Thursday, 12 Dec 2019

Doctor Who: The Edge Of Time review – time and virtual reality in space

Jodie Whittaker stars in the biggest budget Doctor Who game ever made, with some of the scariest VR moments of the year.

The idea of a Doctor Who game is something that has come up surprisingly often in the series’ long history, from 8-bit games stretching back to the early 80s to a host of titles produced during Matt Smith’s run. By the time of Peter Capaldi though everyone seemed to have all but given up, although he did make a number of appearances in Lego Dimensions. By that point everyone seemed to realise that making a proper Doctor Who game was too difficult given the large budget necessary, the lack of action intrinsic to the character, and the questionable size of its worldwide audience.

Doctor Who is far better known today than at any point in its history but the only sort of game that really seems to suit the series is something more puzzle and dialogue-orientated, like a Telltale adventure. For whatever reason that’s never happened but it never occurred to us until we heard about The Edge Of Time how well a VR game would work.

Virtual reality games already tend to be more puzzle-based than other titles and several of the key elements of Doctor Who work perfectly with VR, from the impossible physics of the TARDIS to not being able to blink in the presence of Weeping Angels. Not only does VR have the potential to make Doctor Who seem more realistic but it’s the perfect way to make it scary, where even the overfamiliar presence of Daleks can seem threatening. That’s all in theory though, as The Edge Of Time has trouble executing all the ideas as well as you might hope…

Even though it’s only been a year, it seems an eternity since Jodie Whittaker took over the role of The Doctor and the Beeb hasn’t done much of a job keeping her in the public eye during the wait until next spring’s new season. Her role in The Edge Of Time is limited to voiceovers and the odd hologram, which is a shame, but she’s clearly giving the script her all; even the cringeworthy bits about the evils of social media.

The story revolves around a ‘reality virus’ that has you playing as an unnamed new companion who is initially menaced by aliens incubating in a modern day London laundrette. Even by Doctor Who standards the plot is pure nonsense and used only as a thin excuse to travel to a number of different time periods and locations. Almost like a Final Fantasy game, you’re trying to collect three crystals, which are variously found aboard a derelict spaceship, Victorian London, and an alien planet (that looks suspiciously like Ancient Egypt) overrun by Daleks.

The first thing to say is that, despite some conspicuous object pop-in, the graphics are really quite impressive, in both their variety and level of detail. Peeking into the TARDIS while you’re still outside looks amazing in a way it could never be on the show and both the sci-fi and historical settings are nicely detailed and, again, more convincing than most things that can be done on a BBC TV budget.

The gameplay is all puzzle-based but vacillates unpredictably between every step being spelled out and you being left with no idea of what you’re supposed to be doing. Early on you get the use of the fabled sonic screwdriver, which works perfectly in a VR game like this where you want a simple excuse for being able to interact with everything at just the press of a button.

The problem is though that there’s a very old school VR tech demo feel to the puzzles, with the game reusing such tired clichés as checking behind pictures for a secret password, redirecting laser beams, and swapping cables around on a circuit board. Why this aspect of the game is so lazy and uninspired, given the rest of the experience is usually anything but, we don’t know, but considering it’s the main gameplay component that creates a serious problem.

It doesn’t help that your movement speed is so incredibly slow, even when you use the teleport method, which for some reason has a cooldown meter so you don’t use it too much in quick succession. Selecting the ‘fast’ option does nothing to improve the situation and we can only imagine that British developer Maze Theory are being over cautious about an audience that probably contains a lot of children and non-gamers.

That caution is thrown to the wind when it comes to the section with the Weeping Angels though, which is filled with wonderfully scary moments that are more than just simple jump scares. While it lasts, this section elevates the whole experience and could easily have been a separate game all on its own – even a serious adult horror title with just a few tweaks. It’s just a shame it’s all over so quickly and still not at the service of any interesting storytelling or puzzles.

The Daleks are also surprisingly intimidating when you meet them for ‘real’ and while their section doesn’t have as many interesting gameplay gimmicks there is a bit where you get to have a go in one of their robot shells, and take part in a briefly diverting on-rails shooting section.

Someone has clearly thought very carefully about how best to take advantage of VR when making a Doctor Who game, but the writing and puzzle design are nowhere near good enough to make the most of the opportunity. In the end The Edge Of Time shares share a little too much in common with the last season of the show, in that while it all seems a good idea in principle it’s just a bit… boring.

Like so many VR games it’s also very short and while Doctor Who fans will probably feel they’ve had their money’s worth we’d love to travel forward in time to that imagined future moment when someone finally makes a genuinely great Doctor Who game.

Doctor Who: The Edge Of Time review summary

In Short: There’s moments of greatness, and genuine terror, in this loving homage to everyone’s favourite double-hearted alien, but time and again it’s dragged down by dull puzzles and drab storytelling.

Pros: The Weeping Angels section is excellent and genuinely scary. Fine attention to detail and lots of Easter eggs for fans. Generally good graphics and all the voice actors give it their all.

Cons: The plot is nonsensical and uninteresting, with some very heavy-handed dialogue. Dull and clichéd puzzles. Peculiarly slow and awkward locomotion options. Too short.

Score: 5/10

Formats: PlayStation VR (reviewed), Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, HTC Vive Cosmos, and Oculus Quest
Price: £19.99
Publisher: PlayStack
Developer: Maze Theory
Release Date: 12th November 2019 (Oculus Quest TBC)
Age Rating: 12

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