By MATT SLAGLE
AP Technology Writer
A brief reintroduction for those still scratching their heads after "The Matrix Revolutions": When we last saw Neo, aka The One, he made a truce with the evil machines and saved the last bastion of humanity in the underground city of Zion.
A revised Matrix was formed after the renegade, replicating Agent Smith was defeated, and we saw the machines carting off Neo's corpse to points unknown. Did he die? And what about all those people still unwittingly serving as batteries for the machines?
That's just part of the murky mystery in "The Matrix Online," where players can choose to ally with the Machines, the Exiles or residents of Zion for control of the new system.
"Nobody is sure how long this truce will last. The theme for the first year is peace and the things people will do to screw it up," said writer Paul Chadwick, who was chosen by "Matrix" creators Larry and Andy Wachowski to keep the game's story moving forward.
There are "red pills," humans who can freely enter the Matrix with some limits, while the remaining "blue pills" still have no idea they've been duped into living in a simulated world.
Writing the story for such a never-ending online game where hundreds can gather at once was among the biggest challenges, said Chadwick, creator of the Concrete comics in which a man's brain is transplanted into a hulking stone body by aliens.
"You can't really hold everybody's attention on the same spot at the same time, so you've got to spray story at them from four different directions," he said. "I think I finally got the hang of that. There will be story happening all over the place."
Many key characters from the films make a return, including Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Merovingian (Lambert Wilson).
The movies were a dystopian vision of the future, and that certainly continues in the video game version.
The kung fu combat and gravity-defying battles take place in the same steel-gray world of towering skyscrapers and urban grit called MegaCity.
It's not all dreariness, though - there are plenty of opportunities for aspiring fashion designers, says lead game designer Toby Ragaini.
Once you enter the Matrix, players can fully customize their characters, selecting gender, hair style, body shape, tattoos and clothing. Lots and lots of clothing.
There's gothic garb galore, with snake skin body suits, reflective sunglasses, hats - and the trademark black trench coats.
"One thing we can offer is a sense of cool," Chadwick said.
Another game in the so-called "massively multiplayer" genre, "City of Heroes," takes place in a city full of superheroes, but most are sword and sorcery epics filled with dungeons and dragons.
Like its competitors, "The Matrix Online" is PC only, costing $50 plus a $15 monthly subscription fee.
Ragaini says "The Matrix Online" should appeal to "people who are never going to be interested in dwarfs and orcs. It's a contemporary urban fantasy."
Such online games are notorious time sinks, requiring hour after hour of secluded devotion to advance.
Ragaini says that's one of the things he tried to overcome.
"A lot of people just don't have two-, three-hour periods of time to devote to games," he said. "We decided it was important that players be able to complete a narrative experience in a half hour."
Chadwick isn't worried that the critical backlash over the last two films, "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions," would affect the game version.
"I have to speak up for the sequels. `Reloaded' is my favorite. I think they are going to go through a Stanley Kubrick cycle," he said. "I think the critical consensus will warm up to the trilogy as a whole in the next few years."
And what of the almighty Neo? Will we see him again?
"In the game, Morpheus finds himself without the great quest of his life. He wonders why the machines won't return Neo's body," Chadwick said. "A lot of people have different ideas. Maybe he's still alive? Rumors are a big part of our story."
Matrix Online .