Publisher: BBC Worldwide / Developer: Supermassive Games / Price: $19.99 / Played on: PlayStation 3 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Mild Language, Fantasy Violence]
When I was a kid, one day I went with my dad to the supermarket. I saw a can of Spaghetti-Os on the shelf, and never having tried them—but sure I would like them because of endless television commercials convincing me that I would—I asked Dad if I could have it for lunch. To my delight, he said yes, and later that day he served me up a bowl of the stuff. What I discovered was that Spaghetti-Os both smell and taste like cheesy vomit, and I realized within seconds that I’d made a mistake. But my dad was adamant: I’d asked for it, so I was going to finish it.
That’s pretty much what playing the downloadable Doctor Who game was like. I’m a big fan of Doctor Who, and I thought for sure I was going to love The Eternity Clock. I had asked repeatedly to review it, got the green light, and almost immediately after starting play I knew that I was experiencing the cheesy vomit of video games.
In Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock, players alternate between controlling the Doctor and his companion, River Song, each armed with their trademark sonic screwdriver and blaster pistol, respectively. The Doctor and River traverse 2D platforming levels by jumping, hitting switches, opening doors, shimmying along ladders and pipes, and solving puzzles while avoiding detection and death at the hands of the various alien races that inhabit the Doctor Who universe, like the Cybermen and the Daleks.
Unfortunately, none of this really works too well. The puzzles themselves are annoying rather than particularly puzzling. More often than not, you have to line up circuits with each other by rotating discs or opening up valves within a set time limit. But in some levels, invincible enemies pursue you, meaning that while you’re solving a puzzle, they’re about to kill you, making you start the level from scratch. This is irritating as hell, and rarely fun. The challenge isn’t in figuring out the puzzles’ secrets so much as it is just getting them done quickly enough to avoid death. Worse, reading the puzzles’ instructions won’t pause the game or stop the timer, meaning that if it’s the first time you’re encountering this kind of puzzle, you’re dead meat.
The platforming segments, too, aren’t particularly interesting. It feels as though the Doctor and River have been let lose in a giant constricting hamster maze, rather than anything resembling creative level layout. Making matters worse, the enemies can change depth-planes as they pursue you, meaning they might be shooting at you from further in the background or foreground while you’re stuck in one two-dimensional plane. While the ever-present feeling of being pursued is definitely keeping in line with the spirit of the show, it’s not fun at all, and doesn’t work as a game.
The writing on display in The Eternity Clock is one of the few high points of the game. The clever and witty dialogue written for the Doctor feels spot on, while the plot itself would fit in well as a multi-episode story-arc of the show. The game starts off with a malfunctioning TARDIS (that’s the Doctor’s time machine, for the uninitiated) as well as disruptions in the time stream. It’s up to the Doctor and River to piece together the mystery of what’s happening and save the universe.
Unfortunately, the only way to experience the story is to play the game itself, and as I mentioned above, the game is really not very good. And in fact, it’s made even worse by the…
On the show, the Doctor and his friends tend to run a lot. It’s one of the more exciting aspects of the series, and it’s also a good way to keep the energy level high on a show starring a character whose main weapon is his intelligence. In the game, however, both the Doctor and River feel sluggish and disconnected from what you do with the controller. The sonic screwdriver and blaster pistol are mapped to the right stick, which makes aiming seem easy. But often it feels more like luck rather than skill when you actually get the characters to point at and hit whatever it is you’re going for.
Even doing simple tasks, like pulling and pushing boxes, climbing ledges, or jumping across platforms feels cumbersome and janky. And for a game set in a world with an emphasis on moving quickly to escape the monsters, neither character can use their chosen accessories while running. When aiming, the characters slow to a saunter, giving enemies time to catch up and kill you. Simply put, controlling the characters in this game is rarely any fun.
The details of the environments help set the mood for the different time periods the characters encounter. Nineteenth century London looks dirty and grimy, while present day London reflects our age’s greater emphasis on cleanliness and stylish modernism. But even with that attention to detail, the graphics themselves aren’t very impressive.
Characters look generic, and there are many animation hiccups, like when the Doctor gets a hand-up from River on a higher ledge, for instance. Worse, there’s no way to move the camera to see whether or not there are bad guys waiting for you further down, meaning that you’re basically running blind through most levels. If this was a conscious choice to heighten the danger, it was a foolish decision that makes the game seem unfair and frustrating.
Throughout its history, the TV show is famous for having relatively cheap-looking special effects, with that reputation starting to turn around in recent years. But where its sometimes goofy visuals could be part of its charm, the game’s shoddy graphics make the whole enterprise look rushed and slapped together.
Besides its writing, the sound is the game’s only other virtue. The voice acting performances of Matt Smith and Alex Kingston as the Doctor and River are excellent, again helping to make what’s going on in the game feel like it’s a part of the same universe as the show. The fully orchestrated soundtrack, too, does much the same. The superb audio in this game is one of the only reasons I didn’t flat out hate the whole experience.
If you’re a fan of Doctor Who, this game is worth a look if for no other reason than the fact that it’s between seasons. The actors and writers have done well to make the game feel as though it was ripped right from the series itself. But if you’ve never watched an episode of the show (or if you’ve watched it and decided you don’t like it), there’s nothing for you here. The gameplay is frustrating and not worth the time you’ll spend on it. And at twenty bucks for a downloadable title, there aren’t nearly enough redeeming qualities to justify a purchase. You’re better off just watching reruns.