Pop-culture pundits generally fall into two camps: those who think entertainment encourages a nation of knuckle-draggers, and those who say it's actually making us smarter.
In the case of Atari's The Matrix: Path of Neo, both sides have a point. Like the movie trilogy that inspired it, Path of Neo is both innovative and trite, enjoyable and insufferable. Also like the trilogy, only one-third of the game passes muster: The rest is messier than Courtney Love at a Friars Club Roast.
The game casts you in the role of Neo and loosely follows the events of the films, recreating their most vivid scenes — including the famed lobby gunfight. After you escape your fraudulent cubicle existence, you'll start training with Morpheus and eventually do battle against a horde of Agent Smiths in a spectacular urban showdown in the rain.
Throughout your journey to become “the one,” you'll gain special powers that let you do nifty things like stop bullets, run up walls, and crack heads from 40 feet in the air. About the only thing you can't do is turn Keanu Reeves into a believable actor.
With groundbreaking fight sequences and a complex plot, the first Matrix proved that mass entertainment could be fun and smart. But the second and third movies were clunky vehicles for sophomoric philosophy. Behind the sunglasses and pan-Asian cool, the sequels were about as deep as your average college bull session.
The same is true for Path of Neo. The game claims to explore untold moments from the films, but that never really happens. Sure, you run into several new characters with inflated monikers like “The Healer,” but the characters are as shallow as they are uncreatively named. If only “The Scriptwriter” would make an appearance and do some actual work.
The numbing montages between levels are a similar mishmash. Except for Laurence Fishburne, Atari couldn't persuade the original actors to voice new lines for the game. Instead, the developer borrows dialogue from all three movies to create laughable, out-of-context exchanges between characters.
Even so, the Wachowski brothers, who wrote and directed Path of Neo, manage to provide a few glimmers of the panache they displayed in their first film. Early levels deliver wonderful homages to the films of John Woo and Kurosawa, including a gorgeous black-and-white samurai scene in which the characters speak Japanese. It's an atmospheric and stylish piece of work.
And style is one thing that the Wachowski brothers have figured out. Just like their movies, this game is awash in that distinct Matrix feel: dark and spooky, modern and atavistic — all underwritten with pulsing green code.
Unfortunately, style without substance is the Wachowskis' biggest handicap. Take a level modeled after an M.C. Escher lithograph. With inverted floors and staircases leading nowhere, it's a breathtaking sight, especially in the interactive environment of a videogame.
But instead of a challenging puzzle, the level serves merely as eye candy. It demands only that you search your immediate vicinity for a door.
Which is why you'll be looking to exit the Matrix long before its heavily hyped ending — which actually has pixelated versions of the Wachowski brothers show up to explain their thinking in adding a new ending for the videogame. Yes, it is as lame as it sounds.
It all leaves you wondering: If the Wachowskis are so smart, why do they insist on treating their audience like idiots?