This review refers to the Xbox version of "Enter the Matrix".
In the beginning, there was "The Matrix".
(Okay, if you want to be snippy, like I was in my first review of the movie four years ago, in the beginning there was "Neuromancer" and the whole cyberpunk literary movement and associated crappy movies, which led to "The Matrix" by way of anime and kung fu movies. But let's face it -- more people saw "The Matrix" than ever read "Neuromancer," and when people think of "The Matrix" they don't think of William Gibson. Whatever its derivation, the movie is its own animal. And I'm glad to say I dig it a lot more now than I did on my first pass.)
So in 1999, we had "The Matrix". Then there were rumors of sequels, but they took their own sweet time coming. If you wanted to see anything new in the world of "The Matrix," your only option was the comics and short stories and articles on the official Web site. And there were a lot of them, by some really terrific people, but it's just not the same.
In 2003, the real thing is here. Boy, is it. Two sequel films, a DVD collection of animated shorts by the hottest names in anime . . . and "Enter the Matrix," a videogame with an hour of new live-action scenes written by the movies' creators and featuring actors from the films.
Let's get one thing out of the way up front. As a videogame, "Enter the Matrix" needs some work. But as part of the "Matrix" experience, it's indispensible.
They know kung fu
In "Enter the Matrix," you play Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Ghost (Anthony Wong), who supported in "Reloaded" and will have a greater role in "Revolutions". Niobe is said to be the best driver in the Matrix and the best hovercraft pilot in Zion, and Ghost is a weapons man with incredible skills. When you launch the game, you choose which one to play.
Now, that's a good premise. But there's just no real difference between the two characters. Ghost is supposed to be the better marksman, and Niobe is supposed to be better at kung fu, but it doesn't matter. See, when you're using a gun, the targeting reticle automatically locks to the nearest target so all you have to do is hit the "fire" button; maybe the game made Ghost's targeting more accurate than Niobe's, but it didn't seem so. Hand-to-hand is much the same; you can either punch, kick, or throw, but once you start slapping buttons the game itself will take the character through their complicated locks and spin-kicks. Martial arts in "Enter the Matrix" look terrific on screen, but they're just not that interesting to play.
Then there's the fact that you can't customize the controls. AT ALL. Say you're a hardcore "Halo" or "Medal of Honor" junkie, like me, and you like being able to shoot with the trigger -- well, you're out of luck. You shoot with the black button. You punch and kick and call for elevators with the other buttons. Period. Get used to the weird controls or go home.
There are a lot of driving scenes in the game, but I don't know why. I mean, I know why -- the highway scene is the gigantic centerpiece of "Reloaded," and in "Enter the Matrix" you can play Niobe and Ghost as they show up in time to give Morpheus a hand (or a hood, anyway) in the movie. But I don't know why they didn't make the driving scenes more fun. Generally, nothing much happens. You drive, you run into things, and eventually you reach a transition and go back to the regular game on foot. Yawn.
The transitions, by the way, are jarring. You're in the middle of the action, then the screen freezes. The first time it happens, you get this "Oh crap, I hope I saved" sensation, and then it cuts to a save screen. Highlight "Yes" and it saves and loads the next level. This happens annoyingly often in some areas. It would have been nice to be able to set the game to automatically save. It would have been nicer if the screen-freezes were smooth so your first reaction to finishing a level isn't to wonder if your game just crashed.
But there's good news! Once you get used to the fact that you're not really in control of the attacks, the fight scenes are still pretty fun. It's all about movement and timing -- and, of course, Bullet Time. That's where the game play just shines and brings out the gibbering "Matrix" fanboy (or girl) in all of us. Hit the left trigger in the middle of a particularly brutal firefight and the action slows down, bullets crawl through the air on those patented contrails, and your rebel can jump and flip around fists and bullets with uncanny grace. It feels exactly how you think it should feel. It feels like the whole scene is there for you to personally take apart with your high-caliber pistols and stylin' faux-leather boots.
In the rabbit-hole
Of course, the live-action scenes are the highlight of "Enter the Matrix". They both lead to and build on scenes and dialog from the movies. "Matrix" completists can follow a continuous story that begins in "The Matrix," then flows from "Final Flight of the Osiris" (on the "Animatrix" DVD) to the videogame "Enter the Matrix" to "The Matrix: Reloaded" and "The Matrix: Revolutions." (Although I recommend watching "Reloaded" before playing "Enter the Matrix," for fear of spoilers.)
The new scenes aren't all jaw-droppers by any means. There's a "kiss me" scene with Persephone (Monica Bellucci) that duplicates her signature scene in "Reloaded," only with the game's heroes instead -- they even had Bellucci refer to the other half of your team (either Ghost or Niobe) as "them" and "they"; presumably it was too costly to film second takes for her to say "he" or "she" depending on the context.
Yep, Monica Bellucci demands a passionate lip-lock from Will Smith's wife. Videogames these days. You sure didn't see that kind of action on "Ms. Pac-Man".
But there are plenty of reasons to watch for the other scenes. Some of them explore Niobe's relationships with old flame Morpheus (sexily intense Laurence Fishburne) and new flame Commander Lock (nebbishly autocratic Harry Lennix). Some of them deal with the rogue programs discussed in "Reloaded". And so on. Of course, by now you can probably download all of the live-action scenes from Kazaa without having to play the game at all, but getting to them the natural way is a lot more fun.
And that's what it's all about. "Enter the Matrix" is a fun side-trip into the "Matrix" universe. The game play is really good in some parts, really lousy in others, and a little frustrating most of the time, but the experience is worth it. Welcome back to the Matrix -- this time, you can do more than watch.