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The Game Archaeologist jacks into The Matrix Online: The highlights

It's not every year that a movie comes along that captures the pop culture zeitgeist so powerfully and so quickly as The Matrix did. I recall lugging a few college friends along to see this in 1999 -- having heard only a few sparse details about it beforehand -- and coming out of the theater feeling as if we we'd been electrified. The bold mix of science fiction, martial arts, philosophy, action, and leather ensembles became the smash hit of the year, and a franchise was born.

And while we had great hopes that this would be this generation's Star Wars, The Matrix ultimately proved to be a lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon, impossible to recapture once unleashed. Sequels, animated shorts, video games, comic books -- none rose to the height of the original film, and eventually the franchise petered out.

During this period, an odd duck of an MMO was born: The Matrix Online. When you think about it, an online virtual world where people log in and fight against programs was a really short hop from the movie series. MxO, as it was abbreviated, was an audacious game with unique features, story-centric gameplay and a sci-fi bent in a field of fantasy competitors, and while it only lasted four years, it was enough to make a huge impression for its community.

So by popular demand, this month we're going to revisit the 1s and 0s of The Matrix Online to see just how deep the rabbit hole (and well-worn cliche) goes -- and what made this game stand out!

The concept

Instead of simply rehashing the movies by putting players in Neo's shoes, the dev team decided to continue the story by setting the game in a post-Matrix Revolutions era. When players created characters, it was with the understanding that they were escaping the illusion of the Matrix to begin living the truth. At this point, all redpills could pursue alliances with one of the game's three factions: Zion, the Machines, and the Merovingian. Each faction had its own agenda and ideas on how to best handle this brave new world, and the more missions a player ran with one, the lower his reputation would fall with the other two.

As due their status as super-powered humans, players were able to greatly increase their abilities by downloading programs and pursuing specialized classes. Players were also free to experiment with these abilities, as they could be easily swapped out and exchanged for other ones without locking characters into a permanent build.

The Matrix Online boasted two different styles of combat: ranged free fire (by which players would attack and defend in real time, as in most MMOs) and melee "interlock" (by which two players would be locked together in round-based combat). Just like in the films, everything from kung fu to machine pistols was par for the course.

A rocky start

Given how fixated Matrix fans were with symbolism, they could hardly ignore the bad omens that came during MxO's launch period. While The Matrix may have been a strong IP back in 1999, Matrix fever had dulled considerably by 2005. To make matters worse, Ubisoft backed out of its deal to co-publish the game with Warner Bros. Interactive, leaving WB on the hook until Sony Online Entertainment scooped up the title from Monolith Productions a few months after launch.

And no matter what we may have wished the game to be, the initial reviews were mixed at best. Gamespot seemed to hit it on the nose when it wrote that "The Matrix Online has some very good qualities, but you'll need to wade through a lot of potential frustrations to enjoy them."

These frustrations included buggy combat, a dearth of quest content, glitchy graphics, server lag, an unweildy interface, and low population, all of which contributed to a less-than-stellar reputation. Still, all was not lost -- at least, not right away.

Storytime

The greatest hook for the game -- there always needs to be one of these, doesn't there? -- was that the developers placed a huge emphasis on adding to the films' tale. Instead of being "B-canon" or an "extended universe" type of deal, The Matrix Online was promoted as an official continuation of the storyline, with input from the creators of the series.

This story was designed to draw players into the game on a daily basis through the use of live events, cinematics, and critical missions. The team even included a group of dedicated virtual actors who would assume the roles of Morpheus, the Oracle and other Matrix celebrities, creating stories in real time for players to experience. As the team shrunk later on in the game's lifespan, MxO players stepped up to assume these roles as volunteers.

These stories would become one of the most fondly remembered aspect of the game and an interesting experiment with developer-generated live content. Our own article written at the sunset of The Matrix Online's lifespan, related some of its author's favorite in-game events and how they elevated the game into an endangered species of sorts. Or that may just be waxing poetic. In any case, it's an enlightening read to those who never dipped their toes into MxO, so check it out!
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The end of all things

For many, the quick end of The Matrix Online was inevitable, and so it came on August 1st, 2009. SOE cited low subscription numbers as the reason it was pulling the plug on MxO, and there's no doubt that the game struggled to remain profitable in those last months.

Producer Daniel "Walrus" Myers wrote a bittersweet letter to the community when the announcement came, stating, "Now we've seen how far the rabbit hole goes and it's time to wake up from that dream (or go back to sleep, depending how you look at it). On July 31, 2009, we will be jacking out for the last time... It has been a good run. Where many games have fizzled out before or shortly after launch, by August we will have lived on in our home at SOE for more than 4 years. To this day, I have never worked with a community as dedicated as The Matrix Online community."

The final days were marked by ominous eyes in the sky, players being gifted with insanely powerful abilities, and (of course) lots and lots of dancing. If one is so inclined, there are plenty of YouTube videos out there that documented the final moments in the game, which ended with a popup box saying, "Wake up!"

As a Massively commenter wrote at the time, "MxO was the first MMO I ever played, and its deparature brings a bit of a lump to my throat. This was a good game, possibly a great game, but it suffered from awful investment; there really never was an endgame. A shame -- it could have been much more."

Gone, but not forgotten

Even though a couple of years have passed by since the shutdown, MxO fans still swap stories about their adventures navigating this unique world -- and we want to hear yours! Send in your favorite Matrix Online memory to justin@massively.com (100 words maximum, please) along with any screenshots you'd like featured in an upcoming column!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

This article was originally published on Massively.