Cards on the table; interests declared beforehand; bribes quietly taken in a back-alley: I fucking love Doctor Who. As a character and a personality, he’s a constantly evolving, infinitely faceted character both instantly lovable and eternally distant. As a series, the recent(ish) reboot has done a fantastic job of keeping the stories fresh, episodes individually vibrant and the over-arching plot gripping. Of course it’s far from perfect, but for me, the sheer joy of this series can entirely override these concerns.
So it was with considerable excitement I discovered that the BBC was planning to release a series of downloadable Doctor Who games funded by the License Fee and with the involvement of Charles Cecil, the man originally responsible for Beneath a Steel Sky and the Broken Sword games. With the involvement of Stephen Moffat, could these TV tie-ins perhaps, just maybe, be a work of genius?
Of the four-strong series, two of the Doctor Who Adventure Games have thusfar been released: City of the Daleks and Blood of the Cybermen. At their heart, they’re point-and-click adventure games with reworked control schemes ala. recent Telltale offerings. Note to game developers: holding a mouse button down to move is infinitely shitter than clicking. It might work for lazy controller support, but when most of your action animations do an exceptionally extravagant move from where I am to the exact correct spot for that action, couldn’t I have just gotten there by clicking in the first place?
However the developers have thrown a number of other gameplay devices into the mix; the most persistently awful of which being some exceptionally long stealth sections which have you creeping through generic corridor X around Daleks with vision cones so short they make Foxhound guards look like fighter pilot candidates. There are also a number of mini-games thrown in as the final step of many a “add this to this” puzzle, presumably to justify the sonic screwdriver no longer being the deus ex machina it is in the series. Some of these are trivial whilst others, such as where you have to guide objects through a maze without touching the walls, are nothing short of malicious.
The graphics? Well, they’re… ok. The textures are there, but the lighting is shoddy and the models just aren’t all that detailed They’re more than fit for purpose, however. Most importantly, Amy isn’t quite so hot. The sound quality is more notably rubbish: whilst the Doctor and Amy have both been at least partially voiced, it sounds as if they’re both speaking through some ancient tannoy system. Also Karen Gillan’s performance is, at best, uninspiring (Matt Smith is thankfully somewhat more enthusiastic in reprising the Doctor).
Being funded by the license fee, it seems that the BBC has insisted that if it is to fund this “game”, they need to justify it to the Trust under the banner of education. A fair number of the clickables in the game bring up a screen telling you some real-world fact, perhaps about “nanotechnology” or “World War 2″. There’s also a trans-episode card collecting mini-game which provides the only element of replayability in these episodes, with cards being scattered in various out-of-the-way places, all relating to some aspect of the Who canon.
Ultimately, the Adventure Games’ biggest flaw has nothing to do with the shoddy acting, dodgy stealth sections and questionable graphics. It lacks Karen Gillan naked. The true thrill of Doctor Who has always been watching the Doctor zip around from problem to problem, talking his way through anything thrown at him with a astounding mix of humour and ludicrous tecno-babble. The bits in between: the bits that this game allows you to control, when you’re pointing screwdrivers at things, grabbing an eye stalk from here and mixing it with a thingie over here before doing a mini-game? Sure, perhaps these are all things that the Doctor does, but that’s not the Doctor I want to see in these games. Unfortunately, the joy of Doctor Who isn’t something best portrayed by the video-gaming medium: noone yet has really found a good mechanic for the telling of a non-action driven story within a game, and maybe we should just accept this as a fundamental limitation of gaming that it just can’t tell stories like this as well as a book or TV program. Is this, fundamentally, the reason for most film/tv/book game tie-ins being crap?
It’s worth noting that of the two episodes released thusfar, the second is superior to the first in almost every way. The story is tighter and crafted with greater cohesive, the puzzles more intuitive, and mini-games less frustrating. Best of all, Karen Gillan’s VO work is much improved. I do have hopes for the remaining two episodes.
This is a game squarely designed for an eight year old Doctor Who fan to play with their parents after school. For an older gamer, the difficulty is almost insultingly easy, the stories rather dull and graphics uninspiring. As a fan of Doctor Who, it’s easy to look beyond many of these faults: some of the cutscene scripting is laugh out loud funny, and the main title sequence genuinely got my heart racing. As such, it’s almost impossible to recommend to anyone other than a Who-fan, all of whom I would encourage to give to give these games a chance (each episode isn’t long, nary one or two hours) on a quiet Sunday afternoon. It’s worth it. But if you’re just looking for a good game? Don’t bother.