Doctor Who game receives ‘Exterminate’ rating

| Friday, December 24th, 2010

When it comes to Doctor Who, I don’t kid around. It’s been my favorite TV show since 1978, and I hold all Doctor Who games to a very high standard. For those who aren’t aware, Doctor Who is one of the longest-running TV shows in history. Launched by the BBC in 1963 and on the air ever since (despite a pause from 1989 to 2005), the show chronicles the ongoing adventures of a human-looking alien “Time Lord” who calls himself the Doctor. Along with a companion (typically hot female human), he travels through space and time in his TARDIS; a time machine disguised as a blue phone box that’s mysteriously bigger on the inside. The Doctor Who property has become the jewel of the BBC crown, with a fervent, world-wide fan base and no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Doctor Who: The Mazes of Time is an iOS game for iPad or iPhone/iPod touch that puts you in the role of the Doctor (as portrayed by Matt Smith in this current iteration) and his companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). An innocent space-faring family has been abducted by an evil alien known as a Dalek (the Doctor’s longest-running arch enemy), and he has set out to rescue them. Along the way you encounter more of his famous foes such as the Cybermen and Silurians as you work your way through puzzle after puzzle and maze after maze (though there’s very little exposition on why those enemies are where they are; they’re just “there”).

The player controls the Doctor and companion Amy Pond from a 3/4-top down vantage point, and will switch control back and forth between the two. The Doctor is the “muscle” of the pair and is responsible for things like pushing giant blocks around (interesting choice considering that the Doctor is not known for feats of strength; does this guy look like “muscle” to you?). The more slender Amy is the one who crawls into tight places and steps gingerly over dangerous ground. The player swaps back and forth to solve simple puzzles and avoid enemies along the way.

The basic premise of the game lacks inspiration but is a decent enough foundation upon which to build a decent game. Unfortunately, almost everything this game has to offer is, at its rare best, mediocre… and at worst? To say this game is a disappointing mess doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of legitimate complaints. It fails both on so many macro and micro levels that it’s hard to know where to start listing them.

It’s very, very difficult for a video game to do absolutely nothing right, so we’ll start with the few saving graces.

A generous helping of the TV show’s brilliant music, which lifts the game and evokes the Doctor Who experience. Music has always been one of the most characterful aspects of the TV show and the familiarity of it within the game reminds the player that, yes… this is a Doctor Who game. Purpose served.

Doctor Who: Mazes of Time offers simple puzzles which are appropriate for younger gamers (at a guess, I’d peg it at 10-12 years old). The screwy controls and difficulty of juggling two characters (especially when you’re in a maze playing Pac Man and Cybermen are the ghosts) can make solving those puzzles a pain in the neck, but certain areas of the game are appropriate and maybe even appealing for youngsters (other areas less so due to aggressive enemies and weak control system, as described below).

There’s also an interesting canonical reference or two within the game that fans might appreciate. For instance, there’s mention of how the Cybermen are vulnerable to gold (which is never mentioned in the new series), so it’s fun to see that referenced.

The Controls

The game controls use the “d-pad” system which has been grossly overdone by early iOS games and, frankly, is no more than a lingering paradigm from console systems which should be cast away for a more elegant touch screen-centric system. Even among iOS d-pad game controls, Mazes of Time hits some new lows. The clumsy, imprecise system works like this: Push your finger a little, your character walks (there’s no in-game benefit for walking, by the way). Push a little more, your character runs. Push 2 or 3 molecules further, your character stands completely still. It’s infuriating and could have easily been replaced by an intuitive and logical control system involving finger-swipes and screen-tapping. As an ancillary point, the camera system is rigidly locked to the character you’re controlling at the moment, which will irritate you at several points and infuriate you at others — particularly in the “patrol” levels where you have to avoid Cybermen sentries without actually being able to take a look to your left and right to see if any are heading in your direction. Another game element that could and should have been better implemented with touch screen controls.

The Graphics and Voice Acting

The graphics of Mazes of Time aren’t up to iOS standards by a long shot. It’s not that every game has to be up to id Software or Epic Games’ standard of visual excellence, but this game’s environments are little more than painted blocks arranged in rows and pathways and constrains the flow of every room to up, down, left and right movement. The 3D element of the game is utterly wasted, as there is no meaningful range of motion on the Z axis and there’s absolutely nothing interesting going on above or below you. The Doctor and Amy are woefully clumsy digital marionettes who are, at best, reminiscent of the human actors who portray them in the show. Let me tell you: If you make a Doctor Who game and looking at Amy Pond is not one of the highlights, you’re doing it wrong.

Speaking of the actors, this game desperately needs their voice acting to better evoke the real thing. Instead, the Doctor, Amy, and other known characters (such as the afore-mentioned Dalek) deliver their speech by text bubbles and an oversized, ugly font. Given that Doctor Who is one of the most powerfully character-driven shows on television, voice acting should have been a priority to at least inject some character into what is a very weak game. In fact, aside from some fantastic music and a few very isolated sound bytes (like the occasional Cyberman threat to assimilate a victim or the TARDIS engines), the aural identity of the show does not translate into this game. It’s a shame, too, as the sound effects are of rather poor quality and remind me of what was typical of mid-90’s computer gaming.

Please, Make it Stop!

The list of Doctor Who: Mazes of Time failings just goes on and on: You’ll find that the Doctor and Amy are often in each others’ way and, at times, will give you pointless grief when trying to maneuver into a passageway or away from an enemy. Not only is the movement imprecise, but in-game triggers are shoddy; there were times when the Doctor or Amy would be standing square in the middle of a bed of spikes and the game doesn’t realize they’re supposed to be dead. At other times, you will find the game doesn’t seem to understand where you are, which is clear when you are trying to transfer from one moving platform to another and end up floating in open space.

As an aside… it’s worth mentioning that Mazes of Time is Open Feint enabled. But for what? I have no clue. There’s no meaningful score or in-game achievements, so I’m not sure what the Open Feint or Game Center leaderboards are supposed to be tracking.

The biggest flaw in Mazes of Time is removing the very element which makes the show worth watching: the Doctor himself. When the player steps into the Doctor’s shoes, then that character isn’t really the Doctor anymore. For almost 50 years the series has pivoted completely upon the titular character… his quirks, his struggles, what he knows, what he figures out, etc. It would have been a richer experience and more evocative of the show had the player accompanied the Doctor as a nameless companion, with the Doctor acting as muse to walk the player through the puzzles. When the player is “being” the Doctor, the colorful, complex character disappears, and he may as well be Mario or the Master Chief. I understand why Tag Games made this choice… but it was the wrong choice.

Sadly, the problems found in Doctor Who: Mazes of Time are most likely attributable to an all-too common attitude among publishers with regard to “tie in” games (whether they be movies, tv shows, comics, toys, whatever). It’s as if the designers and developers feel “We don’t need to make this compete with Infinity Blade/Dungeon Hunter/FarmVille/whatever… because fans of this show are gonna buy the game no matter what.” Essentially, this game only has the Doctor Who name to offer, but is a poor introduction for those who aren’t familiar with the series and a disappointment for those who are a fan of it.

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