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Doctor Who: City of the Daleks

The BBC and Sumo travel back in time

How good can a free game actually be? Well, the BBC and Sumo Digital are hoping to change our perceptions of the kind of quality available from free-to-play titles and there is not better name to do it under than Doctor Who.

With that in mind we hopped into the our TARDIS and nipped off to Sheffield to visit Sumo Digital to see what the new series of Doctor Who adventure games is all about - and were pleasantly surprised by the results.

The first thing to consider about the Doctor Who games is that they are a collaborative project with many of the team that make the TV series are deeply involved with the production of the game as well. There is also the added bonus of the games being overseen by producer and adventure games legend Charles Cecil. Doctor Who: City of the Daleks

Doctor Who: City of the Daleks is the first in a series of four episodic titles that the BBC will be releasing over the course of the summer in what they want to be seen as an extension to the TV series.

In fact the Beeb are going as far as to say that the current series is indeed 17 episodes long, with 13 TV episodes and four interactive ones. The idea is that the interactive episodes are created in such a way that families can crowd round the home PC and spend a couple of hours helping the Doctor save the world.

The format that has been chosen for the games is an adventure format, not dissimilar to Telltale's titles like Sam and Max and Tales from Monkey Island.

The first episode, or at least the alpha version that we got to play with does this very aptly employing some interesting and unexpected elements of gameplay that you wouldn't think would work with Doctor Who. Doctor Who: City of the Daleks

City of the Daleks begins with the Doctor deciding to take Amy back to 1963 to see the Beatles live in concert. When they arrive in 1963 something seems to have gone hideously wrong, however.

The TARDIS lands in Trafalgar Square but it has been completely destroyed by a Dalek invasion. The Doctor ad Amy emerge from the iconic police box to witness the Daleks chasing a woman they refer to as the last human alive as she escapes into the remains of the London Underground.

This is where the biggest surprise occurs. Instead of following standard point and click adventure conventions City of the Daleks adopts a stealth game dynamic. The Doctor and Amy have to sneak past the Daleks patrolling Trafalgar Square and find a way to follow the woman into the local Tube station to find out what's going on.

After getting exterminated far too many times - more that we'd like to admit - we enter the Tube station courtesy of an abandoned London cab and find the woman to uncover what's happened to 1963.

It emerges that the Daleks burst from the sky and rapidly reduced human civilisation to ruins. At this point we are invited to fast forward to the next chapter where the Doctor and Amy have travelled to the Dalek's home planet of Scaro to infiltrate their main city, Kalaan and reverse the damage the tin-voiced maniacs have done to space and time, not to mention Earth.

Immediately there are problems for the Doctor. Amy is destabilised in time, because she has come from a time that (now) does not exist. The first task is to find enough Dalek technology to build a device to keep Amy safe until they put everything back the way it was.

Firstly the Doctor has to get out of the storage room that he has parked the TARDIS in and this is where some of the other elements of the game begin to appear. Now as the Doctor has his trusty Sonic Screwdriver, he has a device which is essentially a universal lock pick.

Of course this causes havoc in game design as the major dynamic in adventure games is getting past locked doors and other similar obstacles, but with the Sonic Screwdriver Sumo has to be just a little bit more inventive in the obstacles they put in the Doctor's way.

In this case the doors in the Dalek's home city are controlled by computer and cannot be bypassed using the Sonic Screwdriver. Instead the Doctor has to locate a piece of security circuitry that just happens to be inside a discarded Dalek head in the store room.

To retrieve the component, a mini puzzle appears that is essentially a guide the item through a maze without touching the walls affair. This time around the puzzle is fairly simple but, all the puzzles are built around templates that can be varied easily by Sumo to alter the difficulty.

Once the component is retrieved and the Doctor can open the doors, we step out into the corridor and the stealth gameplay kicks back in. The next few minutes are spent sneaking around the complex to find the pieces the Doctor needs to build the time stabilisation device for Amy.

Job done and the next task is to move to the surveillance room to find out what the Daleks are up to. Again, more stealth gameplay followed by a series of mini puzzles, this time matching symbols with a steadily increasing difficulty level with each puzzle.

The mini puzzles all seem to work very well and add a bit of variety to all the sneaking around that the Doctor seems to do. The real surprise though is just how well the Metal Gear Solid-style sneaking works with Doctor Who.

The alpha code is also a bit of a revelation as the glitches in the review code are fairly sparse. The game loads and plays very smoothly and is every bit up to the standard and indeed better than you'd expect from a commercially available episodic game.

The other surprise that Sumo have put in is that the game is radically scaleable so it will work comfortably on PCs with a Pentium processors and Pixel Shader 2.0 graphics cards. Each episode weighs in at a mere 250MB as well, which keeps the download times to a minimum.

All in all the Doctor Who adventure games series is shaping up to be quite an impressive set of releases but the real reason to have confidence in the game is the passion that Sumo have for the project.

The studio is absolutely buzzing with enthusiasm for Doctor Who. Every single member of the team has grown up with the Doctor and is fully invested in making the episodes the best that they can be.

The project's creative director at Sumo Digital, the very distinctive Sean Millard, summed it all up best in explaining why Sumo wanted to be involved: "Those two words 'Doctor Who'. Who wouldn't want to be involved? We're all fans and when we said that we were doing the game everyone at the studio was fighting each other to be involved. It's a passion thing. It's so animated behind the scenes and that's why Doctor Who is what is."