaguely point your character in the direction of what you want to die and they’ll handle the rest as best they can. If you’re feeling sassy, you can lock on with R, but remember to let go when you want to target someone else because your character doesn’t take death as a good reason to change targets. You can zoom in and aim manually, but only if you don’t trust your character, which is understandable. Sometimes they’re willing to aim at the person across the room, but more often, they won’t acknowledge them until they’re being given a lapdance.
You can activate focus, which is usually more affectionately known as “bullet time.” Using this not only gives you more opportunity to react, but also makes your character hit harder and aim better. You can also dodge bullets and leap around like a gibbon on a hot plate, which gives you basically everything you need for a complete Matrix experience, so long as it can stop squirreling out for a few minutes.
Denial is the most predictable of all human responses
Again, to the credit of Enter the Matrix, there’s a lot of contextualized movement in the game. You can run up walls, dive backward, dive forward, run up a wall and kick someone in the face. If all of this was combined in a way that was well polished, it would open up for some pretty grand gun-fu. Instead, it’s more often just slow-motion slap-fighting.
The A.I. is cataclysmically daft. Mashing buttons never really fails to work; it’s mostly just up to you whether you kick or punch them to death. There are throws and disarming techniques, but when slow-motion fists work so well, I rarely found a need for it. If anything, throwing someone to the ground was detrimental to your progress, as trying to hit someone when they’re down is so dishonorable, that your character will rarely cooperate and do it. Shooting them when they’re down is much more reliable, but it takes a decade to pull a shotgun out of your pants.
All the action is apparently motion-captured by the actor’s stunt doubles, and a lot of effort has gone into replicating the choreography of the movie, but it all goes together in such a jittery, incohesive mess. On medium difficulty, learning how to pull off all the maneuvers isn’t even as important as managing your focus and health as resources.
Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony
That’s to say nothing of the horrendous level design that left me lost in areas where I had already been. Or the in-game cutscenes that sometimes feel like they were edited together at the very last minute. Much of the non-combat animation is horrendous and the graphics for a 2003 game are terrible. Once again, all things that point to a rushed development.
Playing as Ghost and Niobe allow for some divergence. Levels play out differently, and while sometimes the objectives are the same, in some situations, you actually complete complimenting goals. Niobe always drives the vehicles, for example, while Ghost rides shotgun. With Niobe, you actually get behind the wheel in some poorly designed driving sections, whereas Ghost has more of an on-rails shooter.
When it all comes together, “jank” isn’t a sufficient word to describe the sheer depth of the problems Enter the Matrix has. I play a lot of bad games, as that’s the point of this column, but rarely have I been as awestruck as I’ve been with Enter the Matrix. It’s obvious there was a lot of passion behind the project, but what we got was the interactive equivalent of emptying a toaster’s crumb trap. I’d say it would be worth playing merely as a companion to Matrix Reloaded, but the possibility that I’d be interested in another watch of that movie seems rather remote.
This is a long shot, but what I would love is if someone made another attempt at Enter the Matrix. Like, take the cutscenes and build an entirely new game around them. With new talent, modern technology, and no looming deadline, just try the concept again. That’s a situation where I’d actually watch Matrix Reloaded again; if the video game companion to it was actually worth playing.