Adventuring in Doctor Who: The Adventure Games

6 Jun

See how awesome games are? Even the BBC is funding development of them. Doctor Who: The Adventure Games will be an episodic series of puzzle/stealth hybrids and the first installment, City of the Daleks, is available now – free of charge if you’re in the UK.

As you might expect, it’s a kid’s game. The visuals have a cartoonish chunkiness to them, somehow making Matt Smith actually look less ridiculous, and the stealth sections involve you crouch-walking around remarkably thick Daleks with bright green viewing cones the size of ice-cream wafers. Messing up requires a degree of clumsiness and ineptitude even beyond that of the Eleventh Doctor himself. On top of that, half of the puzzle sections can barely be called puzzles. Need to open a door? Walk up to it, hit the spacebar, click the Sonic Screwdriver and everything whirrs into place for you.

"Amy, come and help me push this improbably large taxi"

Sumo Digital (the dev team, who’ve got an admirable pedigree in the Broken Sword series of adventure games) are missing a trick here. How many more frothing nerds would download your game if your influence over the Doctor extended beyond steering him around some senile robotic tin cans? When you reach that door, slip into first person, press an actual button to turn the screwdriver on, wave it around with the mouse until the buzzing gets loudest then tilt it just right to open. Pick a smug remark from an orbital menu, and bam – you are the Doctor, and you opened that door like a genius. Have a biscuit.

This isn’t to say City of the Daleks isn’t Who-ish. It is, sometimes unnervingly so. The convenient plot devices, antagonists who prefer a stern word with the Doctor rather than killing him on sight, redshirt characters, Karen Gillan being in some variety of peril, and even a pixel-treated version of the opening titles (the dinky TARDIS being buffeted by lightning in a tube of clouds) are all present and correct, all soundtracked by Murray Gold’s excellent score. In addition, the script is by franchise regular Phil Ford, and consists of the expected combination of fully-automatic exposition and banter – actually, can we get Toby Whithouse to do one? All in all it’s as much of an episode as a spin-off game, even though the television series might suffer a decline in quality if future installments are also based on the concept of defeating the tyrants of the Universe by walking around them quietly.

More fun (but even less related to Doctor Who) than the stealth are the minigames. Like in every game, ever, these will unlock consoles or deactivate power to something when completed, and they’re pretty well balanced in terms of difficulty. Their only real problem is that they break up the pace and drama slightly. When I’m darting from wall to wall, trying to avoid an enormous optical beam that will summon an angry Dalek if broken, I’d rather that was the challenge rather than the symbol-matching game I have to complete to make the beam a bit thinner.

I can’t be too hard on this game –  it’s free, it’s for kids and it only lasts the length of an actual episode. Existence in gamesland allows certain aspects of the show that would normally be constrained by the BBC budget to breathe, like the brilliant realisation of a destroyed Trafalgar Square. Nonetheless, the game’s biggest (and potential) triumph can only come in time. This is an official piece of spin-off media for one of the UK’s most popular TV programmes, with the full backing and involvement of the executive producers and the BBC. With its simple controls, family friendly design and easygoing plot, it’s also perfect for first-time gamers. If Doctor Who: The Adventure Games can persuade them to stick around, it could bolster the popularity, importance and influence of gaming as a whole. If it does that, the hand-holding and green vision cones might just be forgivable.

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