Later this month, the next movie in The Matrix franchise hits theatres and streaming via HBO Max. But before that lands, WB and Epic Games have teamed up to bring fans something they’re calling “The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience.” So, what exactly is that? Well, it turns out it’s part campy cutscene, part QTE-filled shooter, and part open-world GTA-like exploration. It’s weird.
But also sort of awesome, and in a way that I think anyone — even folks who don’t like or care about The Matrix — can dig and enjoy. If this is the future of video game technology, I’m interested for sure.
First leaked earlier this month, The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience isn’t really a game, but it’s a lot more than just a video or interactive Flash animation. It starts with a digital Keanu Reeves talking to you about computers, The Matrix, the future of cinema, and how modern technology now allows people to create worlds that seem real. As simply stated in the teaser for the demo, “How do we know what is real?”
I’ll admit, at times it was hard to tell if I was looking at real people or fake people. Other times it was very obvious, like when it digitally morphed Keanu into a younger version of himself or changed between him and dozens of other characters, including Trinity actress Carrie-Anne Moss. The overall effect might not be breathtaking, but on a big 4K TV it’s definitely “whoa” worthy.
It’s especially impressive when compared to 2003’s intro to The Animatrix, which tried and somewhat succeeded at creating life-like humans. But this is better, and runs in real-time on a PS5. The future is wild.
Back in the demo, all the talk about technology, the nature of reality, and how we all interact with digital worlds is neat and all, but after a few minutes Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity interrupts, and teleports Neo and herself into a muscle car in the middle of a fully-rendered-UE5 city for some “sexy action.” According to her, it’s what “marketing” wanted, which surprises Neo. Trinity simply states, “Welcome to the matrix.”
It’s all a bit campy and silly, especially a part when Trinity looks at Neo and states the simulation around them is “unreal,” which made me groan. But even that’s still better than most of The Matrix Revolutions, so I’m not complaining. And it’s fun to see digital recreations of Matrix Reloaded-era Neo and Trinity hanging out flirting. Even Neo seems to miss those old days.
But this being The Matrix, gunfire soon erupts and agents give chase. The camera turns and reveals that your player character is sitting in the back seat. After a very pretty but super lousy QTE-style shooting sequence, the game drops you off into the Megacity, free to explore on foot, in a stolen car, or via a fly-around drone mode.
It’s here that this odd tech demo really starts to shine. The city is intricately detailed, with many areas looking near photorealistic. As this new character, you can run around the city freely, able to drive nearly any parked car you see, and cause massive pile-ups. (You can’t run people over; they just phase out of existence in a green-text flash.) Dotted around the city are plaques that have bits of information about the demo and its technology, or that let you tweak them. I found one that let me change the time of day to night but lost track of where it was at after a stint of racing around the city’s highways, leaving me stuck playing at night. At least it looked nice.
As with the rest of the Matrix/Unreal demo, this open-world section sports a very high level of fidelity, but it comes at a cost. I experienced numerous framerate drops while playing. It never becomes unplayable, but it does feel like this massive, simulated city and its high-quality textures and lighting effects are really pushing the PS5.
After you’re finished with its main content, the demo also lets you tweak engine and simulation settings. Like a bored god, I played with the sun in the sky, then instigated a gigantic traffic jam on the freeway. Then I turned off all the other cars and NPCs, driving around an empty city by myself. The game ran better, but I was lonely. Even the city seemed quieter, thanks to what the demo advertises as procedurally generated soundscapes.
If this cost me $US10 (A$14) or more, I’d be disappointed and frustrated. But as a free digital toy, it works perfectly. Yes, this is also a giant, interactive ad for a new movie, but oddly, the new film barely gets referenced. While zooming around, it’s honestly easy to forget the real reason this collaboration exists. (Capitalism, baby!)
So, yes, that Matrix demo from The Game Awards is pretty cool. It’s available now for free on PS5 and Xbox Series X/S. I give it about two hours before someone uses footage from this to create a fake GTA6 video on TikTok or Twitter.