With Doctor Who fever back in full swing as the new series has hit TV screens, the first volume now on Blu-ray and DVD, and merchandising no doubt hitting saturation point by Christmas with those new garish Dalek designs at Toys ‘R’ Us everywhere, it was just a matter of time before the BBC dipped their toes into the gaming market again to let kids play as The Doctor. In the first instalment of this episodic game series, titled ‘City of the Daleks’, The Doctor takes new companion Amy Pond to visit ’60s London to check out The Beatles, but without the gift of kevlar for John Lennon. Stepping out of the TARDIS, they discover a destroyed, post-apocalyptic London overrun by Daleks. It’s up to the player, jumping into the roles of The Doctor and Amy, to explore a section of London and the Dalek home planet, figure out why the timeline is broken, set things right and dump the Daleks in the nearest recycling bin along the way.
The game is fundamentally a simplified, more colourful Metal Gear Solid with Daleks, with players sneaking The Doctor through ruins and handily-placed barricades as Amy follows along, dodging the path of the enemies’ cone of vision as they go. At first the stealth sections are incredibly forgiving, with the player able to get The Doctor close enough to Daleks that he could just attach ‘I Heart Timelords’ fridge magnets to their metal butts without being noticed (alas, that’s not part of the gameplay). As the game wears on, Dalek patrols become more crowded, locations become more labyrinthine and it’s tough to walk a few steps without being zapped to atoms. Along the way, you’ll fetch items or solve puzzles, which are sometimes as simple as using the sonic screwdriver on locked doors, while other times proving slightly more complex, like completing a minigame to gain access to a security system. The characters are controlled either by mouse (with The Doctor’s viewpoint changed by shifting the mouse around, clicking the right button to walk/run, and left clicking to interact), by keyboard, or a combination of the two. While often a tad unresponsive, the controls mostly work fine.
Though the animated versions of The Doctor and Amy have no hope of capturing the energy of Matt Smith’s manic, lively performance from the show, nor the chemistry of his and Karen Gillan’s on-screen dialogue, the likenesses are incredibly good. To cover all bases and make sure as many people can play it as possible, the graphics, with diverse and suitably detailed environments, thankfully aren’t taxing enough to make any computers combust. There are a few different display settings hidden in the options menu to scale down the detail should you need to. Though my PC – which usually emits a robotic shriek of pain and anguish while threatening to implode if I ask it to do anything more taxing than opening Wordpad – handled the higher detail settings just fine.
Smith and Gillan both provide the voice acting for their characters, and far from following the usual film/TV-to-game trend of actors sleepwalking lifelessly through their recorded dialogue, the two do a wonderful job, injecting a tonne of life and enthusiasm into their performances. Despite the writing not matching the show’s usual standard for humour or the story equalling any of Doctor Who’s best entries, The Adventure Games has an impressive pedigree, with writing by James Moran (Severance, Doctor Who episode ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, Torchwood episodes ‘Sleeper’ and ‘Day Three’) and Phil Ford (Who’s ‘The Waters of Mars’, Torchwood’s ‘Something Borrowed’) and with game design by Charles Cecil (Beneath a Steel Sky and Broken Sword). The story itself is entertaining and a great deal more substantial than the usual game adaptation fare, though the dialogue is largely average considering the talent assembled.
Unfortunately while the story is entertaining enough to warrant your time, the gameplay often isn’t; it’s the overuse of minigames that eats away much of the enjoyment of the game. The game puzzles include an infuriating segment in which you must drag Dalek components with the mouse through an electrified maze to drop it in the correct slot. To give an idea of what it’s like, picture one of those kids’ toys where you have to move a looped wand around a coil of wire, but touching the wire sets off a buzzer and you have to start over. You know the toy – the one your aunt got you for Christmas when you were 8, and it was the best thing in the history of forever for about 11 seconds, after which time you wished a thousand lifetimes of hellish torment upon her for bringing such a nightmarish contraption of misery and frustration into your life. It’s a woefully tedious mini-game, made infinitely more aggravating by the lack of a tiny chapter system – with three components to creep into their slots, it can take a while, but fail one and it’ll reset, so you’ll have to put them all back in again. It’s a tiresome segment that grinds the game to halt, leaves your finger hovering over the ‘Quit Game’ button, and is made all the more annoying since it comprises such a large part of the puzzles and gameplay.
Thankfully there’s a little diversity in the minigames though, and the others fare much better – one’s a ‘match coloured wires to coloured holes using the right path’ test, while another is a mix of Tetris and rhythm games in which a track of symbols glides by on a monitor and you must pick the corresponding symbol from a choice of many, rotating it to match before the symbol track gets too far. They’re more refreshing and forgiving than the torture of the maze game, but it’s unfortunate that no real effort is made to provide any real gameplay beyond minigames. Item puzzles amount to nothing more than using the sonic screwdriver on things, or trekking across the area on a ‘fetch the item’ quest, which can be a boring trial-and-error wander thanks to the lack of a map. There’s potential for challenging and intelligent gameplay and puzzles, but the designers seemingly took the simplest route, either by laziness or to hit the younger market. Though it may be a game largely make with kids in mind, children are (hopefully) smart enough to want more from their games than tiresome minigames and simplistic puzzles.
Having said that, there are a few surprisingly clever gameplay ideas on display, but they’re unfortunately rendered a bit hollow in practice. A temporal paradox threatens to prevent Amy from being born, causing her to begin fading from existence, which helpfully also gives her the power of invisibility for short periods of time, allowing her to sneak past Daleks unnoticed. It’s a really smart way to give Amy a unique gameplay ability without resorting to eye-rolling ‘she fell in some magic Dalek goo’ explanations, but unfortunately her invisibility happens randomly and sporadically, and when factoring having to time movements to Dalek patrol schedules already, her power is never much use at all. Another nice addition are the collectibles which, thought they don’t add much, are a fun range of historical facts centred around the ’60s London setting and character info from various Doctor Who villains and characters.
A wealth of care and attention has clearly gone into ensuring that Doctor Who: The Adventure Games is more rewarding and entertaining than the average game adaptation cash-in, and with energetic voice acting, a fun, involving story and some clever touches, there’s a lot to like about the game. Kids especially will likely have a great time playing it, but it’s just a shame more time wasn’t spend making the gameplay equally as fun and challenging without relying on simplistic, frustrating minigames. For a free game (at least in the UK), it’s hard not to forgive a lot of the issues, but as it stands, we can only hope that later instalments improve on the potential here, while wondering how great it would be if Stephen Moffat and Telltale Games joined forces for a more substantial Doctor Who adventure.
Doctor Who: The Adventure Games – Episode 1: City of the Daleks is now available in the UK on PC and hits the Mac on June 15th.
Click here to head over to the BBC website to download it.