Review: If you close your eyes, it almost feels like you're eating runny eggs.
At the very beginning of The Matrix: Path of Neo, Morpheus offers you two pills: take the blue pill and you wake up in your apartment in blissful ignorance and the game ends. Take the red pill and he shows you how deep the rabbit hole goes and the game continues.
My advice? Take the blue pill.
The Matrix: Path of Neo is a competent action game but suffers from an uncooperative camera, poor ranged combat, unpolished melee combat, and several questionable design decisions that all conspire to bring down what could have been a game as cool and fun as the movies themselves.
Mr. Anderson! Welcome back. We missed you.
Compared to the disappointingly sub-par Enter the Matrix, however, PoN is a much better game with improved gameplay, graphics and polish. Best of all, gamers finally get to do what they've always wanted: play as The One himself. As the title suggests, PoN follows Neo through his quest to protect Zion, free humanity, endure a whole bunch of existential religious symbolism mumbo jumbo and beat the crap out of Agent Smith.
This is the game Matrix fans have been waiting for because it lets you play in the movies' most famous sequences like the original's big lobby shoot-out, Reloaded's courtyard brawl with hundreds of Smiths, and of course the final duel against Smith in Revolutions. Since you're following the ?Path of Neo?, you won't be able to participate in events like Reloaded's high octane freeway chase or the massive battle at Zion since Neo was elsewhere at the time. The story follows all three films but the developers do take some liberties by expanding on and reinterpreting certain sequences in an attempt to make them more game oriented. For example, the rescue of Morpheus from the first movie now includes a rail shooter level where you man the helicopter's chaingun to mow down SWAT, Agents and enemy helicopters. These tangents to the story are hit and miss however; sadly, more miss than hit (more on this later).
Developer Shiny Entertainment is obviously a huge fan of the films because it shows. The entire game looks and feels like a Matrix movie, from the instantly recognizable level designs to the dull green color palette to the cool stylized action. Especially impressive is how Neo goes into slick slow motion when performing any of his dozens of special attacks ? including running up an enemy's chest to kick him in the head, grabbing two enemies by the legs and slapping them to the ground like wet towels, and kicking an enemy into the air where you can blast him with your guns ? you will never get tired of watching Neo strut his stuff. Your special attacks vary depending on whether you are using guns, melee weapons or your bare hands, as well as your orientation to your victim. My personal favorite is when you have a sword, which you can toss into the air as you flip over your enemy, grab it in mid-air and swing it around in a bone-crunching uppercut to send your enemy flying. And yes, you can stop bullets with a wave of your hand too.
To perform these cool moves you need to use Focus, a.k.a. bullet-time. Your Focus meter runs down rapidly but fills up each time you successfully attack an enemy. As you progress and gain experience, your Focus meter lengthens, allowing you to use Focus for longer periods of time; in addition, you also gain the ability to upgrade your combos into more powerful attacks.
When your health runs down you can grab one of the rare health packs on each level or simply find a safe place to hide for a few seconds to let your health slowly regenerate. However, the maximum amount of health you can regenerate will decrease over time if you're not careful and take too much damage. It's a cool interpretation of the increasingly popular regenerating health system that still keeps you in the action by reducing the reliance on health packs, yet rewards smart gameplay.
Like what I've done with the place?
The graphics are an improvement over Enter the Matrix and Shiny did a good job of capturing the overall style of the films, including the trademark bullet shockwaves, the cool John Woo-like dive and shoot attacks, and the artistic acrobatic flips and martial arts moves. In some levels like the aforementioned courtyard battle with hundreds of Smiths (which also happens to be my favorite) the sheer number of characters onscreen at the same time is a sight to behold, with no dropped frames or slowdowns.
However, this is still not what you would call a pretty game. With the exception of Neo, the character models are terrible; Trinity looks like some sort of sickly skeletal ghoul and the Banshee character you meet towards the end of the game looks like something hastily sketched by a schoolboy in a hormone-raged frenzy. The animation is similarly a mixed bag; sometimes characters move with silky motion capture smoothness, other times they suffer from jerky cartoonish conniptions. This would be forgivable if the gameplay rocked ? and PoN certainly does have its moments of sheer gaming delight, but sadly a few moments of greatness does not make a great game.
It's good for two things: degreasing engines and killing brain cells.
The game starts in an unusual fashion. You are immediately thrown into the famous lobby and must fight waves of increasingly tougher enemies until Smith himself tries to take you down. Based on your performance, you unlock higher difficulty levels. It's a neat idea but disconcerting at first because you'll be too busy looking at the manual trying to figure out which button does what, and also wondering what the heck is going on.
That confusion spills over to the cutscenes between levels, which splices together scenes from the movies. They're assembled in rapid fire music video style but the scenes are all jumbled out of sequence with little relation to each other, making even the most hardcore fan scratch their head in bewilderment.
As in the first movie, the game starts with Neo trying to escape his office. In the movie, this scene was relatively brief; in the game, this has been expanded across two boring levels where all you're doing is running away. Since you don't know about the Matrix yet, you can't fight but whee! Look at Neo run! Look at Neo open doors! Look at Neo crouch and scurry around like he's got massive hemorrhoids and an overflowing bladder! And if you think these first two levels are just an anomaly, think again; rather, they're just a precursor of the poor design decisions yet to come.
Afterwards, you meet Morpheus and learn about the Matrix. Finally! But wait ? first you have to train yourself on using Focus and the art of melee and ranged combat. No problem, right? After all, you even get to fight Morpheus just like in the movie. But hold on, because PoN is apparently trying to set a record for the longest training level ever ? or should I say levels
. Out of the game's 33 levels, your training spans six
of them (or a full 18% of the game) and will take you at least one hour to complete. This is yet another poor design decision; the training could have easily been cut in half, even a third, but instead it feels like the developers were trying to artificially bulk up the content because the whole game will only take you about 12 hours to complete. At this point you would be forgiven for wondering if you'll ever see any action.
Eventually, of course, you do get to kick some Agent ass but the action really doesn't improve much over the training levels. This is because the game suffers from several fundamental flaws, not the least of which is the frustratingly uncooperative camera. Unlike a true free-view camera like in Splinter Cell, PoN's camera prefers to stick at certain angles despite your best efforts to change it. It is very frustrating when you're in the middle of combat and trying to rotate the camera (which moves with agonizing slowness) to get a better view of your opponents, only to have the camera fight you and rotate back to wherever it wants. Walls frequently get in the way and block your view, and there are moments when the camera will suddenly and unexpectedly stick at a fixed point, Resident Evil style, and usually at a poor angle.
The worst example of this is the extended fight sequence with Sereph. You start in Sereph's room just like in the movie, but then move outside to fight on flaming poles (don't ask) and somehow end up in a movie theatre. The camera suddenly fixes at a point at the back of the theatre and won't move, leaving you to fiddle around with a tiny Neo on the stage while taking wild guesses as to how far away Sereph is from you. Not fun.
This sequence highlights another poor design decision. The Matrix movies have always been quite dark, somber and serious, and PoN is no different ? up until this point, anyway. On the screen behind you is the actual Sereph fight scene from Reloaded, and an annoying heckler in the audience pokes fun at you and the movie. It's supposed to be funny and add levity to the game, but instead it's a jarring contrast to the seriousness of the story and seems completely out of place. This continues sporadically throughout the game, culminating in a truly bizarre cutscene featuring cartoon pixelized versions of the Wachowski brothers as they parody themselves while introducing the final level. Sorry, but these cutesy little attempts at humor just don't work given the context of the story and only serves to pull the gamer completely out of the experience.
Then again, the experience isn't something to write home about either. Ranged combat with pistols, shotguns, SMGs (all of which can be dual-wielded) and assault rifles is very poor thanks to the horrible lock-on targeting system. Whenever you pull out your guns, you automatically lock onto the closest enemy. You can change targets by flicking the right stick in the appropriate direction (similar to Advent Rising) but the target lock is stubbornly reluctant to move; by the time you've cycled the lock onto your chosen target ? assuming, of course, that you were even able to do so ? you'll likely have taken a frustratingly large amount of damage. Even worse, the target lock will absolutely refuse to cycle off dead enemies (strangely also similar to Advent Rising). In fact, the only way to fix this is to put away your guns and pull them out again; sure, it only takes a couple of seconds, but those seconds will feel like an eternity when you're being pummeled from all sides. A standard free-moving third-person aiming reticle would have been a much better choice.
As a result of the poor targeting system, you will spend most of your time in melee combat ? which is fine because this is actually a lot more fun. However, lining up your attacks can be more guesswork than anything since it's sometimes difficult to tell if Neo is lined up square with his opponent. This is especially troublesome when he is surrounded by several enemies, causing melee combat to quickly degenerate into little more than random button mashing. The hit detection seems a little off as well, especially when using melee weapons; I've hit (and been hit) from distances that appear to be clearly out of reach.
If the clunky camera and combat weren't annoying enough, the game also has the frequent tendency to pop up a loading screen right in the middle of battle; this not only throws you off your rhythm but also causes you to take damage you otherwise could have avoided since enemies will land several shots the instant the game comes back up, well before you can even react.
Sadly, breaking up the action ? which despite the clunky interface does have its moments of pure fun ? seems to be a conscious design decision. Towards the end of the game, there is an extended series of levels where you have to escape from the Merovingian's mansion. One of these levels takes place in a bizarre Escher-like world of floating rooms in space, where walls are floors and you climb upside-down staircases. Oh, and you also fight giant man-sized bipedal ants. Really. Actually, you don't have to fight the ants if you don't want to; the whole object of this level is to navigate a confusing maze of doors to find the way out. It's a bizarre level that feels completely out of place from the Matrix universe and does a fantastic job of bringing the action ? which was pretty fast and furious up until this point ? to a grinding halt. I suppose you can commend Shiny for trying to do something different from the strict confines of the movies, but in this case the execution left much to be desired.
The same goes for the ending, which was changed to be more game oriented with a huge boss battle. The boss is introduced with an impressive fully-rendered CGI video but after you defeat him (which isn't that difficult, by the way) the cutscene ending is ridiculously corny and again tries to be cutesy funny ? and again fails miserably.
One more minor annoyance: the sound effects often cut out after a level loads. What's really weird is that not all of the sound effects are gone; you can sometimes hear the crunch of a body hitting the ground or shattering debris, but otherwise you fight in silence for between 30 to 60 seconds before everything comes back up again. The bad thing about this is that someone could be shooting you from off-screen and you wouldn't know it since you can't hear the gunshots.
To try and encourage replayability, you can unlock a ton of artwork, videos, new combos and even cheat codes. However, once you've gone through it once, there's really very little reason or incentive to play it again.