The Matrix Online
Sega had tantalised the gaming world for a couple of weeks prior to the show, with a so-called "explosive announcement", fuelling rumours of new hardware, corporate buy-outs and colonisation of the moon. In actual fact, it simply turned out to be the news that the beloved developer had signed up to publish The Matrix Online in the west.
The City forms one of the largest continuous urban MMOG worlds out there, where every building can be entered and fought in. Combat is at the heart of the experience, with faster-paced action than in most MMOGs - a mixture of martial arts, street fighting and gunplay backed up by 'power moves' that attempt to capture the spirit of the film. The setting is directly after the end of the third movie, with citizens awakening to the truth of their virtual shackles and the chaos that ensues.
The Wachowski brothers have consulted heavily in the creation and content of the game world to make sure their vision stays true.
Download The Matrix Online
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The Matrix Online is coming. It's real. I know, I've seen it. I've lived it. And soon it will have you too. Do you want me to show you what The Matrix Online is?
If you take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up on the porcelain throne you're sitting on while reading this and believe whatever you want to believe (like the lack of bog roll left on that cardboard tube). If you take the red pill and you join me and The Matrix Online's lead designer Toby Ragaini on the other side in the Beta test, we'll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes...
It's cold. It's really cold. I feel my virtual body stretch as though it's being sucked through an industrial-sized Dyson, flesh seeping away into electrical pulses, followed by a light-speed rush into an alternate dimension. I've just been awakened' from my sleep by Zion operatives. Just taken my first step into The Matrix Online Beta test.
I blink wildly as my eyes see for the first time. Sprawling into the distance are miles of sleeping men and women in towering banks of fuel cells that feed the machines that now dominate the earth. Welcome, as the man said, to the real world.
But I've no time to gawp. Whisked away by my rescuers, I immediately start my training in a detailed simulated tutorial program, ready to return to the Matrix as a fully-trained Zion operative. The war in the real world is over and eyes now turn to the action inside the Matrix. Here, a cold war rages with acts of espionage, assassination and counter-intelligence," explains Ragaini as I finish the tutorial and begin the intuitive yet massively detailed character creation process.
After configuring my look, I'm given the choice of specialising as a soldier, a spy or hacker. Each character can acquire and load Ability Codes for each mission, allowing an unprecedented degree of customisation and flexibility, explains Ragaini as I ready myself to jack back in. The future of the Matrix literally takes place in The Matrix Online. The Wachowski Brothers and Paul Chadwick (the scriptwriter) have created a year-long outline that includes all the major movie characters that survived The Matrix Revolutions. I even got a call from Andy Wachowski the other day and he was telling me about his character in the Beta test. That's how involved the Wachowskis are. As his words fade I feel a searing stabbing pain in my head causing me to wince in agony. I open my eyes. I'm in.
I'm standing in a courtyard. In all directions spill the concrete confines of a titanic city, dank and uninviting, yet gargantuan in scope. All around me, fetish wear-clad player-characters sprint around the cracking cement jungle carrying out missions for their masters. The Matrix Online's world (generated by an engine specifically designed for this game) oozes with sinister undertones, perfectly capturing the freakish nature of the movies' denizens and bleak, green-grey shades of the cityscapes.
I run into a nearby building with its unsettlingly cracked walls and damp, peeling wallpaper, then seamlessly run up to the top level to peer down at the spot where I'd stood just seconds earlier. The urban oppression of the Matrix is captured in the looming skylines and bleak alleyways, Ragaini explains. Each building has complete interiors and there are no load times as players transition from exterior to interior and back. You can hyper-jump onto a rooftop, run down a stairway, get in a fire-fight, flee out of a balcony and jump to the ground without experiencing a single load.
Enough with the sightseeing, there's a civil war to be fought. Zion isn't the only faction interested in your skills. Dotted around The Matrix Online are NPCs who're ready to dish out advice, point you towards communal areas such as clubs (some of which are seedier than a freshly sown field) and sell you items or skills. As well as that though, they're also out to seduce you to their organisation's cause.
As Ragaini explains: As a promising operative, you're occasionally approached by representatives of both the Machines and the Merovingian. Whether you're receptive to their offers is entirely up to you. The goals for various organisations are dramatically different, and each have separate missions and content that are specific to achieving their agendas.
While keeping your options open is no bad thing, changing allegiances on a whim won't prove nearly as beneficial, as your shifting loyalties come at a price.
If you attempt to swap sides, you'll have to start at square one and establish your reputation (which is built by completing key missions) with their newly chosen organisation, states Ragaini. Since many of the critical missions require you to have high reputation, there's a powerful incentive to stick with one organisation."
The Matrix Online is also set to feature all of the characters that survived the celluloid trilogy, though Ragaini is reluctant to reveal whether Neo and Agent Smith will be making a comeback. Some characters may, others may not. But trust me when I say that no-one is safe, he says. He also lets slip some tantalising info about a new hugely influential character who'll be making a debut in The Matrix universe. There's a new player in The Matrix Online who has a certain military demeanour. But his loyalties are not necessarily clear. Does he offer hope for humanity, or is he just another method of Machine control?
Time then for my first mission. Punching the number for my operator into the mobile phone, I'm connected to Zion's mission controller (and hot babe) Tyndall, who'll provide me with the bulk of my missions from now on. though others can be acquired from my Matrix-based contacts.
Tyndall, Zion's mission controller, will identify potential Redpills (people inside the Matrix who have become aware of its existence and want out) and give you their location, Ragaini informs me as I wait for my call to connect. In some cases, these operations go smoothly. In other cases, there are complications. Set-ups and ambushes are not unheard of, so it's best that you're prepared for the worst." You also find yourself sent on hacking and infiltration missions as well as daring strikes at enemy operatives as Zion tasks you with taking out key rival faction figures.
In this case though, Tyndall does indeed want me to help free a potential Redpill. A marker appears for me to follow, outlining the direction and distance to the mission objective. It's easy to follow and understand, though the Beta test is still laggy and all too often things are reduced to a chugging mess as the server tries to catch up - crashes are still commonplace - while the somewhat fiddly controls (you can choose from either an FPS or MMOG control system) hinders progress yet further.
As I jog to the destination, I spy an agent and duck into a side-alley for fear of my life. Ragaini smiles in amusement. Agents are the watchdogs of the system, and they retain that role in The Matrix Online. But with the treaty that Neo secured, the humans of Zion are able to freely recruit Redpills without fear of reprisal," he assures me. However, the Machines still look unkindly upon any activities that disrupt the simulation tor the rest of the humans still trapped in the pods. Furthermore, some parts of the Matrix are simply off-limits to humans. Anyone who disobeys these restrictions will quickly find that Agents are just as deadly as they were in the films.
Hesitantly, I resume the mission without fear of Agent reprisals, tracking down and speaking to the Redpill identified by Tyndall. He (or in this case a her with a man's name - another regular bug that needs ironing out before the game ships) agrees to follow me to an extraction point. Problem is, another organisation also wants to get its hands on the hermaphrodite, and on our way out of the building we come face to face with our first adversary.
The action switches seamlessly into the real-time/turn-based combat mode. After a bone-shuddering confrontation I emerge blooded but victorious, leading the Redpill to the extraction point where I'm rewarded with experience points and a hearty slap on the back from Tyndall. Which is further than I expected to get with her in all honesty...
The Matrix Reloaded
Back at base, Ragaini is waiting to tell me more. Narrative is very important to us. The Wachowski brothers have a specific story in mind, and in many ways, The Matrix Online is a vehicle for the players to participate in that story, he begins. We'll be releasing periodic updates to move the story along and add new content, but we're not committing to specific intervals. For one thing, we're still determining how frequently our live team can update the qame. but we also don't want tha playerbase to have a predictable day when the story updates. Part of our story updates will include in-engine cinematics that relay important or world-shaping events to everyone. We'll be archiving these cinematics so that later players can review what's happened and quickly get up to speed with the story.
As I retire to my soggy bunk to sleep off the exertions of my first day of freedom, I realise that I've just stamped my own personal influence on one of the most accomplished sci-fi universes ever created, in a MMOG that teems with possibilities and excitement, though still needs some serious work to iron out the niggles, glitches and bugs.
These aside though, The Matrix Online is shaping up to potentially be both thrilling and involving, and come the spring you may just find yoursolf mixing with The Oracle, Morpheus, The Merovingian and maybe even the Wachowskis themselves as you help write the future of the Matrix. Bet you're glad you took the red pill now, eh? Better than Nurofen any day...
Choose The Path That's Right For You
The number of skills available in The Matrix Online is phenomenal. You start off by acquiring basic Awakened skills such as simple self-defence techniques, after which you're given the choice of specialising in a certain field, be it stealth, combat, firearms or hacking.
These choices then open up a cornucopia of abilities and specialist options.
So if you choose to be a martial arts master, you eventually have to pick a particular martial art to specialise in, such as karate, kung fu or aikido.
What's more, there are scores of abilities to learn - you can buy these with Information Points that you accumulate during missions. They range from speed, blocking and damage power-ups to enhanced awareness and the ability to download a mission map.
Whoa, I Know Kung Fu. And Aikido. And How To Bitch Slap...
Unlike the random hacking of much MMORPG combat, you actually believe that the characters in MMOG are having real fights, with all of the moves and neat touches from the movies present and correct - right down to the superb thudding sound effects.
While the action is real-time, attacking is turn-based, with each character being given a choice of launching either ranged attacks with weapons, close-ranged martial arts flourishes or point-blank weapon firing. Each attack type can either be executed with speed or more slowly for extra power. You can also choose to block an enemy attack or try to throw them.
B The Matrix Online's combat is all about identifying your opponent's weaknesses and exploiting them. Some enemies are adept at dodging bullets but not so good at hand-to-hand combat, while others prefer to duke it out up close and personal. It's also important to know your own strengths. If you specialise in kung fu then you'll excel at punches and kicks, but spend your time studying aikido and you'll be at your best derailing an opponent by throwing or disarming them. The higher your skill level, the more impressive your repertoire of techniques will be.
Thankfully, bullet-time is used sparingly, meaning you never grow tired of seeing slow-mo moves in all their glory, as the action will only employ it when something spectacular happens - such as landing a killer blow on an opponent.
Though still in need of some polish, The Matrix Online features potentially the most thrilling combat we've ever seen in a MMOG - fans of the epic movie punch-ups shouldn't be disappointed.
Anticlimax Is a pisser isn't it? You get all keyed up and excited, slavering and twitchy with anticipation, then just as your enthusiasm reaches its zenith, when your hands are sweatier than a fat man's armpit and your brain buzzes like a jamjar full of wasps, the open-handed slap of disappointment impudently stings your cheek, leaving you red-faced and deflated. Yes, after months of excited anticipation of what could have been a MMO gamer's wet dream, we're left with this, a level 20 letdown, with a +5 anticlimax hit modifier, though admittedly with some glimmers of potential and twinkles of excellence lighting up the otherwise unspectacular world of The Matrix Online.
You start off, naturally, by creating your character, choosing from one of ten character types, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. Once you've chosen one - incredibly, you don't get to tweak your stats - you get to configure your look (basic) and sit through the tutorial (inadequate), before uploading your selected skills (vast and varied). After this, it's time to jack in.
The first thing that strikes you is just how messy it all looks. Forget the sleek, polished presentation of EverQuest II and World Of Warcraft, this is MMOGing at its most cluttered, ranging from the blocky, often overlapping text boxes to the unsightly shortcut bars, which look more placeholder than blockbuster.
The world of The Matrix is rather more impressive, sprawling excitingly in every direction, barren, green-tinted dilapidated cityscapes ripe for exploration. Along with the excellent soundtrack, it generates a genuine sense of eerie foreboding that perfectly captures the psychological uneasiness and fear so prevalent in the movie trilogy.
The gaming world is also seamless, with not a single loading screen to be seen as you move from outdoors to in, though The Matrix Online does currently suffer from some serious lag issues, despite many of the areas being surprisingly unpopulated.
Seeing as you've only just been awakened, your first few missions are confined to Zion operations - the human faction of freed former Matrix inmates and freeborn humans, intent on liberating as many subjugated minds as possible. Later on, you'll be approached by representatives of both the Machines and the Merovingian (the babbling Frenchman from the films), intent on recruiting you to their cause, a choice that ultimately decides how the storyline unravels in your own personal adventure.
Each mission starts off with a phone call to your chosen faction's contact, who dishes out your mission objectives. After this, it's just a simple case of following a marker to a building, going to the correct floor and completing your tasks - which range from rightclicking on the person you're looking for, then left-clicking on either Talk/SearchAJnlock/Take/Give/Follow/Close Combat, depending on what your mission objectives are. Then it's off to the next location, where you do pretty much the same thing, before being awarded experience points if you succeed. And that, sadly, is about as thrilling and varied as most missions get early on.
Thankfully though, there's plenty more here to distract your attention than the often samey missions. Vendors ply their wares on every street corner, encouraging you to spend your Information Points (TMO's version of gold pieces) on a cornucopia of new clothes, apparel and weapons. It's also testament to the allure of the subject matter that the majority of players seem keen to hook up and work together. This allows you to advance through the game's already clearly gripping storyline - centred around an uneasy peace between humans and machines - and level up at a much faster pace than when working alone.
Before you know it, you're dashing around completing missions with your buddies and generally beating the binary code out of Al-controlled enemies who, at first, prove to be among the most irritating beings you've ever come across. And we mean they trump even the likes of Joe Pasquale and people with big heads who sit in front of you at the cinema.
Picture this. You've just died, so you jack back in (there are no XP penalties hut you do lose any items you haven't uploaded since your last death), only to be instantly attacked by one of the game's many Al-controlled gangs that pollute the streets. Seeing as they're seven levels higher than you are, you die again. Very quickly. This sort of thing happens all the time. As one of the many disgruntled players I spoke to while playing the game put it: Get used to it." Before you reach level eight or nine - which takes an eternity - you'd better get ready to die more deaths than a reincarnated gnat.
Light From Dark
There are, however, some excellent features too, most notably the close combat battles. It's hard not to feel that the game has been very intentionally geared towards making you specialise in hand-to-hand combat skills, with a range of martial arts just begging to be mastered, including the deflective-throwing art of Aikido, and of course everyone's favourite, Kung Fu.
Battles are genuinely exciting affairs, especially when several characters are involved against an Al gang, or in one-on-one face-offs with other human players on PvP servers. Based on a real-time turn-based concept, the principal lies in identifying an opponent's weakness. You then choose from one of four standard attack types (Power, Speed, Blocking or Throwing), or from a vast array of special moves and then sit back to watch the thrilling, tactical and superbly animated exchanges that follow.
The higher your skill level, the more exciting these scraps become, with the action sparingly kicking into bullettime as you execute killer moves. You can also combine firearms (which, for The Matrix, are strangely ineffective and fail to capture the thrilling gunfights of the films) with martial arts, opting to fire off a few rounds before scrambling your foe's hairy spheres with a few well-placed crotch kicks. Of course, your enjoyment hinges heavily on what mood the erratic camera is in, with some battles being missed entirely as your view defaults to a highly uninteresting shot of a nearby skirting board, while the action rages on out of shot.
Despite the decent combat, The Matrix Online has to go down as an opportunity missed, especially given its rich back-story and endless gaming possibilities. It certainly hasn't turned out as we'd hoped, but despite its failings, it has just about enough promise and potential to make us think it could, with time, get a whole lot better. Look how much Star Wars Galaxies improved following its rather tepid beginnings for proof that it can be done. It feels like The Matrix Online was released six months too early, with an avalanche of bugs and glitches (inaccessible revolving doors, crap camera, malfunctioning mission goals), compounded by poor presentation and somewhat repetitive gameplay and locales. Sure, its combat is among the best we've experienced,you do get to meet many of the characters from the films and the story already looks strong (especially if we see the kind of events that happened at the end of the Beta test - see The Architect Speaks' p111). However, that's simply not enough these days, especially when the likes of EQ2 and WOW have recently raised theMMORPG bar to stratospheric heights. We'd love to be able to tell you that in time everything will be alright, and there is potential here, but for now TMO clearly isn't The One.
It Might Not Have Any Goblins In It, But It's Still A Mmog
One of the advantages The Matrix Online has over its competitors is its setting. The game's sci-fi world is a long way removed from the mystical worlds of EQII and WOW, which some may argue furbishes it with more of a cool factor - perhaps more a matter of conjecture than fact.
However, just how different are the games really? Take the character classes, for example, and you'll see that perhaps fundamentally they're not too dissimilar. For Warrior, see Operative (weapons and martial arts specialist); for Mage, see Coder (summon servants to fight for you); and for Cleric, see Hacker (a healer with the ability to attack enemies with viruslike programs).
One key difference between this game and the likes of EverQuest II is your ability to constantly reinvent yourself by uploading a whole new set of abilities as and when you desire, meaning that in terms of skill variety, The Matrix Online certainly has the edge over the opposition.