The Matrix Awakens Makes Me Wish It Was More Than A Gorgeous Tech Demo

The Matrix has always been inseparable from the world of video games. The Wachowskis' cinematic masterpiece was inspired by the likes of Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Perfect Blue as it delved into a digital world where nothing was as it seemed. Thomas Anderson’s transformation into Neo was a tale of acceptance, perseverance, and fighting back against societal expectations that were determined to hold you down.

All these years later, the film remains a timeless slice of brilliance (just pretend the sequels never happened) that has influenced countless films, games, shows, and books in the decades since its original release.

Everyone has heard of The Matrix or been touched by it in some way, whether you want to admit it or not. This impact has me surprised that the property hasn’t ventured into the realm of video games more often, with the exception of a so-so MMO and a few tie-ins that we’ve all but forgotten about. It feels like a weird reality, since the Wachowskis created a universe that is so perfectly suited for the medium.

Epic Games’ The Matrix Awakens is a new interactive experience that is designed to showcase the prowess of Unreal Engine 5. It’s a short, punchy little thing for PS5 and Xbox Series X starring Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss as themselves, talking directly to the audience as they break down the impact of the original film and how it helped usher in myriad technological advances across the world of digital filmmaking. Digital versions of Neo and Trinity walk around a white room, iconic scenes from the trilogy playing out on screens before them while entire sets and characters are rendered in real time before your eyes.

It’s gorgeous, ambitious, and never afraid to break the fourth wall to have some fun – all characters in the brief demonstration talking directly to the viewer as they poke fun at marketing departments while the scene shifts into one driven by explosive car chases and classic Wachowski action – with Lana being the one who directed everything we see here. When control is actually given to the player it is little more than an on-rails shooter section as you soar across motorways firing at incoming agents roaring through traffic and jumping upon your car as you seek to escape them. All you do is point and shoot, curated moments dictating when enemies die and how the scene progresses. It’s fun, but minimal and clearly designed to showcase visuals and physics as opposed to accommodating actual player agency.

Agents eventually overwhelm your vehicle as the player character (who I believe is Niobe from Enter The Matrix) pulls out a rocket launcher and blows the roof from your convertible, a flurry of explosives launching into the sky as the demo comes to an end. Like I said, it’s short, sweet, and to the point in a way that most tech demos are. The fact it uses The Matrix as a framing device is a welcome bonus, especially since so many big names were willing to lend their talents to what is a glorified engine showcase. It’s free, so who am I to complain?

However, when the credits roll I was convinced that was it, but The Matrix Awakens drops you into the city to explore it however you like. Niobe can walk, run, fly, and even jump into vehicles to navigate a city which has been fully recreated from the original film. According to Epic Games, this feat was achieved by a relatively small team thanks to techniques found in the engine that allows environments to be filled with realistic humans, bustling traffic, and other aspects that we’d expect to see in an otherwise curated experience. Granted, everyone walks around like mannequins and cars are stuck in a perpetual loop, but this The Matrix, so perhaps it’s meant to be dull and lifeless. I ventured to the highest building I could find and peered out across the horizon, fiddling with the built-in photo mode and other visual toggles that allowed me to test the engine and see exactly what it was capable of.

The performance can struggle at times, but the physics on display are almost revolutionary as I crash my car into other vehicles and drift around corners, recreating moments from the previous scripted sequence even if I had no guns to fire or agents to defeat. I could see a game in The Matrix universe existing in this world, so it’s a shame the tech demo is little more than a hollow shell used to show an engine’s potential instead of leaning into a property with so much imagination. Most players will be done with this free download in under hour unless you’re a hardcore fan hoping to find specific locations from the films, and you’re railroaded so extensively that all of the best bits are housed in the opening moments anyway. Epic Games has achieved something magical here, but it’s also oddly cynical.

You’ll love gawking at a photorealistic Keanu Reeves and will surely burst into a grin as agents are ambushing our iconic characters and we’re called in to help them, but it’s over in a matter of minutes and the arresting visuals aren’t enough to make you stick around. I doubt we will ever get a fully-fledged open world or narrative-driven game in The Matrix universe, it’s much too expensive and arguably overplayed at this point, but with the arrival of a new film and Neo entering the cultural zeitgeist once again, part of me wishes that was the case. Awakens will suffice for now, acting as a reminder of what the future of games might be capable of and how The Matrix might have once been a part of this lofty vision.

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