If there is media franchise that was ever a seemingly perfect candidate for a massively multiplayer incarnation, the Matrix is the one...no pun intended. The Wachowski brothers' world of humans and machines fighting a war in a huge virtual simulation just screams to be unleashed on the legions of persistent world gamers. Given the multimedia approach the Wachowskis have taken with their story, a MMO version of the Matrix is not only the logical next step; it is the inevitable direction for the franchise.
Well, the wait is almost over. Later this month, The Matrix Online (MxO) will go live and developer Monolith will welcome thousands to jack in. The online world is true to the continuing storyline presented by the Wachowskis and even includes voice acting from some of the original cast. Those acquainted with the Matrix universe will find all the familiar trappings of the movies fitted into a MMO framework.
The game begins with a choice: red pill or blue. Choosing the red pill brings the player into the game and places him in a dark urban setting. The cityscape is reminiscent of City of Heroes, but the tone is direful and has more of a dystopian feel. Traffic speeds by on gritty streets, subway trains whisk into dingy subway stations, pedestrians wander about, oblivious to the reality of the Matrix – a reality of which you, as the player, are all too aware.
Although the city buildings have a feeling of similarity, they are not cookie-cutter duplicates. Each has its own layout and is populated with various items and NPCs. Most every building may be entered and explored at any time. Rooms may contain filing cabinets, desks, wall safes, computers, or other furnishings which may be opened, unlocked or hacked to obtain items or information. There are also NPCs which may or may not attack, depending on the player's alignment.
Redpills (as players are known) must choose sides in a three-way conflict. All players begin on the side of the humans, but may later choose to side with the machines or the Merovingian. Each faction offers missions that increase the player's standing with them, while decreasing the standing with the others. Freelance contacts are also available, but must be encountered before they may be contacted via phone. The mission system is dynamic and sends players running through the city, entering buildings and achieving objectives. Standard missions are categorized and allow the player to gain some experience by escorting an NPC, assassinating someone from an opposing faction, or other tasks. Critical missions advance the player within the faction, giving him experience and reputation. Switching teams is possible as well. Tired of aiding the Merovingian? Call the Agent contact and assist the machines for a while. Just be aware that the reputation you've been building with the exiles will decrease as you start to assist the machines.
If missions are too structured, there's always the opportunity to go out and fight on the streets. The alleys and roadways of the city are populated by gangs that don't seem to like anyone invading their turf. Many gang members drop items that may be gathered and turned into a local collector for a nice reward. There are three styles of battle: hand-to-hand, weapons, and hacking. Hand-to-hand is where the martial arts, so popular in the movies, comes into play. By learning and progressing, a player becomes more deadly and can make better moves against his opponent. Weapons are generally used at medium range, as is hacking. There are no long distance fights in The Matrix Online. Most occur in buildings and tight rooms where placing distance between the player and his opponent is not possible. Hacking is similar to magic in fantasy themed-MMOs. Players may use their hacking skills to increase their own power, decrease an opponent's power or launch an attack.
Combat is real time, but there are turn-based elements to it. When squaring off against an opponent, a player must choose his style of combat. He has the option to switch between styles as the fight progresses. The player chooses his move and it is matched against the opponent's move. The winning move dictates the next phase of the fight. It's a bit reminiscent of rock, paper, and scissors. If the player chooses a power attack and the NPC chooses block, the attack is blocked and the NPC has the advantage. Special moves may be employed as well. Some of the more complicated moves take place in slow motion, allusive of the famous bullet-time sequences from the movies.
Hacking also serves as the method for crafting items in The Matrix Online. It's an elegant solution for a game based on a huge virtual reality world. Weapons, clothing, and other items are programmed, so rather than tailoring a coat, a players uses bits of code to assemble a virtual coat. Code may be purchased through certain vendors or found as loot. Code takes up inventory space, so players may upload collected data bits and routines through hardlines to Central Storage, a sort of virtual bank, for later use.
Hardlines are another concept from the Matrix films that have been woven into the storyline. Phone booths throughout the city serve are access points for all kinds of activity. For example, players may use them to teleport around the city. As new hardlines are discovered, more areas of the city are open for the player. Players can also use hardlines to access the player market, check on their abilities, and safely jack out of the Matrix. Players may exit anywhere, but jacking out takes a good 30 seconds if not done at a hardline, so it doesn't work as a quick escape during a tough fight.
Monolith has made sure that The Matrix Online is no static world in many ways, including the development of an ongoing storyline. Newspaper machines around the city offer papers that dispense copies of The Sentinel, a paper created by Bluepills that reports the news of the city. Players will be able to see the elements of the ongoing story by reading between the lines of the news items. Events are also planned, with MxO staffers staging real-time happenings within the game that will be both spontaneous and relevant to the unfolding story.
The Matrix has, from the beginning, been more than a mere movie. With online content, print media, and video games, the story has been told across a multitude of media. That tradition is being continued in The Matrix Online, but this will be the place where those other than the Wachowskis have a chance to make an impact on the direction of the saga. When the game goes live, a new, evolutionary chapter of the franchise will commence, and anyone with a computer and an internet connection will be able to jack in and experience the Matrix for themselves.