Atari bets on ‘Matrix’

Vidgame a landmark change in film-based titles

HOLLYWOOD — Having bet tens of millions of dollars on creating a landmark vidgame based on “The Matrix” franchise, Infogrames unit Atari is about to start collecting some very large chips, shipping more than 4 million orders worldwide for the title for its May 15 debut, alongside the feature release of “The Matrix Reloaded.”

If all those orders sell through, as is widely expected given gamers’ breathless anticipation for “Enter the Matrix,” it will mark a retail “box office” of roughly $200 million. The game will retail for $49.99.

The movie’s writer-directors, Larry and Andy Wachowski, also are credited as the game’s writers and directors, the latter a nearly unheard-of credit in the game business. They filmed cut scenes and video for the game simultaneously with shooting of “The Matrix Reloaded” and the third feature, “Matrix Revolutions,” tapping many of the same effects, facial- and motion-capture and other technologies used in the movies.

Play roles from movie

Players can take on the role of Niobe, Jada Pinkett Smith’s movie character, or Ghost, both lesser characters in the film. Most of the film’s other performers also appear in the game, though Keanu Reeves’ Neo character appears in the game only to fight alongside Niobe and Ghost.

Early reviews have been strong, particularly regarding the hand-to-hand fighting sequences, which relied on more than 4,000 motion-captured moves. Given the title’s mass-market appeal, the game’s makers wisely opted to create a fairly accessible control scheme that allows even neophyte players to pull off flashy fight moves without resorting to arcane button combinations.

The game also includes sections where players are driving or flying, reflecting the movie’s broader range of action. The game’s story line weaves in and out of the movie’s plot, fleshing out details and backstory the movie doesn’t have time to explore.

Big risk

The joint production process has been hailed as a landmark change in the way games based on movies are made. And it involves huge expenditures by Infogrames that could badly damage the company if they don’t pay off.

The French vidgame publisher bought Shiny Entertainment, the development studio headed by movie-to-game veteran David Perry, for $47 million, largely because it was creating the game in concert with the Wachowskis.

Perry said it would be impossible to even estimate the game’s actual production costs, had it not been done in tandem with the movies, because it relied so heavily on the films’ high-end technologies and easy access to talent. Those opportunities saved many millions of dollars, he estimated.

Infogrames also is releasing the title under the Atari brand that it bought from toymaker Hasbro, in hopes of propelling the storied but long-moribund nameplate in consumers’ minds.

“Enter the Matrix” will be released in versions that will play on PCs and on the three main vidgame consoles, Sony’s PlayStation 2, Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s GameCube.

Unlike the R-rated movie, the game will carry a less restrictive rating of T (for Teen) from the ESRB, the industry body that rates vidgames for sex and violence.

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