The Matrix Online - Review  

Should Have Taken the Blue Pill
by Jeff Walker

Easy - Impossible
5 hours - Natural Life


Rating definitions 

   When The Matrix Online was announced, many RPGamers jumped at the idea of being able to introduce their own "red pill" into the world of Mega City. Many wanted a fun, mind-blowing, martial arts romp in which they could bend all the rules of reality. When the time finally came to see The Matrix in RPG format, many were excited to see the product. Most were willing to pay for the fun, but in the end they learned one inevitable fact -- The Matrix Online ended up as desirable as grandma's old garters.

   The battle system of The Matrix Online can easily be summed up into one word -- rolls. These untasty, unbuttered numbers determine the success of a hit. No matter what class, the player's ability to hit is completely based on these numbers. A hacker's attack will fail if the opponent has enough natural or clothes-assisted viral resistance, or if the number roll is not higher than the enemy's roll. The gun enthusiast's ability to hit is also determined by the amount of rolls from both sides, or the inherent dodge ranged skill. Finally, the martial artist will also have to answer to the big-bad number rolls, and often more extremely than other classes as martial artists must 'interlock' with the enemy to begin dealing damage. Luckily for the spy and patcher classes, rolls do not play a part in the ability to heal or deliver a rolled attack.

   While this battle scheme does sound like a good idea on paper, the idea is more than novel -- it can be deadly. While hacker and gunner classes can use resist combat to avoid interlock and fire off attacks, the martial arts class is forced into the fray to do decent damage. This gives any stray enemies time to stand in one place and 'free fire' at the player, often hitting and always hurting. Add in rolling penalties for multiple enemies, and lower leveled players will find it nearly impossible to do missions without dying often.

   Using skills in The Matrix Online can be just as cumbersome, as many attacks depend on certain status effects such as Staggered or Dazed. Others require the combatants to be interlocked in close combat, while hacker attacks require a simple ability to 'code' and keep the enemy away long enough. After every use of an attack, the failsafe use of a timer kicks in as the skill recharges. This leaves the player waiting and wondering if Neo had to deal with Security Guards equal to his level being able to kill him constantly.

   While The Matrix Online did not boast itself on having a unique battle system, it did boast itself on interaction with live characters from the movie. These characters, played by special live events teams, will often meet with factions and in some cases fight or duel them -- if the player is lucky enough to be included that is. While the live events team does their script in public areas, sometimes only the most reputable factions of a server will be invited. Other times, a public meeting is announced to only those part of the organization of choice -- Machine, Zion, or Exile. Other than this monthly interaction, and "I talked to one on AIM" rarity, interaction with the cast can be minimal to nonexistent. The live events player reads their script and leaves, and factions are left scrambling to make sense of the minimal hints. Inter-faction interaction, however, is much different as factions often create storyline truces, parties, and play protector to friendly factions.

   Other forms of interaction with the world of Mega City are, at best, limited. If the player chooses to turn on "Richworld," paper rustles by and pedestrians walk the world, but they act as dead as the world around them. Walking into those on the sidewalk prompt their shoulder to fling back to forward, but they never deem you worthy of discussion. Interactions with motorists is just as limited, as the player will simply flip over or off the car in three to four different variations. This seems to help make the interaction with the world of Mega City seem lifeless and almost dead.

   The music for The Matrix Only falls prey to repetition as well, often becoming an annoyance as they only bothered to create six or seven rotating music tracks for battle. You can hear everything the game has to offer in 7 battles. The developers also sought to add variety though four music tracks for the four huge city areas in which you travel -- Richland, Westview, International, and Downtown. Throw in a music track for the 'loading area', some here and there for Constructs, and sounds for always-cooing pigeons and you have the music of The Matrix Online. Although the tracks are nicely mastered, the lack of variety makes many users glad that using alt + tab to return to windows also kills the sounds in The Matrix Online. Attempts to liven up the world by including a music player seem to get lost, as some of the radio stations will not even work on the Windows Media Player-based interface. The developer-favored radio station Radio free Zion seems to be able to cope very easily, however. Do not expect to add your radio favorites, as that command is currently bugged.

Caption Agent Chaos

   The Matrix Online boasted its second line of superiority through its originality, and it was a boast never met. Complete with original user-influenced plot, movie character interaction, and high-tech Matrix combat fun that would leave the user wanting more. In the end, the britches ended up being too big for the movie giant. The plots ended up being as influenceable as taxation, full of corny dialogue and horrible ideas for events like a capture the flag event and item hoarding for a temporary reward. Throw in limited interaction from movie characters who speak differently than their counterparts and a combat system that works on the very same rules as every other RPG, and the result is a black hole of originality.

   To add to the gravitational pull comes the mission system which is said to potentially be unique. The missions, executed on accepting the mission, end up being exercises in monotony. After the initial missions, which act as tutorials, come more initial missions. These second initial missions, run by the organization of the player's choice, orient the player on the general idea of Critical Missions that are often longer, harder, and act to prepare the player for the monotony to come. After finally finishing a few hours worth of missions, the player is allowed to finally choose which mission types they want to take part in. Choosing from such missions as Assassination, Courier, Infiltration, and Escort can seem like a daunting task -- but after one try to all missions the player will know what every mission thereafter is like. The many experience changes add insult to injury. Also, there are many bugs in the missions such as NPCs that will not register an objective complete or doors that cannot be opened. This forces players to abort even if it's the last leg of the mission.

   The final of the three boasts from The Matrix Online comes from the storyline, where they promise a deep, rich, involving plot any gamer can play. Then the player plays the game and realizes rich is only the name of the starting city, Richland. The mission system, ripe for critical missions to help push an underlying story, remains as a vapid, contrived template system to increase the feeling of grinding like a rusty gear. With promises of new critical mission packs looming, there's very little indication these packs will involve introducing a storyline to keep players busy in-between live events.

   Which brings up the second part of the storyline boast -- live events. Boasted as highly unique and involving, live events instead have come to mean that players must schedule the other events of their life around the game. With high-ranked factions with connections being given more information than others, the live events read more like a who's who list of factions vying for superiority. Although the developer also boasts a "live events team," this team seems less like live people and more like 'bots executing macro commands with the events team assuring the message is delivered and the meeting does not get out of hand.

Caption Cinematic Morpheus

   That brings up the final important part of any game: the graphics. Most players can remember their first time watching the Matrix movies -- the feeling of amazement at bullet time, and the wonderment of the martial arts moves executed expertly. The Matrix Online, however, proves that even the best of movies can make the worst of game graphics. While they look urban and appealing on the surface, Matrix Online has many real graphical problems. With the right camera tilt, the nicely dressed characters can reveal a soft spot for invisible polygons. Yes, Virginia, these polygons are incomplete. Looking up the skirt of a female shows that the female character may be missing a rear end, while looking closely down while wearing a hat will reveal the inside of the player's skull, a triangle for lips, and slits for eyes.

   If that was not enough, clipping paths is another huge issue for The Matrix Online. While walking through rails and curbs the player can become stuck behind an invisible wall. When the player is lucky enough to get hyperjump at level 10, they may even find themselves jumping through buildings to land. While the options for visuals may range widely, the best features for Matrix Online will be unavailable to the casual gamer. Options such as Green Tint and Overbright, which enhance the game exponentially, only end up usable by those with the best of systems.

   Thankfully, the saving grace for The Matrix Online comes in battle animations. Often smooth, the animations for martial artists can prove to be enjoyable to watch. That is, if the player's system or the servers do not have latency problems. While normal battle animations seem to glow, bullet time animations often have problem synchronizing with the action, sometimes causing the effect to kick in after the player has executed the move. Animations outside of battle can be flawless or choppy, but they often come in on the side of flawless.

   While every other portion of The Matrix Online seems to fall well below expectations, the challenge of the game seems to over-achieve so much so that the first levels can prove nigh impossible for the beginning player. To attempt to give the player choice, missions contain difficulty selections that not only determine the amount of experience, but also the level of the enemies of the mission. Easy nets the lowest amount of experience, but all enemies in the mission end up a level below or a level equal to the player. Medium nets mediocre experience, but enemies tend to be an equal level or a hair higher than the player. Hard rewards the most experience, but enemies are always a level or more above the player. While these settings can help those starting out, often hard can prove to be too hard for even the most seasoned of players, especially without the right equipment and items to boost combat performance.

   The true disappointment for The Matrix Online comes in the time it takes to complete it. While it can take a long time to fully complete the game, every possible option can easily be seen within the time scope of the first five hours of play. Missions tend to be cookie-cutter and teetering toward mind-numbingly boring. Other ways to stretch out time such as data nodes and local contact missions often end up being meaningless tasks meant to level without purpose. The storyline, absent until live event time, could easily make the playing time fade away and enjoyment to be had. Instead, the player is left with knowing the first hours of gameplay were probably the best.

   Although the promises of The Matrix Online still linger, Monolith has proven that inexperience in RPGs truly can harm a franchise. With an uninspired mission system, an absent storyline, overly difficult beginning levels, and an incomplete feel to graphics, The Matrix almost seems like a bad dream. Add in constant maintenance time, unstable servers with crashing zones, and live story events that play out slowly, and the result is a game even the most optimistic of RPGamers cannot overly praise. This game is a must pass for any serious MMORPG lover, and while Matrix fans may find their fix for kung-fu action fulfilled temporarily, the bad taste is not worth the wasted income. In the end, the powerful system of the Matrix seems to need a virus scan, and The Matrix Online is that virus.

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