Let's back up and talk a little bit about the universe this game is set in. If you've an interest in this game I'm going to assume you've seen one or all of the Matrix trilogy. I simply have to make that assumption or else I'll be spending my time in a philosophical discussion and recounting Keanu Reeves' bibliography and that's not what this is about. Also, if you haven't seen the films, whilst the game itself may seem interesting, it won't be nearly as interesting as it can be. So, let me make a bold statement:
Warner Bros. and Monolith have succeeded in creating The Matrix Online.
When I jack in, I am in the Matrix. The terminology used, the skill system, the events: these are the Matrix. However, it's really not the game itself that has succeeded in creating the Matrix Online. It's the combination of live events and the offline elements. Newspapers are sent to my email regarding what is happening in the Matrix. If I have signed up for their IM service I can speak to people in the Matrix while not in myself (and vice versa). A radio station was developed by players - Radio Free Zion - and was just incorporated into the game. Live Events of the highest caliber - performed by professional actors - occur at regularly scheduled intervals for days at a time. Summaries of the events are posted daily - sometimes multiple times per day - from the perspective of players, characters such as Morpheus (who was recently killed), or from the various factions like the Machines, Zionites and Exiles (Merovingians). Event summaries are posted in a very timely manner and then again sometimes weeks later you'll find another clue about what happened that will simply make your head swim. Add to that, short cinematics that often include the Oracle and you feel like you've found your spot inside the raining green code.
Now, all is not perfect. The city you inhabit is rather droll. Granted, the movies all occurred at night, and while that changed and the end movie gave us day/night cycles that continue in the game they're not enough to get rid of a very overpowering sense of bland. I fully understand that this is part of the message of the movies, but here's the problem: I can only spend so much time in a bland game. In outside environments, you have "bluepills" - the unawakened - walking throughout the city. Think of them as a large cadre of grey zombies invading town. They do nothing but provide ambience. You also have a very extensive road and highway system with a very active traffic system - again ambience. Because of this constant movement and ambience, the number of textures used is rather limited - meaning every building starts to look the same after a while. Also, for reasons I simply don't understand, building structures/designs were used repeatedly. And I mean repeatedly. Now, I've tried very hard to put myself in the mindset that "the Matrix would have no need to create much variety beyond that necessary to satisfy the human psyche therefore that's all I see". However, I can't help but continually find myself thinking "couldn't they have developed a few more building styles?" I don't know what kind of crunch time the developers were under when making the game but in this case, I'd give up some ambience for more visual variety.
The Game - Training
The beginning of the game drops you straight into the Matrix feeling. You've got a rather impressive range of physical characteristics for your "redpill". I made a tattooed skinny green-haired dominatrix, a VERY attractive light-skinned African American female, a freckle-faced down-home Southern-looking belle and a buffed out stubble-bearded older male that I'd date in a heartbeat. They look nothing alike. I would have like a wider range in starting clothing but as you find clothing rather quickly as loot it's not as much of an issue as it first feels to be.
Then I had to choose my beginning stats from a boiler-plate set of 10 that affect your base 5 attributes. The skills are so close together it's hard to see, even as you progress how they make much of a difference. It's at this point that I must say read the manual. The manual that comes with this game is one of the best I've ever read for any game. It not only explains the game in the terms of an MMO (giving you terminology comparisons to other MMOs) but also does an excellent job of explaining exactly what's going on in this game and how your decisions you make now at the beginning will decide what happens at a later date. The entire manual is well-written and I have to give them high marks for thoughtfulness and thoroughness in an far too often overlooked part of game design.
Once my character is created, I go through a simple walkthrough with operatives of Zion speaking to me showing me how to use the basic UI to find things, speak to people, move, hand over objects, etc. Next comes combat training where I learn to throw my opponent to the ground, use special attacks and learn the difference between my health and my inner strength - that which I use to perform special moves. Finally, there's a very brief (too brief) lessen in gun play and out into the world I go.
Here's the thing about the game, I often feel schizophrenic when speaking about it to people. For everything that I like about it I can counter with something I don't like. The combat training (in martial arts) was very good. It "pulled" me in and taught me. Once I'm out in the world it's up to me to finish my training. In marketing we call this a "push" tactic - expecting the consumer (in this case the player) to come to us. And here's the thing - I don't want to have to figure out how to finish my training. I'm in a new world - different from most MMOs I've played. I want a little more hand-holding. This UI is different. Learning new skills is VERY different (we'll get to that in a moment). To expect me to figure out how to train myself seems…well, odd. But that's exactly what I am to do.
There are multiple NPCs standing with rotating question marks over their heads and it's up to me to go and talk them. I do (the second time I play because I figure out they're my trainers) and they speak to me. However, I read faster than the windows remain and I run into a bit of a problem. The first two trainers I visit I don't realize they have more text to tell me. The third one I click on multiple times…for some reason I decide to click on the text box below and well…the text boxes from the first two trainers have tiled along with the third trainer. But, I don't know this - and all three sets of tiles are fading. I miss parts of all three lessons. It's not critical - I can go back and see each trainer again. But it most assuredly is annoying. By the way, all of what the trainers had to tell me is in the fantastically written manual.
Playing the Game
As I said before (and probably will again) this game makes me terribly schizophrenic. As stated above, I played the first 14 levels four times. I did this because I wanted a very complete understand of the game's mechanics without having to worry about playing the game in-depth. This game, like many others does something that I think is fatal to new player play:
It only allows one character per server.
Let me tell you why I think this is a very bad move for any game. First off, it takes most players about 14-20 levels to "understand the system". And, on their first go-around those first 14-20 levels take a bit of time to play. The second time they go fairly quickly. Most often, the character a player sticks with for game play is the second character they created because it doesn't have the mistakes of their first character.
Also, once you join a guild, or in the case of The Matrix a crew or faction, you would want to build characters of different skills sets so that when you go on missions you play the character that fills out the skills set of the group you are playing with at the time. If you're missing a healer, you play your healer. If the tank is missing, you play the tank and so on. Allowing only one character makes this impossible and means that once you level past the new player areas - because these are clearly delineated in this game - become a ghost town.
The Matrix somewhat makes up for this by allowing you to change your skills set at will (assuming you have the money or $information to purchase and raise those skills) and change yourself from a hacker (mage) to a martial artist to a spy simply by uploading and downloading the appropriate skill set. But again, this leaves the new player areas of the game absolutely desolate. A true new player should not expect to find someone to play with.
Playing the Game Part 2
Ok, you've finished the training, you're thrown into the world and you're running around the world. You start with the basic skill Awakened - this gives you basic firearms skills, fighting skills and defensive skills. You have memory into which you upload new skills. Think of Neo - "I know Kung Fu". That's exactly how it works. You've a limited number of memory blocks available to you in which to store skills but will gain more as you level.
Skills work in trees. Beyond Awakened is Coder (tradeskills), Hacker (spellcaster) and Operative (melee/ranged). Each of these branch out several times and then several times again and often several times again. Assuming you play long enough and spend your points wisely you can build a very diverse character. And assuming you have the money to level the skills appropriately, you can build a character of dual skills who can act as needed according to the description of the mission your crew is on.
All skills must be purchased or looted and then uploaded at a hardline. Then, you must spend $information (money) to level those skills up to the maximum level of the player or the maximum level of the skill. Many have prerequisites. As a Coder you'll find you'll also need to decompile items and recompile them to learn about their bits and bytes so you can later create them. Once you've done so often enough, you can create the item in question by simply calling the bits from the Matrix itself.
Expect some painfully linear missions at the beginning. If you fail you'll get the same mission again. Part of this is to help you level, part is to familiarize yourself with the territory, part is simply to get you comfortable with the game. Once you reach the Niobe quest - where she thanks you for your efforts - you'll be contacted by both the Machines and Merovingians. From this point on you'll have a decision to make - who do you want to be? You get to choose who you take your missions from and this will affect your faction rating. It will determine where your missions are from now on (which set of hostile territory) and if you play on a hostile server, who is going to PK you. Choose wisely….
But What About the Cool Moves and Clothes?
Part of what caught our fancy in the original film what's its look. It had that futuristic, oh-so-cool bordering on trashy but I want to look that way, look. Don't worry, they've got it down pat in the game. Often, when I blog, I'll produce fashion shows at the end of my blogs simply because the clothing is half the fun of the game.
Then there's the fighting. Quite frankly, I don't know any game on the market that's got it down pat the way this game does. Even if you've not specialized in any Operative school and simply use your basic Awakened skills you'll be using back flips, head buts some really nasty upper cuts and periodically enter that bullet time where time slows and you just do amazing damage. I recently entered the Aikido school and all my moves adjusted to match my training and I'm suddenly throwing people, flipping them by grabbing their gun, dodging a lot more. It's really amazing to watch and after so many weeks still has me in awe.
The camera does a really nice job of centering on the action of the fight - assuming it's one on one and you're not in a corner. You really get to see the action. However, if you're backed into a corner or interlocked (locked in battle with more than one opponent) the camera becomes easily confused and you may find yourself watching the ground looking that the occasional pair of feet during the entire encounter. Something to be worked on.
Who will you be fighting? Well, with the downfall of the Machines you have street gangs galore who hang out on their own turf. You'll progress through a series of linear missions that are there to prepare you to choose sites (I'll explain that last) and once you do choose sides you'll fight the two opposing sides: either the Machines, Zionites or Merovingians. I don't often recommend choosing PK servers but in this case, the NPCs look like people anyways so you don't get that "creepy" feeling of killing your friends. Also, when you pass the Niobe mission and must start to choose sides you're going to be entering areas where your allegiance will make a difference. Fighting the same NPC over and over again only in a swarm of 40 gets boring (they fight with the same tactics). PvP in this game is fun! And I'm not a proponent of PvP.
Additionally, with the live events which are both voluminous and mean something your affiliation can really make a difference on a Hostile server and make the game that much more enjoyable.
Do I Like It?
Yes, I do like this game. I could probably talk more about what I'd like to fix about it than I could about what I'd like to keep, but the simple fact is I enjoy it when I'm playing it and miss it when I'm not. I think, because I've intentionally played the new player experience multiple times, I've seen the biggest flaws in it - ones that need to be fixed quickly if they are to grow their population - they've got to have players in the new areas and quite frankly, between delineation, one character per server, and the ease of changing skills there's no reason for a higher level player to ever go back. That's a lot of empty real estate.
I'm in what I'm told is the hardest part of the game now, the middle levels. This is where I will die most often as my skills are far out-paced by my enemy's and because I haven't joined a crew I'll be reconstructed (dying and reintroduced) often. I've got to choose my allegiance. Also, I took the fast and hard way to my current skill set and am missing many of the side skills that would make surviving this part of my growth easier. However, I look at this as exciting - if a little frustrating (I died 8 times in 11 minutes the other night).
I've leveled enough to participate in live events. And with the purchase of the game by Sony Online Entertainment from Monolith and the continued involvement by Warner I can only hope that Sony's experience in managing games will bring seasoned experience to the table while Warner's willingness to development amazing live events will continue.
So, until level 30 and my next review...
My children both play games so I often play them first, getting to know exactly how something may effect my sensitive and easily stimulated older child vs. my stoic and imperturbable younger.
I like games for games; for the pure enjoyment of them and believe that no game is wholly bad, though some are real stinkers.
I also have the dexterity of a camel in mittens so find playing FPSs difficult (and I also don't like the gore) and RTSs at times can stump me. I just can't seem to move quickly enough to keep up with them. Some of my favorite games are arcade games and I'll spend 3-5 years on the same 5-6 levels because I just never get any better. But, I have fun.