We might as well get it out of the way and tell you right from the beginning that The Matrix: Path of Neo is a whole lot better than 2003's spin-off, Enter the Matrix. It looks better, it plays better, and taking control of the former Mr. Anderson is more satisfying than running around as Ghost or Niobe any day of the week. But more than that, Path of Neo tries to do things technologically that few other titles rarely attempt (particularly with the PlayStation 2 version) and it strives to push the limits of its hardware with a surplus of particles, shadows, lighting effects, and animations. Sometimes, though, as is the case with most things, you have to know when to say when.
Now don't get the wrong idea, those brief words of postcard wisdom aren't as foreboding as they sound. In all truthfulness, Path of Neo has a lot to like in just about every element of its production. When industry press first came out of E3 proclaiming that the game had one of the best uses of a license they'd seen in quite some time, they weren't joking -- everything about Path of Neo screams "Matrix" at nearly every turn. Whether it's the cool green coding effect you'll get during loading screens and pause menus or the meticulous recreation of the trilogy's most famous environments, everything you'd expect to be here is here... or at least, everything you'd expect from a game about Neo. After all, the story this time around is told exclusively from Neo's perspective, so the highway chase from Reloaded and the massive real world battle between Zion and the machines in Revolutions didn't make the cut.
But one of the things that makes Path of Neo stand out is that there's still a lot to do despite its narrow character focus. When Neo is trying to flee from agents at the start of the first movie, for instance, players don't just have to worry about running from cubicle to cubicle before making it to an outside window -- Now Neo's escape is a lot more elaborate. He'll have to shimmy across various ledges, avoid agents and police officers next to construction zones, and sprint down several flights of stairs before zooming off with Trinity on a motorcycle. This kind of expanded storytelling bleeds into every other level of the game as well -- especially in the early going, when the brief montage of Neo's facial reactions learning martial arts we've grown accustomed to gets replaced with full-blown playable training levels.
Strangely, the training levels in Path of Neo are actually one the game's biggest detractors. As helpful as they may be, they're the slowest moving and clunkiest stages of the entire experience and aren't a good example of what players can ultimately expect. Unfortunately there are six of these levels in all, and other than the famous battle with Morpheus in the dojo, fail to have the drawing power that most initial stages in action games usually do (thanks in tandem to its lack of aggressive AI, available moves, and straight-forward level design). This is why I'm not surprised that a lot of my colleagues' early impressions were overly pessimistic; the inaugural stages of Path of Neo really don't impress much at all.
But that's probably what makes the remaining two-thirds of the game such an enjoyable experience. Because once you've made it past the dry and uninspired instructional areas, things really begin to pick up (and pick up fast) and that's when Path of Neo's more impressive elements come to light .
At the forefront of Path of Neo's more notable features is the depth of its combat system. Borrowing elements from the previous Matrix title, Sony's God of War, and a heap of other context-sensitive actioners, there's a wealth of moves that players can learn to pull-off before they're finished. At first the system seems a little clunky and too overwhelmed by animations to be effective (this isn't helped by the default controller setting, which makes doing moves fast and comfortably a problem. Take my advice and change it to the "Gamma" configuration in the options menu), but once you've gotten a grasp of the learning curve (which takes roughly an hour) the system opens up a bit.
Once it does, The Matrix can be good fun. When you're face-to-face with six or seven agents and a couple of SWAT team members, it's pretty thrilling to bust out a sweet combination of feet, fists, and samurai swords. The range of maneuvers you can pull of are really quite spectacular, actually, especially when you consider that you only have fire, strike, special attack, and jump buttons to perform a couple of hundred moves with. If executing that many attacks sounds impossible given the controller configuration, then let me clarify: your equipped weapons and character position in relation to your opponent are all context sensitive -- meaning that while your basic actions may be set to a few dozen combinations, their effect on your enemies will differ based on what you use and where.
The ability to use the "Focus" command also works as a modifier and allows Neo to perform the more spectacular moves from the film. When you combine this special power with your regular limbs, several kinds of guns, various hatchet and sword weapons, and a couple of explosive devices (like det-packs and grenades), the chances of seeing something new and cool over the course of your whole adventure is pretty high. Helping the combat system along even further, is the fact that just about everything within a given environment is completely destructible. This adds a good amount of brownie points to your satisfaction level in the long run, as everything from television sets, pillars, and boxes to statues, furniture, or whatever else can be smashed into smithereens. You can target multiple enemies at once too, and figuring out new ways to chain your attacks so that you can take out as many people as possible in one fell swoop makes for quite the fun time.
Another great feature in The Matrix is its steady climb in difficulty. Despite all of the powers that Neo accumulates as he goes along, the CPU stays with you every step of the way. So while you may gain the ability to dodge bullets or perform anti-grav jumps in a single stage, the next level will compensate with more enemies wielding pistols, smarter agents, or larger stopgaps for you to overcome. I can say with absolute certainty that there wasn't a single stage in the entire game that felt like it threw too much at me too soon (and only a couple of them were on the easy side) and it's obvious that a lot of time was spent working out the little nuances challenge progression. Sadly, this difficulty balance doesn't change the fact that Path of Neo does run into some repetition problems and some weird pacing shifts.
To be more specific, there's a good portion of puzzles and alternate stage designs in between the action bits. One area will charge you with figuring out how to use a crane to crush an annoying rocket launcher guy, for instance, while another puts you on top of slim wooden poles that force you to balance and battle in the middle of a fire pit. There's even a fun little helicopter "on-rails" shooting mini-game to take part in, and an aforementioned stealthy escape mission. As you could imagine, some of these break-ups are forgivable and some aren't, but one of them (a weird Escher-inspired netherworld with an S&M bondage chickk and kung-fu ants) is particularly annoying. The whole idea is to navigate through a series of strange "find the right portal" puzzles that can take a really long time to complete and it brings little to no value to the action or storyline whatsoever.
Speaking of storylines, we can't forget to mention that the Wachowski Siblings have given The Matrix: Path of Neo an all-new ending to compliment its broader videogame approach. The pair did write and direct the events of the game just as they did the movies, don't forget, so they were sure to add a finish that was more befitting of the interactive experience. In fact, the moment that the Wachowskis come onscreen to introduce the final stage (and subsequent ending) is easily the most bizarre moment of the entire game and, in a way, epitomizes one of The Matrix's biggest flaws in that it doesn't tell its story very well.
Truth be told, the way that the cutscenes from the three Matrix films (and the Animatrix) are cut together between levels just doesn't make any sense. I've seen all of the above pictures several times each and it was still hard for me to follow what was going on. If you've never seen any of the films... then just forget about it -- you're better off just skipping the cutscenes altogether and pretending there's no story to begin with.
The most noticeable problem of all, though, is found with the visuals. As
I mentioned earlier, Path of Neo is overflowing with all sorts of cool graphical tricks like Light blooming, depth of field, and even normal mapping (previously thought unworkable on the PS2). But because of the all the effects that Shiny has turned on at once, it frequently bogs everything down and slows the framerate considerably. This means that oftentimes, you'll be inputting commands into the controller as part of a natural sequence and they won't always happen because the screen hasn't caught up with what you're doing yet.
Amazingly, the framerate and camera problems seem to be more prevalent in the Xbox version of The Matrix than compared to the PS2... not to mention the fact that Sony's machine supports a widescreen mode while Microsoft's does not (Xbox does get 480p, though). The camera will repeatedly get caught in bad places as well (particularly in the indoor levels), and when coupled with some motion-captured animations that don't always link together so well, makes it really difficult to tell what's going on.
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