THE MATRIX ONLINE, Warner Bros. Interactive/Sega/Monolith
If you thought the Matrix saga ended after the third film, you must be unfamiliar with how movie marketing works these days. Both the story and the selling will continue for a while yet -- fortunately, though, this tie-in can stand on its own. Consider it redemption for the wretched Enter the Matrix, rushed through development to hit stores in time for the third flick's release.
In this massively multiplayer online game (which costs $15 a month to play after the first month), you start by creating a character after his or her awakening from the Matrix. First you pick from 10 not-that-different combinations of gender, race, body type and clothing (think skinny white girl, skinny Asian girl, skinny black girl, followed by skinny white guy, skinny Asian guy, skinny black guy). Then you're given a somewhat random balance of five attributes -- perception, focus, reason, belief and vitality -- that in turn casts your character in one of three roles. Operatives do the fighting, Hackers create viruses to attack the Matrix, and Coders build items for other players to use.
After that, the game deposits you in Matrix MegaCity, split into Downtown, International, Barrens and Slums areas and teeming with life throughout -- moving traffic, kids playing and pedestrians walking about. Some of these people, called Contacts, can give you assignments, but most of your missions come from your Controller via your trusty cell phone. You begin by working exclusively for Zion, but as you complete tasks and start making a name for yourself, other parties, such as the Machines and the Merovingian, will seek out your services -- while opposing factions and Agents attempt to track you down and destroy you.
As in the films, most combat is hand-to-hand. The game's battle system comprises four basic tactics (speed attack, power attack, grab and block) and a few special tricks, all of which need to be linked together properly to defeat an enemy. In some circumstances, you can also encounter melee and firearm attacks, and in higher levels you can engage Bullet Time, the slow-motion phase that lets you dodge or even stop bullets in flight.
The developers say that the Matrix Online will also feature live events that let players compete with actual Matrix characters, such as Morpheus, the Oracle and Seraph. In the meantime, both the voices and likenesses of movie actors Lawrence Fishburne, Monica Bellucci and Mary Alice grace the game, lending it an extra touch of authenticity. -- Tom Ham
Win 2000 or newer, $50, plus $15/month subscription
TIMESPLITTERS: FUTURE PERFECT, Electronic Arts
Some games create or redefine genres (see: Doom, GoldenEye, Halo). Too many others simply follow the formulas set by the first category. Then there are games like TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, which are too busy poking fun to try to innovate -- an approach that, in this case, mostly works.
The third installment in the TimeSplitters series, Future Perfect patches its predecessors' biggest flaw by connecting its various levels with an actual storyline. In this case you play Cortez, a Vin Diesel-like action hero trying to unravel a time-travel mystery and save the future. The premise allows the game to set levels in different times, playing up multiple games and films along the way -- Medal of Honor, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Alien and Aliens, James Bond and Austin Powers and Terminator, to name a few. It also allows Cortez to cooperate periodically with future and past versions of himself, one of the game's more clever touches.