The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience is an astonishing glimpse into the future of video game graphics. That much I expected, but here's what surprised me: this technical demo is strangely touching in its message and presentation, particularly for any of you who are old enough to remember watching The Matrix back in 1999. And perhaps more surprising, is how The Matrix Awakens inadvertently highlights the limitations of play as we know them today.
If The Matrix Awakens proves anything – a free download is available right now for PS5 and Xbox Series X – it's that we are now staring down the barrel of photorealism. This Unreal Engine 5 experience isn't hovering on the purview of the uncanny valley so much as it is diving straight into it, particularly in the moments where a pristinely rendered 57-year old Keanu Reeves breaks the fourth wall to walk us through digital recreations of the Matrix's most famous sets. It looks good, it looks weird, and it made me a little uncomfortable – it's interactive storytelling operating at a level of visual fidelity that we've never seen before.
Into the past
"In an industry where actors have tried to remain perpetually young," Reeves says, before his character model seamlessly shifts to Reeves looking just as he did when Neo helped us question where the digital age might take cinema 22 years ago, "we wondered about digital faces that can become immortal."
It's at this point that Carrie-Anne Moss shows up. "20 years ago we asked ourselves how long it would be before faces and bodies could be changed as easily as we change clothes… and what would reality be when a world we can build feels as real as our own?"
Then The Matrix Awakens transforms into a nostalgia rush I wasn't quite prepared for, allowing us to ride shotgun with a de-aged Trinity and Neo as they banter back-and-forth like it's 1999 again, all while engaged in a high-speed chase through a dense and beautifully detailed urban cityscape. It's a visually astonishing sequence, showing characters that exist exclusively in the past running lines that were never committed to tape – filmed with a quality of camera that simply didn't exist at the time.
"I sometimes miss this version of us," Neo whispers, leaning in towards Trinity. "...Me too," she responds with a hesitant smirk. I'm not crying – you're crying.
Exploring the uncanny valley
If you go to the official The Matrix Awakens website, text scrawls across the screen that asks us to "step into a world where anything is possible." It's funny then, that once we are granted control over this technical demo for Unreal Engine 5, we're only able to shoot things on-rails until they explode – the same offering video games presented when developers made the transition to 3D back in the '90s.
We take control of a character I can't say I recognise from any of the original trilogy films or promotional material from The Matrix Resurrections, who bites back at Neo that "I was told that this was a sim preparing me to fight the system." "Right on," he responds, before flying off toward the horizon.
It's at this point that we shoot at tires with a massive handgun until approaching cars explode or roll into incoming traffic. It's an ostentatious chase sequence that you could imagine Sony using to sell a new generation of PlayStation console a decade ago; no depth, all sizzle. The coolest part of this entire sequence is as you take aim at the various Agent Johnsons leaping between cars, the bonnets buckle under his weight. Firing at the Agents will force them to shift around the trajectory of your bullets in real-time – a famous effect from the movies, but one I can't say that I've seen so accurately rendered in-game, in real-time, before.
The Matrix Awakens is weird in that it's undoubtedly the best looking interactive experience on PS5 and Xbox Series X, but it plays just as something on the PS1 or original Xbox might have done. This is just a tech presentation, sure, one designed to showcase the underlying capabilities of Unreal Engine 5, but it's telling that the language of play used to demo such a host of innovations is so dated.
We already knew from seeing the 'Lumen in the Land of Nanite' demo from May 2020 that Unreal Engine 5 could push visual boundaries. The Matrix Awakens only confirms that, particularly as the Lumen 'dynamic global illumination and reflections', Nanite 'virtualized geometry', and MetaHuman 'next generation digital human' innovations are shown off alongside Mass AI and World Partition systems – showcasing the way UE 5 can govern large realistic crowds and the speed in which content can now be streamed into the player's eyeline in an open world setting. It's truly impressive, and I honestly can't wait to see the first wave of video games embracing Unreal Engine 5.
However, at some point, developers are going to have to reckon with how technology like Unreal Engine 5 can be used to help push the boundaries of play. Maybe a tech demo like The Matrix Awakens isn't the right venue for that – it almost definitely isn't – but that isn't to say that I'm not eagerly looking forward to seeing it. The Matrix lets us "step into a world where anything is possible" and given the quality of the visual experience here, I'd loved to have seen that sentiment reflected in the way we could interact with this world as well.
After the chase sequence, you'll be dropped into a sprawling cityscape. I let the character linger statically for longer than I'm comfortable admitting, thinking I was watching another in-engine cutscene, only to eventually realise that I could take control. "Holy shit," I said aloud, "this looks ridiculous."
And it does look ridiculous. Interaction is limited, but you're able to walk, drive, and fly around the map – inspecting points of interest to learn more about the tech making it all possible. But honestly, I just found myself slowly walking block by block, seeing the sights and considering the possibilities.
What would GTA 6 look like in a world as densely detailed like this? Watch Dogs Legion was the last open world game I played in a modern urban environment, but how improved would its immersion be were it able to stretch across a space as realistic as this? The thing I thought about for hours after I walked away from The Matrix Awakens: what would it take for PlayStation Studios to resurrect The Getaway and create a sequel in Unreal Engine 5… I can't answer that, but I know that I need to play it.
While walking down these immaculately rendered streets, it's easy for your mind to wander. This UE5 tech demo gives us but a glimpse as to what will be possible in the near future and I can't wait to see what developers are able to deliver once they start experimenting with the technology. Honestly, the results could be utterly unreal – disconcerting and awe-inspiring in equal measure. Then again, it is as Trinity says in The Matrix Awakens with a knowing grin: "It's all supposed to be a little… Unreal."
If the Matrix has taught us anything after all these years, it's that the future always is.