The Doctor Who Adventure Game – City of the Daleks

How long have I waited for this? A Doctor Who adventure game? At least since my own (entirely unauthorised) efforts many years back, in which all I managed to do was get a 2-character-high Dalek to chase a 2-character-high TARDIS (why the TARDIS was moving, I don’t know) across my TV screen, zapping it as it went, with smooth sprite scrolling (feat enough, for me, in them days), all thanks to an overheated ZX Spectrum.

I can’t think of many fictional worlds I like enough to want to play in a game, but which wouldn’t be ruined by being made into a game. Mythago Wood the adventure game? No! A Fafhrd & Grey Mouser hack’n’slay? No! An Earthsea rpg? Definitely not! Alien, perhaps — I remember being terrified by an Alien patch for DOOM!, something that didn’t quite translate when I got some friends to play it. And Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, definitely, but although it has been adapted into several games, none of them so far has got anywhere near recreating the atmosphere of the stories. But Doctor Who’s format is perfect for gaming. And what’s more, the BBC have released the thing for free! (Or for the price of the license fee, of course.) And for the Mac! And when I’ve got a week off work! How could Heaven and Earth get any closer? (Well, for me, it would be to play a Doctor Who game with Tom Baker as the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith as the companion, and Robert Holmes as the scriptwriter, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have to wait for the Rapture for that particular beatitude.)

City of the Daleks is the first episode of the Doctor Who Adventure Game. It starts with a trip to 1960s Earth, only to find Trafalgar Square in ruins, and the last surviving member of the human race battling it out against a host of Daleks. From there, we move, in Act Two (the episode has three acts) to Skaro to find out what’s gone wrong with the timestream that has allowed the Daleks to wipe out the human race before Amy has even been born.

I think it’s crucial that any game adaptation sticks to the feel of the original, and the Doctor Who Adventure Game certainly does that. For a start — thankfully — the Doctor isn’t equipped with a Dalek-busting BFG9000, but has to defeat his age-old enemies with only his wits and his trusty, do-anything sonic screwdriver. (And, in keeping with the feel of the current series, a total disregard for narrative believability. It may seem narrow-minded to accuse a show that’s based on the premise of a centuries-old, ten-times regenerated man time-travelling around the universe in a battered old police box of lacking believability, but I think once you’ve believed that many impossible things before breakfast, it helps for the actual plot to be a bit more down-to-earth. Not that I’m saying the Tom Baker era never sinned in this direction — destroying a Rutan spaceship with an improvised laser made with a lighthouse and a ruby isn’t exactly convincing either. But the best stories — Genesis of the Daleks, for instance — got their power from the plot not hanging on the Doctor improvising himself out of some impossible situation, but by having a bloody good story to start with. Now, back to the main programme.)

So, a lot of the action is just the sort I like in a game — sneaking round Daleks (who are all thankfully short sighed and deaf), solving mini-puzzles (such as Tetris-like code-cracking in the Dalek city), finding objects and putting them together to make other objects, and making decisions. And the controls are very simple, too, which is always a bonus, particularly in a short game like this. (I’m also, at this moment, playing DragonAge: Origins, on the XBox. I’ve been playing it for about three weeks now, and still flounder around manically whenever I enter combat.) And there’s only one time-limited sequence, so while I did do some panicky running right into the path of a Dalek gun, I at least didn’t do it all the way through the game.

This is one thing I’ll say was definitely good about the game — it was well-paced, building up in tension as it moved towards the end. The puzzles got slightly more difficult, and the action slightly more intense as the game went on — not too much, so that cack-handed Sunday gamers like me don’t feel out of their depth, but not too little, either, so it felt like I’d accomplished something in finishing the game.

Also, the game was quite short. It’d probably take a game-savvy player about the same length of time to play as it would to watch one of the current series’ episodes. Me, I took a bit longer, not just because of running into the path of shooting Daleks, but because the damn thing crashed — just hung, in fact — four times, meaning I had to restart my computer to keep playing. More than a little annoying, but fortunately the game’s frequent auto-save meant I was never too far from where I’d left off. (There was one other annoyance, when a video that was supposed to show on a Dalek console just came up as a white band. The Doctor and Amy’s comments were enough to let me know I should have been seeing a wave of Daleks arriving on the planet; all I saw was fuzz.)

But overall, it was fun, and it did the main thing, which was let me feel I was participating in the Doctor Who universe for a little while. I’m certainly going to play the next episode, which looks like it’s going to feature Cybermen.

I wonder how long it’ll be before someone comes up with a Tom Baker patch?