Released to coincide with the VGA Awards, The Matrix Awakens – full title, ‘The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience’ – sits somewhere in the Venn diagram of free, playable demo, advert and technical showcase. That might sound off-putting or baffling, but you shouldn’t be deterred: this is a milestone piece of software that you should immediately boot up if you have next gen hardware, specifically a PC, Xbox Series X|S or a PlayStation 5.  

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It’s split into three parts. The first part is a bit of showboating from Epic. This is an opening cinematic that plays an extremely expensive game of spot-the-difference. Using the talents of Matrix stars Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne-Moss, it flits between actual footage of the actors and their Unreal 5 counterparts. The intention is pretty obvious: Epic wants to show off how realistic their characters can be in the engine. It’s impressive, if not completely foolproof. You’ll be able to spot distinct differences – we’re not in The Matrix quite yet – but it’s enough to make you puff out your cheeks and nod your head.

We weren’t as taken with the efforts to replicate the younger versions of the actors. Perhaps because Epic only have some grainy 1999 footage to work from, the younger versions of these actors have a lizard-like sheen to the skin and the old ‘wonky lip syndrome’ that plagues so many of these waxworks. It’s a step on from some of the recent Marvel and Star Wars attempts to do the same, but not by much.

The second third of The Matrix Awakens is an on-rails shooter. And we really do mean on-rails. You’re making a getaway in the back of a car, with a pack of Agents attempting to jump you. You have no control of the car, and you don’t have much control of the reticule either: you are firing at the wheels and characters, locked on to them as you do so. If we’re being unkind, it feels like a wheel-shooting simulator, which isn’t a fantasy we needed satisfying. 

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But that would be missing the point. This is some light interaction as an excuse to show off Unreal 5’s ability to handle action, moving on from the glossy character shots in the blinding white of The Matrix’s lobby. And the action is stupendous. While there are a couple of glitches in the Matrix – explosions and the deformation of some of the environment, like collapsing bridges, aren’t believable – it’s an adrenaline-fuelling little section that introduces tension simply because you’re marvelling at the action when you should be participating in it. It can all get a bit distracting. 

As it turns out, the real killer app of The Matrix Awakens is neither the first or second third of the game. What you really need to experience is the final moments of the demo. 

Preceded by some fascinating demonstrations of Unreal 5’s advances with AI, pixel rendering and lighting, as you are given dioramas with the ability to switch off and on elements with the touch of the button, you are eventually put into a fabricated city and this is where things get truly unreal. Or hyper-real.

You are given control of a character who can switch immediately into a drone, but it’s the city that will blow you away. This is a significant expanse for you to explore – a city that’s easily big enough to house an open world game. If you’re like us, you will accelerate the drone to the far corners of the map to see what’s there, and the city is largely bounded by water, but there are enough unique features to make you wonder how it was done. Is this using Google Earth or a similar feature? Even from a content creation perspective, it’s impressive.

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Dotted about the city are plaques that detail the effort that has gone into the city. But it’s when you bust out the menus that things get whickety-whack. With a real-time feed of all the computations in the background, you can adjust AI, visual and audio effects on the fly and see them play out near-immediately in the city. It’s a hell of a tinker toy, and it shows how much of a marvel Unreal 5 is. It can mass-produce cities in seconds, and the opportunities for larger scale, open world titles is clear. 

It’s not all perfect. When moving at speed with the drone, certain aspects of the environment have trouble keeping up. Railings on balconies blur and contort. Windows and windscreens can’t quite handle the sun’s reflection and flicker unrealistically. But train your eye to not look for these things, and the city is almost inseparable from a real city. The mind boggles at what a Watch Dogs, Spider-man or Infamous could do with this toolset. It’s impossible not to think about the potential as you enjoy the final third of The Matrix Awakens. 

Time will tell whether this is considered to be a milestone demo, but the initial read is that it absolutely could be. The city that it lets you loose in is undeniably gobsmacking, and we suspect this is what it will be remembered for. So, if you have a next gen platform and fancy a peek into the future – or, at least, the Matrix – then we fully recommend giving this a download and play. 

You can download The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience from the Xbox Store for free right now. 

What did you think of The Matrix Awakens and Unreal Engine 5? We’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below and on our social channels.

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