Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, Episode 1 – City Of The Daleks

The Game: Promising to take his time-traveling sidekick Amy Pond to London in 1963, the Doctor is shocked when the TARDIS actually gets there – and London, and the rest of Earth, is in ruins. The human race is extinct and the Daleks have taken over. Completely unarmed (except for the Doctor’s trusty sonic screwdriver), the Doctor and Amy have to avoid the unstoppable Dalek patrols, make their way back to the TARDIS, and do whatever it takes – no matter the risk – to defeat the Daleks and set history back on its proper course. This means setting the TARDIS on a course for the heart of Dalek power: Kaalann, the capitol city of the Dalek planet Skaro. (BBC, 2010)

Buy this gameMemories: Offered for free in the UK and Wales (and for a fee everywhere else), Doctor Who: The Adventure Games not only sets out to bring an interactive component to the spectacularly revived long-running British science fiction series, but it also aims to make the games an official part of the show’s ongoing story, and tries to stick to the underlying premise of the series – namely, that the Doctor employs wits and words in lieu of weapons. And for the first time in the history of the franchise, we have, in City Of The Daleks, a game that succeeds spectacularly on all of these fronts.

Let me also say that hardcore gamers expecting something to compete with mainstream blockbusters that take 30 hours to complete will almost certainly hate this game. I finished City Of The Daleks, the first installment, in about three days of intermittent play. It’s a challenging little game, but a great deal of the 3-D exploration element of City is based on enemy movement patterns and careful timing. Avoid being seen, and avoid being caught, and you’re good to go. Many of the objectives take the forms of minigames that must be completed to move forward. These games are familiar to any old-school gamer: a “maze” minigame recurs several times, somewhere between Crazy Balloon and the board game Operation, while a “Dalek decryption” minigame is a kind of static, assembly-line variant of Tetris.

But it’s the 3-D exploration segments that are ultimately the most challenging, and the parts of the game that evoke the feel of Doctor Who on TV the most. With voice acting by Matt Smith as the Doctor and Karen Gillan as Amy, and decent 3-D models of both characters, not to mention legions of Daleks (voiced, of course, by Nicholas Briggs), the game isn’t lacking authenticity. Fans of the TV show will eat it up, those not familiar with the TV show and its vast mythology may wonder what the big deal is. It’s great to finally play a Doctor Who game where the player is the Doctor (though there’s one brief segment where the player gets to be Amy as well). The minigame puzzles are a neat way to milk gameplay out of the Doctor’s limitless technical expertise rather than just leaving that plot point to the cutscenes.

The tricky part of the whole thing is balancing the gameplay with the material the game is based on, and City Of The Daleks doesn’t really fall down there either. The Daleks are formidable, and they are everywhere, but there is a way around them. The game cleverly gives each Dalek a visible, radar-like “sensor sweep” – i.e. where the Dalek is looking – affording players the opportunity to sneak around their foes if each move is carefully and patiently timed. The Doctor and Amy have a built-in “instinct” that automatically makes each character crouch down at the right time. (This can be overridden, but only at the player’s almost-certainly-fatal peril.) In keeping with the TV series’ use of the Daleks, it’s not easy to get around a Dalek, but with some patience and cunning, it is possible.

The basic platform for Doctor Who: The Adventure Games comes with one built-in disadvantage, however: the game engine is very resource-hungry. On a clean, fairly new PC, I had to turn off the running musical underscore (a pity, since it’s all by Doctor Who’s resident TV composer Murray Gold and includes numerous selections that aren’t out on CD) and reduce the resolution and detail considerably to get a “real time” experience out of the game. It’s not unexpected that a downloadable PC game is going to drop quite a burden on the processor running it, but for the game to look and sound its best, the expectation of the end user’s machine is a bit unrealistic. Even with reduced resolution, however, it looks reasonably good. Mouse sensitivity can also be adjusted, luckily. (It’s also worth mentioning that this game has perhaps the single most instinctive, easy “mobile camera” perspective that I’ve yet seen in a 3-D game.)

It may have a hard time winning over more hardcore gamers, but 5 quarters!City Of The Daleks is meant to fill in the same unique niche as the TV series that spawned it: namely, something that a family watches, or in this case plays, together. It’s something for the kids without being a kiddie game, and while there’s deadly danger to be found, the player doesn’t do any shooting or commit any acts of violence. That’s a nifty conceit that not many action-adventure games are bold enough to tackle these days. And lastly, we finally have a Doctor Who game that doesn’t just flat-out suck. That’s a huge plus for fans and gamers alike.

This game is based on a TV series covered in Episode Guides, here’s more information in the format of that part of the site.

written by Phil Ford
music by Murray Gold

Cast: Matt Smith (The Doctor), Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), Sara Carver (Sylvia), Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks)

Notes: Though more animated than they’ve ever seemed to be before, the Varga plants are indeed deadly plants native to Skaro, as seen in the original series episode Mission To The Unknown (1965); the Varga plants have also been heard in the audio dramas Dalek Empire and I, Davros. The Emperor Dalek was last seen in the final Christopher Eccleston episode, Parting Of The Ways (2005). Given the original UK release date of City Of The Daleks, it may be safe to assume that this game’s storyline is meant to fall between the episodes Cold Blood and Vincent And The Doctor.