Game: "Doctor Who: The Adventure Games"
Published by: Other
Reviewer: Guitar Woman
Review: Ah, Doctor Who, one of my favorite TV shows in the entire world. If you're not enough of a Briton or hopeless social outcast to be familiar, don't fret, as it's easily explained: The titular Doctor, a slightly insane alien scientist/knight errant, kidnaps attractive Earth women with his time-traveling phone booth and trains them for marathons, forcing them to run away from trash cans with plunger-arms, statues of Christian imagery, severely overacting men in rubber suits, and a post-turkey-fryer-accident Stephen Hawking. He also possesses an innate hatred for electronics and will frequently ruin them with his buzzing colored flashlight. Doctor Who is more or less the British equivalent of Star Trek, and is the longest running sci-fi TV show in the world, in addition to winning a Guinness World Record for "Most stories focused around one principal character" due to its massive library of novels, comics, a movie or two, and radio dramas of all things. Starting on BBC 1 in 1963, it wound up running for 26 years before being canceled in 1989, and was brought back with tremendous praise from critics and nerds everywhere in 2005. It's due for a 32nd season to start on the 23rd of April, and shows no signs of slowing down in the near future. Needless to say, it's ridiculously popular, and since this generation of video games has seen developers focusing on adaptations of intellectual property that'll sell like amphetamines rather than traditional, wholesome originality, it's unsurprising that games based on the franchise would eventually see the light of day.
If you've seen the show, you're probably thinking, "How could Doctor Who make a good video game? Its principal focus is on a wimpy scientist who eschews violence in favor of more intellectual problem solving methods, such as diplomacy, Jelly Babies, jogging away from inaccurate gunfire, and technobabble. Surely, this wouldn't translate well to an interactive experience." Well, make like Tommy Wiseau and say "Oh, hai" to Sumo Digital's Doctor Who Adventure Games, sanctioned by the BBC to ease the wait for the newest season. It's a series of four short, cheap, episodic adventures that play like Dreamfall: The Longest Journey if you went to town on its code sheet with a gas-powered hedge trimmer.
Yes, in grand adventure game tradition, the 11th Doctor's newest excursions have ritualistically slaughtered their gameplay in favor of a strong story aspect. But whereas most adventure games usually bog themselves down with crazy moon logic inventory puzzles, Sumo have simply elected to just make the controls a pile of shit. All four episodes are generally well written and would easily hold their own against some of the more mediocre television adventures, but do keep in mind that they're narratives first and video games second. A very distant second, a second that probably results in having rotten kidney beans dumped on your head when you cross the finish line. The controls are designed to be as simple and accessible to arthritic grandmothers as possible: in a weird setup that I haven't seen since 2.5D shooters, the Doctor can be moved around with just the mouse. Hold the right button down to run, swivel the mouse around to change direction, use the left button to talk to people and examine objects, and click the wheel to open your inventory. If you're a manly PC veteran, you can use WASD for movement and the space bar for inventory, but either way, there are only three action buttons, and the Doctor seems to interpret your input as more of a backseat driver's complaining than a direct order. I know he's a rebellious anti-authority figure, but for Frith's sake, Sumo, no meta-programming. Also, apparently the Doctor has paid a visit to the Shadow Temple lately and is now careening about in Link's hover boots, because he lends nary a thought to traction or any of that sissy "walking" business.
Unless, of course, there's sneaking to be done, and coming back to the Dreamfall comparison, sneaking there is, since that's about your only available option for dealing with threats. The baddies will stumble blindly about with their extremely short, narrow fields of vision highlighted Metal Gear Solid style in front of them, and getting past is a simple matter of memorizing their patterns and traveling the road not observed. Don't be concerned in case you fuck up, though, since as he's done many times before, the Doctor will immediately spring up when detected and allow you to sprint the hell away before the brain-damaged guards can manage to get a bead on you. They never bother to search very thoroughly after spotting you, either, making most stealth sections incredibly easy. You'd think the Daleks would be slightly more concerned about the fact that the #1 enemy of their entire race, a man that has ruined their plans for the domination of all of time and space something like 30 fucking times and whom they refer to as "The Oncoming Storm," is creeping around their capital city, stealing their shit and plotting to destroy them.
Being an adventure game, there are of course puzzles and dialog trees to navigate, but like the stealthing, they're all so easy it feels like cheating. Especially in the first two installments; very early on I solved a few intimidating-looking ones literally by accident. Also, is it really necessary to play the Doctor's bombastic victory theme every time we power up a console or hack a door keypad? I feel like the game's being sarcastic. "Oh, good, look at smarty-farty over there, he can play Simon Says for 3 fucking rounds. Here, have some orchestrated fanfare, because you're obviously the kind of brilliant mind on whom the galaxy can depend." Fuck you, game, it's not my fault your puzzles are so fucking easy.
The game's also got loading times on par with Legacy of Kain; when I first booted up City of the Daleks, it took so long to get to the opening cutscene that I had to take a peek under my desk to make sure my computer had not suddenly transformed into a PlayStation. Then after it loaded I had to check again because I was suddenly beset by fucking ugly graphics, resembling what the inbred offspring of a Dreamcast and a PSP with disfiguring acid scars might produce. Either there's some overarching plot thread about Nestene Duplicates of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan hijacking the TARDIS, or the graphical engine is fucked, because we've fallen directly into the river Creepy at the bottom of the Uncanny Valley. The Doctor's running animation is especially hilarious; he looks like he's just been granted a council seat at the Ministry of Silly Walks and can hardly contain his enthusiasm. I'm at a loss to explain why such simplistic and ugly graphics would take upwards of 45 seconds to load, but I can tell you that it's definitely not to make ready a series of complex, sprawling levels full of shit to play with. Except for a few scenes in City and the decently-sized ocean floor lab in Shadows of the Vashta Nerada, the games are mostly set in a restrictively linear succession of cramped, underground rooms connected by narrow corridors, with the occasional sprinkling of collectable Doctor Who trivia blurbs about characters, technology, and aliens seen on the show over the years, along with all the different kinds of Jelly Babies there are. I'm serious about that last one, too; did you know they come in licorice flavor?
Some other, less ridiculous things that really got to me are as follows: first of all, why the fuck are these games free to UK residents, but five bucks a pop to everyone else, 12.95 if you buy all four at once? I suppose I shouldn't be complaining about this, since they were previously completely unavailable outside the Isles, but what the fuck, England, why you gotta be frontin'? I'd wager most people reading this are the sons and daughters of your empire, you could at least pretend to act like a decent parent. Second of all, where the fuck is Rory? I guess it'd be redundant and kind of a chore to have two companions tagging along behind you during gameplay – notably, Amy's gotten me a few game-overs by wandering in front of bloodthirsty Cybermen while I was distracted reading about Tom Baker's scarf in a corner – but come on, I love Rory. I guess that places these stories in-between "Cold Blood" and "The Pandorica Opens," because he doesn't even get a name drop. Thirdly and finally, even for games that cost less than a week's bus fare, they're all just too short. There aren't very many puzzles per chapter, and they're so easy that you'll blow through all four episodes in about five hours. While I applaud Sumo for not padding their products to insanity and back, a couple more brain-teasers would have been warmly welcomed, along with selectable difficulty levels for them to leave it accessible to casual-gaming children and old people while also not alienating us basement-dwelling, mouth-breathing, hardcore addict types.
I mentioned earlier that these games have pretty good stories for what are essentially Expanded Universe entries, and I'm going to again, because it's definitely their major positive. The chemistry between Amy and the Doctor has been well translated to pixel form; the snarky comments, the petty sniping, the cheeky asides, and the genuine sense of friendship, it's all here, as amusing and heartwarming as it is on the small screen. This is thanks in no small part to Matt Smith and Karen Gillan lending their voice talents to the game and giving a splendid effort on all fronts, although Smith does sound like he's been chain-smoking quite a bit. In Blood of the Cybermen especially he almost exclusively uses his low-key, "something awful is on the brink of happening so I am not going to be wacky right now" gravely voice, but it's rather appropriate for the situation, and I just can't stay mad at him long enough to damage my man-crush on the guy.
The plots themselves follow pretty standard Doctor Who formula, especially the first two, in which you thwart a Dalek conquest of Earth and stop a gaggle of long-dormant Cybermen from re-animating themselves and swarming the planet, but TARDIS and Shadows of the Vashta Nerada make a few attempts to be a bit more fresh and challenging. What few puzzles there were in TARDIS, taking the form of the ship's confusing and anachronistic control panels, were pretty fun, and the billions of buttons, knobs, levers, and sproingley bits on the ship's console have always grabbed my imagination, so it's cool to play around with them and finally get some explanations of what everything does. There's also this nifty little trivia quiz at the end that'll test your knowledge of the show's history all the way back to the Tom Baker era. Meanwhile, in Shadows, you trip around in a poorly-lit undersea laboratory, beset by a giant shark from without and swarms of air piranhas and a deadly virus from within, keeping the lights from going out, dodging animated skeletons in diving suits, and dealing with an AI that seems to be copying a bit off of Durandal's homework. With the possible exception of City of the Daleks, they're all interesting, bite-sized stories that, most importantly, feel like Doctor Who should. That goes a long way towards helping me forgive a lot of the gameplay mistakes. They're a bit abrupt, and some of the endings feel like cop-outs (especially TARDIS), but the stories are still reasonably sturdy, and much more entertaining than the gameplay, that's for goddamn sure.
So I guess what I'm saying is this: if you like Doctor Who, and the current incarnation in particular, you're bound to wring at least a little enjoyment out of this motley crew. If you think you'd dig some short, inexpensive, well written adventure titles with a bit of clever puzzle-solving thrown in, you could certainly do a lot worse than Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, but you could also do a lot better. And if you're the kind of person who's into video games for things like two-fisted action, multi-layered gameplay, tight controls, breathtaking levels, and a big meaty challenge, you're going to want to steer clear, because there's not a lot of that to be found.
(Scored on a 0.5 - 5 pickles rating: 0.5 being the worst and 5 being the best)
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