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Just as teachers fret over what grade to give a bright student who misbehaves in class, it is difficult to assess this huge second action adventure game in The Matrix series: There is plenty of spine-tingling action, but the graphics engine is quite disappointing, making characters look gross and even horrid from close up.
Matrix fans, who watched the movie trilogy countless times, will undoubtedly ignore the new game's shortcomings, but gamers who haven't seen any of the films would probably feel lost and confused by references to them in the dialogue.
Enter the Matrix, the trilogy's first Atari spinoff, appeared two years ago and was quite disappointing. Brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski, who dreamed up the story for the movies, did add an extra hour of material filmed specially for the first game that did not appear in the movie; they also integrated footage from the second Matrix film into that piece of software. This new game is mechanically and visually better than the first, offering two dozen cut scenes from Matrix movies and focusing on one major character: A computer engineer named Thomas Anderson is given the name Neo, decked out in a long black leather trench coat and sunglasses and told to save humanity. There are over 30 levels to be conquered before you reach the end in about 15 to 20 hours.
For the uninitiated, the Matrix characters are set down in the late 22nd century, when machines proved superior to humans and controlled their minds. A few insurgents led by Morpheus managed to free their minds from control and strive to free mankind in the underworld city of Zion (this has nothing to do with Israel) from this cyber-slavery. Neo ("The One") played a less prominent role in the first disk, while relatively minor characters named Niobe and her male counterpart Ghost were given prominence. Now, Neo is the star.
Although you push Neo to demonstrate his martial arts and acrobatic capabilities - kicking at enemies, bouncing off walls, dodging bullets and plunging down futuristic rabbit holes - the game has no blood at all, but is nevertheless brutal, which explains why it is targeted for older teenage boys and young men.
At the outset, Neo is offered two pills - one blue and one red - to swallow. If you choose the blue one for him, his handler declares he is not suitable material for his mission, catapulting players to a "game over" screen that is the equivalent of a laundry chute. So if you're serious about playing it, grab the red pill immediately and proceed; this gimmick is bewildering and could easily have been left out.
The game begins very slowly and tortuously with martial arts and weapons training on board the ship Nebuchadnezzar, but the action does pick up after a couple of hours. The storyline, which really isn't very important, spans several of the movies and is focused on Neo - from his rescue by Morpheus from The Matrix through the last final battle with Agent Smith.
Gamers may be unnerved by the rapid changes in tone from melodrama to buffoonery. The fact that the game's voice actors are almost all different from those appearing in the movie's cut scenes is also dismaying. The tasks of maneuvering Neo through an endless series of environments and juggling his ample store of weapons are sometimes frustrating when using a mouse and keyboard; they would probably be easier with a gamepad or using the PlayStation or X-Box versions.
Nevertheless, for all its faults, Path of Neo does provide some thrilling scenes. Our hero peers through walls, bends backwards to evade the line of fire and defies gravity by floating upward when you press the space bar. He pounces on enemies before they have two feet on the ground and catapults them into the air only to bombard them with bullets before they land.
Diehard fans of The Matrix movie trilogy won't forgive me, but perhaps it is time to put the software spinoffs out to pasture and remember the films as the pinnacle of perfection that they were.
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