To this day I would defend The Matrix as one of the best, most influential features of the late 20th century. It had everything I ever longed for in these kinds of movies and then some, with a compelling story, astonishing imagery and the energy and verve to put every other sci-fi flick of the last 20 years to shame. But, during the second half of the second Matrix movie I began to secretly wish Neo had taken the blue pill. That particular wish stayed with me throughout the third movie as well as the first movie-based game, Enter the Matrix. Unfortunately the latest entry into the legacy is not bound to change that, although it has more to offer than its flawed predecessor.
At first glance Path of Neo is a rather classical third-person action game, heavily influenced by both Devil May Cry and Max Payne. But aside from these core elements, the gameplay incorporates a lot of half-hearted crossovers. There is a bit of stealth, some minor puzzles and a wee bit of platforming. I played as Neo, the movies' main protagonist. He is the One—the chosen, and this is exactly the feeling the game promises to deliver. In this regard Path of Neo manages to succeed at least half of the time. I felt (for the lack of a better term) "empowered" when I was floating high above the heads of my prey before suddenly turning and crushing them with an acrobatic combo. The fistfights the game sports can be an awful lot of fun. Battling multiple opponents is rather easy and keeping a flock of agents under control and then picking one to finish off with a spectacular special is a very satisfying thing to do. And, while the rest of the game's visuals are neither ugly nor a masterpiece, the animations seem a lot more fluid than in Enter the Matrix.
The only problem was that this sense of empowerment and beauty vanished into thin air every time the situation called for me to use a firearm. Suddenly I didn't feel chosen anymore, but rather, confused and frustrated. The hectic camera movement works to the player's disadvantage, and as a consequence I had no idea where I was shooting half of the time—but it sure sounded like I hit stuff. What complicated things even more was that the auto-aim has an unexplainable preference for enemies behind pillars or otherwise totally out of reach. All in all, the firefights as well as the stealth and platforming elements in Path of Neo seem vaguely unfinished compared to the very polished melee fights.
Another prime example of this unfinished feeling is the so-called role-playing system the game offers its players. (Why does every genre nowadays have one of those anyway?) Giving the player a chance to choose which way he wants his avatar to go is a nice thing, but it instantly loses its appeal when said choice turns out to be nothing more than cosmetic polish. Unfortunately such systems are awfully popular at the moment no matter what genre a game originally stems from. Everybody from tennis pros to dumb action heroes to petty thieves seems to have upgradeable stats, fooling the player into believing he has an actual choice in gameplay. In reality, Path of Neo is just another showcase of how limited such systems work most of the time. What is the point of giving me one, I repeat ONE, skill to pick from at the end of a stage? What do the developers expect me to do, not pick it for the sake of variety? It feels like election day in a totalitarian dictatorship.
It seems everything is a problem of ambition when it comes to Path of Neo. The gameplay is an overachiever that incorporates far too many elements instead of focusing on its strengths. The story, which Shiny stressed in interviews, seems to have no ambitions whatsoever which gets me right back to my opening statement—how did the movies come to make me wish Neo had taken the blue pill? There are too many reasons to list them all, to be honest, but one major bugger is that the Wachowskis obviously got outsmarted by their own creation. The trilogy reached its dramatic climax with the end of the first movie. Neo could fly. He was the One. The rest would be history. Neither Reloaded nor Revolutions managed to top that.
That said, I was a bit excited when I heard about further "story elements", and Shiny promised players a new "alternate ending" written by the Wachowskis themselves. Was there a possibility that the brothers realized their own faults and got things back in order to finally give the trilogy the ending it deserved? My hopes were high.
I should have known better. Having the audacity to call the final confrontation of Path of Neo an "alternate ending" to a movie trilogy is borderline fraud. I am not going to spoil anything, but let me just say that what the Wachowskis came up with is the videogame equivalent of Johnny Rotten's famous last words at the final Sex Pistols concert in San Francisco in 1979: "Ever had the feelin' bein' cheated?"
To make things even worse, after I played through said ending I was exposed to a sequence of scenes from the last movie, mostly consisting of the celebrating Zion population with Queen's "We are the Champions" for background music. What a ridiculous choice. The dreadful song continued throughout the ending credits. We all are champions. Shiny, the Wachowskis, the people of Zion, and me, for playing through this thing. Never ever in my long history of videogaming have I felt so ashamed for a developer. Yet another movie-licensed game driven into the ground by people who had no feeling for the inner workings of its cinematic role model—but to make things worse, some of those people in this case were the directors of said movie.
After the credits rolled I sat in my dim room feeling like a betrayed lover, staring at the title screen with empty eyes and worn down by exhaustion. Disbelieving and frustrated, I once again expressed a wish: blue pill, please.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS2 version of the game.