Doctor Who: The Adventure Games - Episode One: City of the Daleks review
Doctor Who is one of those quintessentially British things. The science fiction television programme has been around since the ‘60s following the Doctor and his companions as they travel through space and time, putting a stop to whatever evil gets in their way. For years, fans have clamoured for a game adaptation of this beloved series, a wish recently granted in the BBC production of Doctor Who: The Adventure Games. The four-part episodic series is developed by Sumo Digital and Charles Cecil (of Broken Sword fame), and is based around the show’s current incarnation, with Matt Smith in the lead and Karen Gillan’s Amy at his side. The first part, City of the Daleks, sees the Doctor battling against his greatest and most iconic foe. Sadly, due to some dull and repetitive gameplay, this debut isn’t nearly as strong as the source material on which it’s based.
The story opens with the TARDIS landing in 1963 London, where the Doctor and Amy discover that the Daleks have somehow altered time, managing to wipe out nearly all life and leave the world a smouldering mess. After a bit of investigating, the pair head to Skaro, the home planet of the pepperpot-shaped villains, to reverse events and save mankind. That includes Amy, who’s now become a living paradox, slowly fading from existence. This epic scale is what you’d expect to find in a full-blown television episode, with some impressive environments to boot. The panoramic shots of England’s wrecked capital and the Emperor Dalek’s large chamber are really something to behold and great fun to run around.
Early on you’ll meet the last human left on Earth, Sylvia, who merely acts as a narrative device to fill in the backstory on how the planet ended up in chaos before she's quickly brushed aside. The entire encounter is superficial and lacks any real emotion. We know nothing about Sylvia so it’s hard to care about what happens to her, which is disappointing considering all the unique people the Doctor usually discovers in his travels. You won’t meet anyone else (human) on your adventure, which makes sense to the plot but can sometimes feel lonely, especially when the Doctor and Amy split up.
The dialogue can be fairly matter-of-fact at some points, but the Doctor and Amy’s quips to one another are as humorous as ever, such as Amy claiming there’s no such thing as a sexy drummer. Smith and Gillan add welcome authenticity to the voicework, but at times it sounds like they’ve been poorly directed, perhaps not completely aware what situation their computerized counterparts are in. They both unnecessarily whisper certain lines, and the conversational pace is often quite slow. There needs to be more energy, as it’s a bit flat and there’s little awareness of the danger surrounding them. Nicholas Briggs is faultless as the voice of the Daleks, performing their shrill, demanding tones with ease. The one oddity is that although the frequent cutscenes are fully voiced, examining objects results only in subtitled descriptions, which feels a little cheap.
Players alternately take control of both the Doctor and Amy from a third-person perspective, using just the mouse or in combination with the standard WASD keys. Those looking for a tighter experience will opt for the latter, as the click-and-hold mouse option feels unintuitive, sometimes sending you in a direction you didn’t intend. Despite declaring itself an adventure title, the first episode is more of a genre mix than a traditional adventure, as a chunk of the game consists of watered-down stealth action. As the Doctor is not a killer, you frequently sneak him and Amy past Daleks instead, making sure to avoid their line of sight. If they spot you, there’s little chance of escape, and one shot from their laser will respawn you from a nearby checkpoint to try again. At first this danger adds tension and menace, but it gets boring fast. There’s little to it, as the Daleks move along a controlled path and it’s really not that hard to get around. At certain points you’ll also engage in mini-games, like connecting coloured wires or matching symbols. They’re fun once or twice, but they keep reappearing throughout. Although they progress in difficulty as time goes on, they’re too simplistic to remain enjoyable.
The traditional adventure elements are hidden between the cracks. Apart from an overly simple endgame puzzle, the only thing you’ll be pulling from your inventory is a sonic screwdriver to open doors or suchlike. This approach may suit the show, but it presents no challenge when you’re in control. The other three inventory slots just hold the Dalek components that you’re collecting in between stealth sections. On the rare occasion that you engage in conversation, you’ll be able to pick from two dialogue options; a trivial choice since you’ll have to select both of them anyway and there’s no branching topics. It’s disappointing that the elements at the heart of the show have been so neglected The Doctor is known for his vast knowledge and spontaneity, so why the developers decided simply to add action elements to fetch quests is a mystery.
City of the Daleks makes use of slightly cartoonish 3D graphics that aren’t amazing but are certainly acceptable, easily better than Broken Sword 4, the developer’s last adventure. The character nuances have been captured perfectly, like how the Doctor will rub his face when thinking, adjusts his jacket, or walks down stairs. The actual faces of the models aren’t as impressive, however. Although they look like the real actors, in motion they’re fairly lifeless, especially the eyes. Smith’s bizarre facial quirks just aren’t matched here, as the face is too rigid to copy his lively expressions. The outfits are also too shiny and reflective, making it look like the Doctor is wearing a jacket made from spandex rather than tweed.
Some technical quibbles aside, there’s a nicely varied colour palette used to distinguish the key areas: the grey, bleak landscape of London’s ruins are set against a fiery red sky while the blue, dimly lit Dalek corridors feel metallic and industrial, occasionally basked in orange light through the windows overlooking Skaro (complete with a neat touch of acid rain dripping down). All the internal environments are constructed well and are visually interesting, from robotic arms swinging from the ceiling as they construct more Daleks to the glowing goo that infests the floor. It really makes you feel a part of the Doctor Who universe, and it’s a credit to the art direction for achieving this.
Another standout feature is Murray Gold’s brilliant musical score. The soundtrack establishes a whimsical air in the TARDIS at the start, but as soon as the Doctor and Amy step out into London, it becomes rapid and tense, ramping up the excitement before kicking into the trademark theme tune. The music adds suspense while sneaking through the Dalek hallways without being overwhelming, softly playing as machinery hums away in the background. The sound effects are great, too, from the sonic screwdriver’s buzz to the TARDIS’ whirring as it arrives at its destination.
I completed this episode in just under an hour and a half, so it isn’t a long or difficult game, although your mileage may vary if you’re less used to stealth scenarios. Tooltips will pop up to teach you the basics (or can be turned off if you wish) and occasionally Amy will pipe up to point less veteran gamers in the right direction. In addition to the main story, there are also various collectible cards depicting things like past companions or jelly baby flavours hidden around the world, providing nostalgic moments for longtime series fans. Some scenery can be examined with a click for educational information, like the history of the London bus, occasionally detailing how it has played a role in the franchise. These non-essential extras aren’t anything substantial and the facts are probably aimed more at a younger audience, but they’re a good way of adding a little much-needed interaction.
Available for free in the UK (through the publicly-funded BBC), and for a nominal fee exclusively at Direct2Drive in the rest of the world, this self-contained episode wraps with a satisfying conclusion. Still, I can’t help feel that it doesn’t stand up to a televised episode of Doctor Who. The plot holds because you’re in the driver’s seat, but its momentum comes mainly from its strong beginning and ending, with the middle section providing an uninspired narrative ride. Although the fate of the Earth rests on your shoulders, you’re just skulking around and collecting Dalek components, occasionally engaging in mini-games.
Ultimately, City of the Daleks represents a disappointing introduction to Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, as repetitive action, a small cast of characters and trivial tasks damage the impact of this first episode. The brilliant music, expansive locales and witty dialogue save the game from completely falling flat, but the developers can’t solely rely on these to carry the Doctor and Amy through the rest of their four-part adventure. While I spent my time sneaking past yet another Dalek, I couldn’t help but wish for more variety and something significant to do. Fans of the show are sure to appreciate the nods to the past, but if you don’t already enjoy watching Doctor Who, you’re unlikely to discover what makes the series so popular from this game alone.