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The Matrix Awakens Hands-on Preview

The Matrix Awakens An Unreal Engine 5 Experience is a mixture of advertisement for the upcoming Matrix film and tech demo for the Unreal Engine 5. There is very little actual game here and has more in common with something like P.T. than offering a substantial experience. While it is painfully obvious that this is a commercial; it is admittedly a very impressive and impactful commercial.

As of December 2021, there has yet to be a single game released that uses Unreal Engine 5 and The Matrix Awakens PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S owners a glimpse of what could be on the horizon. This tech demo has some of the most impressive visuals and technology used to realize a massive, photo-realistic city.

This is a preview coupled with a supplemental video preview. The video preview is pure gameplay and meant to give an idea of how the game looks and plays.

The accuracy of facial capture and and lighting is so convincing, it is easy to mistake it for movie-quality CGI and in some instances be completely tricked into believing the imagery is real. In this regard, using The Matrix as a backdrop for a simulated, computer generated setting with countless NPCs, makes perfect sense and is on brand with the themes of the film; “what is real?”.

The demo begins with Keanu Reeves himself talking to the viewer about the themes of The Matrix films and how the movies pushed the envelope of special effects. An almost invisible edit happens and without even realizing it, you’re looking at a near perfect CGI Keanu Reeves.

Carrie Anne Moss shows up, looking pretty good for an old woman and she explains how digital actors would become a thing of the future. The demo multiplies Carrie and uses her mocap data to show how it can be applied to any model. The actors are both digitally de-aged and look exactly like how they did back in 1999.

The effect is achieved without any uncanny valley weirdness and is utterly seamless. It is possible that the developers had access to the CGI models used for the original film and touched them up. Minutia in the lighting and expression is very natural looking that it is almost scary.

The Matrix Awakens kicks things into overdrive with a highly entertaining, bombastic car chase with agents chasing the heroes. This is where the experience becomes disappointing: the player assumes the role of IO, an insufferable new character from Resurrections. Ironic that The Matrix Awakens makes the same mistake that Enter The Matrix made in 2003.

As IO, shooting out pursuing agents means aiming for their vehicle tires. There is no skill involved since all targeting is as deep as making a selection on a menu. IO will automatically aim at whatever tire is selected and sometimes will do a QTE.

Nobody wants to play as IO. The developers went through the trouble of getting Keanu and Carrie and neither are playable. Every wants to play as Neo, and yet again, the only time players got to play as him was in Path of Neo. This was a missed opportunity to show off other technical aspects of Unreal 5. Neo could do all kinds of things and none of it is tapped into for the tech demo.

The shoot out on the road showcases a lot of explosive action. Flurries of sparks and metallic parts shower the screen as cars explode into fireballs. The agents also have their signature bullet-dodging effect and seeing it achieved in a video game in real-time is otherworldly.

Sadly, certain effects from the films were not captured. Things like the flexing environment that occurred at the end of the first movie is not represented and the rippling architecture also does not make the cut. The car damage is very convincing and when controlling a vehicle, the weight and physics feels very close to what is expected from a AAA production.

Camera effects like motion blur and depth of field is nothing new, but The Matrix Awakens shows just how far it has come. There is no visible banding to break the illusion and the overall impression is perfectly seamless. It is not perfect though; while roaming around the sandbox city, there is some instances of ghosting from the NPCs, but that could just be a glitch in the matrix.

After the car chase, The Matrix Awakens lets players loose in a vast city to explore. IO can’t do much outside of steal cars and go into a free-camera mode. Through out the city are plaques that explain various details about the technical aspects of the city and some that allow users to tweak the environment’s parameters.

Changing the day to night completely changes the atmosphere of the city. The cold tones of the day shift to an inviting and warm golden glow that feels inviting. In some angles, the setting looks completely convincing and real. The game’s menu also allows other options like controlling the position of the sun and even the option to toggle on or off the matrix green filter.

The free-camera mode, is extremely generous with how far it can be taken. From having your face right into the street’s asphalt, to taking the POV all the way into the sky- far above any sky scraper; the vast draw distance shows no visible culling.

Close-ups on the various objects show an unbelievable attention to detail. Parking meters are especially realistic and have the appropriate wear, signs of age and use. The smallest text is completely readable and is rendered in a very high resolution, with no indications of pixelation.

The photo mode options have all the standard parameters to adjust. It is not quite at the level of Ghost of Tsushima where players could control for weather and falling particles. The Matrix Awakens still manages to impress with the various f-stops and unparalleled range the camera can be taken.

Free-camera mode does have limitations like when reverting back to control of IO, the environment restricts where she is able to go. Trying to spawn her on top of a building or on a highway will take the player to the nearest ground level surface instead, so don’t bother trying to get vast city views with IO in the shot.

Wen not zooming around in the free-camera mode, IO is able to naturally steal any parked car. Driving and crashing is the best way to truly stress test The Matrix Awakens to its absolute limit. Getting into a sports car and putting the pedal to the medal, hitting the triple digits on the odometer while speeding down a packed freeway cripples the usually high frame rate.

Crashing the vehicles looks about as impressive as anything seen in the Burnout games. The level of damage and physics used, combined with the loud and layered crunch makes the sensation feel satisfying. Sadly, there are no ramps and there is no way to careen off the dock and send IO to a watery grave either.

After about 20 to 30 minutes of aimless wandering and sight-seeing, The Matrix Awakens‘s novelty wears off and the desire for something of substance takes over. Unreal Engine 5 certainly does show a lot of promise for games to come that use this technology, but with almost every future Unreal Engine 5 game in the works all looking alike, the future looks homogenous.

Unreal Engine 5 is probably going to be the best game engine available to developers. It has a seemingly endless possibilities… so long as the game being developed with these tools aims for a realistic style.

The Matrix Awakens tech demo is now available for Xbox Series X via the Xbox Store and for PlayStation 5 via the PlayStation Store. The Matrix Resurrections is premiering on December 22nd, worldwide.

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A youth destined for damnation.