Written by  :  BurningStickMan (18027)
Written on  :  Nov 14, 2009
Rating  :  2.6 Stars2.6 Stars2.6 Stars2.6 Stars2.6 Stars

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An impressive sandbox, but someone forgot to bring the toys.

The Good

I loved The Matrix when it came out. Loved it. But then, as a mildly rebellious, free-thinking teenage male who also enjoyed John Woo movies, I was pretty much under contractual obligation to. The series went downhill from there, and I personally believe that the marketing firms were so eager to make this the next Star Wars Trilogy that they sunk their own boat by overloading it. I walked out of the third movie disappointed, and certainly was nowhere near as excited about the prospect of continuing the story of the films as I was when walking out of the first.

Unfortunately, that's The Matrix Online's entire racket. You may have been confused about why the third movie ended with a truce that kept the Matrix operational. Now you know. So it's mostly back to business-as-usual in MxO.

I will say that the mood from the films is well established. There's the green tint that subtly permeates every texture, and no shortage of leather and sunglasses for your character's apparel. Streetlights glow and give off the feel of an active city at night. The character creation menu has the resistance "tracking" your character, narrowing the search as you select your character’s features. The tutorial maintains this same theme of a new redpill's journey, and contains a few voice messages from minor characters in the films. The city even loads around you in the form of cascading green Matrix code, which resolves to the finished city as your entry completes. Very nice touch.

Mega City itself is mind-bogglingly vast, especially considering that every building can be entered, and every building takes up space in the world. Want to get to the rooftops? Hop in an elevator, take it to the top, and you'll indeed find yourself on the roof of that building. Have a mission somewhere inside? Not only will you see the surrounding streets through windows on that level, but the view on the 20th floor will be different than the view on the 2nd. Districts define general zones of NPC difficulty, but also the style of the architecture. You'll start in the slums and industrial zones, and eventually work your way to the towering glass monoliths of Downtown, the unique decorations of Chinatown, or even find your way to arenas based on previous versions of the Matrix - each much different than Mega City's 1990s urban decay.

Powers are also faithfully represented. You can do pretty much anything featured in the movies, from dual-fisting Uzis, to leaping across rooftops, to dodging bullets, to knowing kung-fu. These abilities are treated like programs, and "loaded" into your character's available memory (which expands as you increase your level). Passive skills act as prerequisites to unlock specific abilities or tech tree branches, while active skills are loaded onto a toolbar and deployed like traditional MMO spells. You can swap these out of your character at any time, meaning no character is locked to a specific class, and grinding multiple characters thankfully becomes completely unnecessary. You can pull and swap skills from your bank as needed, and customize your character for the mission ahead.

Combat is the obvious focus, and comes in ranged and melee flavors, with appropriate skills for each. Either combat works on a series of cooldowns, which has the effect of making combat turn-based. Ranged combat is very much a numbers game, with movement or cover having very little effect compared to gun skills or defense mods. Close combat relies on the "interlock" system, where your character is locked in combat with one enemy until someone wins or withdraws. Stats, mods, and active abilities still apply here, but interlock also adds a type of attack (fast, strong, throw, block) you can select for a tactical advantage. If you can predict your opponent's next attack, you can do more damage with the style that counters theirs (fast beats strong, strong breaks block, etc), or have a chance to inflict a debuffed state.

When you want a break from combat, the game offers a limited system of crafting. Code bits are the basic resources, and are pulled from fighting, or bought/sold in the player marketplace. Items can be deconstructed to learn their recipes, and then replicated by the player and optionally improved with special rare code bits. Crafting is simply another skill that anyone can learn, but filling out your recipes will certainly take some dedication. Players can also act as healers (called "patchers" here with appropriate skill names), or invest in a set of skills that allow them to tap data nodes for free “$info” (the game's form of currency).

The Bad

You can choose to ally with either the human Zion faction, the Matrix's Machine faction, or the free programs led by the Merovingian. Doing so will affect virtually nothing about your experience beyond your contacts, foes, and who you'll be at odds with in PvP. Though each faction has a handful of story-based missions at the beginning, most of your leveling will have to come from randomly-generated quests you can pick up at any time. These are very generic, and always result in going from point A to B and fighting whoever's there, just with different reasons to do so (you literally pick said reason from a drop-down list of mission types), and maybe an additional point C and D. This is not meant to be the main content, but it is the bulk of it, and makes for a tremendously boring, repetitive grind.

The "real" content was supposed to be provided by the live events team. Cutscenes set up the extended Matrix story, and players would then participate in missions related to that week's episode. The live events team would control crucial NPCs as needed, and any players who earned a major role (like the first to complete that week's missions) might find themselves mentioned in a write-up in the “Sentinel” in-game newspaper. It was an ambitious idea that unfortunately relied far too much on constant developer caretaking.

Fans point to Warner Brothers selling the game to Sony Online Entertainment, and the corresponding sacking of the live events team, as the downfall of the game. Indeed, SOE did seem to try to run MxO like Everquest, or any of their other "release new content in a bi-monthly update, then work on the next update" MMOs, not fully understanding that Matrix Online wasn't designed that way. There simply wasn't enough to do inside the game on its own. The stories also grew more convoluted and with cheaper production quality as the game ran on, but I honestly thought it was silly from Chapter 1 - the byproduct of forcibly trying to stretch out a world and a plot that didn't have much new to offer.

To their credit, the fans did their best to fill the void with solid guilds, PvP wars, and fan-fiction on the boards - using the sandbox the way it was meant to be used. However, if you didn't make an impact in this clique, or didn't want to try, you were missing out on the best of what MxO had left to offer.

While Mega City was indeed huge, there was less of an incentive to explore as in other MMOs, as the world was so familiar. Streets, alleys, and buildings are pretty much all you’re going to find in a city, and many districts blurred together without much delineation. While you could travel to any level in any building, this was accomplished by loading one of a handful of generic floorplans, meaning you’d literally be seeing the same areas over and over regardless of the building. Exploration rarely rewarded you with new sights, gear, or quests, making wandering the city monotonous and mostly pointless.

Others also frequently complain about the combat system. Overall, the turn-based nature was never really as tactical as it made itself seem, and battles were such prolonged affairs that I found them getting tiresome quickly. You were never going to blast through a group of foes as seen in the movies (unless you wanted to knock around vastly underleveled enemies for no XP), so every single fight with an NPC at your level mirrored the back and forth subway brawl between Neo and Smith. Repeated ad nauseum, and there's no amount of stylish martial arts attacks that can keep your interest piqued.

The Bottom Line

Matrix Online was a game that was designed to require constant support, and had that support yanked early on. Even still, I question whether the game would have succeeded. The movie sequels already seemed to be straining the series’ core ideas, so yet another franchise-milking attempt - this time aiming to go on indefinitely - wasn’t going to have much going for it. Also, the most interesting parts of the movie were the chases, betrayals, and besting ridiculous odds – and you couldn’t really have every mission require you to storm heavily guarded government offices and tangle with Agents.

I think it would have been fascinating to see how the game would have continued with a live events team intact, but I still have my doubts about a massive, modern MMO that essentially required Dungeon Masters to concoct and execute new stories for the players. Fans of The Matrix got their city, vinyl outfits, and acrobatic fight animations, but not much of a story - and even less gameplay - to go with.