Image: "Matrix Online" screenshot
Monolith Productions / Warner Bros.
A non-player character named Forge, at left, gives some advice to Astrolo, Alan's virtual-reality persona in "The Matrix Online." Windows offer a chat transcript and status reports.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 3/18/2005 4:40:26 PM ET 2005-03-18T21:40:26

Just my rotten luck: The first day I jacked into the Matrix was the very day that renegade Agents were taking over the world — and to top it off, there was a nasty flame virus going around. Freshly minted redpills like myself were on fire, running around all over the place.

It took only three minutes for the flames to turn me into a puddle of vaporized computer code.

My only consolation was that the producers of "The Matrix Online," the immersive role-playing game based on the "Matrix" movie series, were getting flamed as well.

"I don't want to die in the middle of this," senior producer Joe Ybarra said during a guided tour of The City. A couple of minutes later, Ybarra — or rather, his computer-generated character, CaptNemo — fell to the ground, dead.

Making its debut
To be fair, this was the last day of the beta test for "The Matrix Online," and the game masters added some special tricks for players who have been immersing themselves for up to eight months in the virtual world of The City. After ironing out the bugs, the game makes its official debut Tuesday — although those who pre-ordered the game get a head start this weekend.

Like other massively multiplayer online role-playing games, known as MMORPGs or MMOs for short, "The Matrix Online" lets visitors choose from a range of physical attributes, skills, clothes and possessions that define their online personas. If those characters survive, they become more and more adept, gain more play money and unravel more secrets of the game. And if they don't? Well, they can always jack in again.

The MMO world has gotten crowded of late, and jacking in isn't cheap: Players must first buy the PC software (sorry, Mac fans) for $49.99 and then subscribe to the game service for $14.99 a month.

But the companies behind the latest Matrix — including Sega, Warner Bros. and Monolith Productions, the Bellevue-based game development company where Ybarra works — are banking on the cool factor to distinguish them from the likes of "EverQuest" and "World of Warcraft."

The "Matrix Online" makers hope users will be attracted to the cachet that comes from doing wire-fu and hanging out at nightclubs rather than swinging swords and waving wands.

"We're a modern game," Ybarra said. "We're trying to be hip and fashionable. We're the Matrix."

Picking up the storyline
"Matrix Online" picks up the storyline of the film trilogy — and in fact, the game might help some filmgoers figure out the murky plot of the two latter movies.

Image: Flame virus
Monolith / Warner Bros.
A virtual-reality character in "Matrix Online" succumbs to the flame virus.
To recap: Machines have subjugated most of the world's human population as a bioenergy source, and keep them docile by feeding them an illusion known as the Matrix. There are some human holdouts who have awakened to the post-apocalyptic real world (by taking "the red pill" in the Matrix) and live in an underground refuge called Zion. Fighters venture out to mix it up with the machines, in the real world as well as in the virtual-reality Matrix.

Aided by Zion's freedom fighters, a messiah named Neo fights off a virtual-reality villain named Agent Smith and brings about a truce with the machines. In the process, Neo goes through real-world death ... or does he??

With the blessings of the Wachowski brothers, who conceived of the Matrix saga, comic-book creator Paul Chadwick has written a year's worth of "Matrix Online" scripts for developing the story arc from here. The game re-creates the gritty, Gothic city that's the focus of the Matrix films, right down to the subways, the teleporting phone booths and the dark-alley hangouts.

How the game is played
Players can join up with the humans from Zion, the machine operatives or a faction of in-betweeners known as the Exiles. After a tutorial, you jack into the Matrix and encounter other online players — as well as "non-player characters" who can help or hinder you in missions to advance the cause of your faction.

You can use kung-fu or machine guns against your foes, varying your tactics in real time. You can even download new abilities on the fly. During my guided tour earlier this week, Ybarra and his sparring partner, Angel Sisson, even spawned a couple of "simulacra" to turn their match into a two-against-two street fight.

As you gain experience, your fighting moves look more like they would in the movies. "The goal is to make the combat cinematic," Ybarra said.

However, befitting the game's T for Teen rating, there's comparatively little gore: When foes are vanquished, they slowly dissolve into a jumble of green computer code.

The piece de resistance is "bullet time", the slow-motion effect that became the signature of the "Matrix" movies. "Bullet time comes up when you do something extraordinary, and that can come at any time," Ybarra said.

Building community
The game's developers recognize the key to the success of "The Matrix Online" will lie in the development of an online community that will keep subscribers jacking in — not just to take on the virtual bad guys, but also to hang out with the in crowd. During the eight-month beta period, groups of players such as the Furious Angels came up with intricate back stories, stylish uniforms, a music video and even a grueling mental test for would-be initiates.

Sisson, an associate producer with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, said some of the beta testers jacked in to enjoy the virtual nightlife. "I've been to a club where there were 300 players inside, all of them just emoting and dancing — with some of them acting as bouncers for the club," he said.

Players can keep up with the latest gossip — for example, whether that was really Morpheus sighted on a city street — by consulting the "Matrix Online" bulletin boards, tuning into Radio Free Zion and reading The Sentinel, a tongue-in-cheek newspaper distributed within the game. The lead headline on the day I died was "Cops: It Isn't Morpheus."

Not all is what it seems: Ybarra hinted that there were stories within stories that would develop over the coming weeks and months. In fact, if the Furious Angels or some other group stands out in the online play, "we'll put them into the storyline," he said.

The real real world
"The Matrix Online" can leak into the real real world as well. For example, players' clothes are modeled on Rocaware fashions that can be purchased at stores as well as in the virtual world.

"We've hit upon something that no one ever has," Sisson said with a laugh, "the fact that women are running around doing missions just to accumulate cash so they can buy more clothes."

Image: Character data
Monolith Productions / Warner Bros.
A status panel lets you check on the abilities of your "Matrix Online" character and even the clothes that you've selected.
What's more, players can use AOL Instant Messenger to communicate with friends who are outside the game, and vice versa.

"No one's ever done this before," Sisson said. "You can look at your buddy list and see you have friends who are currently playing. So you keep looking at the clock and you say, 'OK, at lunchtime, I'm jacking in and we'll take out some Exiles.'"

The online Matrix is still missing some features from the movies, however. For example, the characters can't drive vehicles. "The decision was made not to support that at launch, simply because of the sheer amount of technology it takes to do that," Ybarra said.

For similar reasons, Zion itself isn't seen in the game, and the characters are limited to hand-to-hand combat or gunbattles. More features, including virtual vehicles, swords and axes, will be uploaded as time goes on, Ybarra said.

How high is the risk that "Matrix Online" will flame out, like my virus-stricken character?

If the launch is successful, the game's developers intend to keep the storyline moving forward for years to come. This, they hope, will keep them from treading the same path as "Enter the Matrix," an earlier effort that turned the saga into a more traditional video game without the online role-playing component.

"We expect we'll do much better," Ybarra said.

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