The world of Doctor Who has been just begging for a competent game. After all, aren't aliens, robots, destruction, time travel and awkward, often sarcastic, humour all great staples of the medium? It's exactly the sort of television show that could merrily hop over the gap without missing a beat. But despite a clear love of the series and the best efforts of the voice cast, including current Doctor Matt Smith himself, Supermassive Games' Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock is not that game.
If you were to prod the good Doctor into a video game genre, he'd probably fit most readily into the point and click adventure framework, where there's plenty of room for quips and brain-tangling puzzles. The Eternity Clock doesn't dip into that genre, instead picking what's probably the next most appropriate option: a 2D platformer set in a 3D world. As you run around corners the environment spins around to the other side of the turn, so for the most part you only ever walk in two dimensions.
The two characters at your disposal, the Doctor himself and River Song, are controlled in alternation in single player mode: the main man can use the famous sonic screwdriver to clear the way with quiet wizardry, whereas River has a gun that can stun enemies and blast open paths. The Eternity Clock is playable in local split-screen co-op too, which is quite useful as it prevents your AI partner from getting stuck or dawdling around, but doesn't really change things too much.
Simple distractions are interspersed throughout. The sonic screwdriver can be pointed about with the right analogue stick and opens doors, deactivates enemies and disintegrates barriers through a mini game in which you manipulate the height and width of a soundwave to match the frequency and volume of the obstacle's own waveform. There are massively predictable sequences where you have to let blue orbs into a core while blocking out red ones by flicking gates open and shut, an infuriating game involving overheating lightbulbs and a better one where pipes have to be connected to let energy flow between nodes. They don't do much for the atmosphere.
Elsewhere, dreadful stealth sections don't give enough feedback and are inconsistent, sometimes letting you sneak by and other times catching you unfairly. The standard platforming suffers from occasional partner AI glitches and enemies that dip in and out of the foreground, so you're never quite sure when they can hurt you. Yet the main issues come not just from the central mechanics but from badly thought out puzzles, poor checkpointing and unrealistic expectations of the audience.
Take for example a chase through the London Underground. An army of Cybermen is marching relentless towards destruction. If you touch them, you're a goner. As they stomp in and out of the background, eventually leading off screen, your job is to scamper along in the foreground, clambering up platforms and using computer terminals to let down pipes so that your partner can swing over to the next platform along and similarly activate the next machine so that the pipes stay down for you too. The problem with this sequence, however, is that it's timed – and you never see the countdown. After a certain point the Cyberman are deemed to have strutted too far forward, triggering a failure and sending you right back to the start. The time never stops ticking down, even when you're tapping away at a computer. And those computers? Hosts to those rubbish lightbulb mini games.
There's a puzzle in which the solution is to literally stand still for a few minutes at the top of a level to tempt a battalion of enemies your way, making them shoot out a glass wall so that you can access some – yes – computer terminals in a locked room. Then you hop in an elevator and ride to the bottom, stand around for a while longer to lead the enemies downstairs again, then finally get back in the lift and fiddle with the machines to complete the level. It's overly long, patience-stretching and boring.
The next level is a multi-staged factory. Checkpoints are in place if you die, but it's not saved as you go along; if the game crashes here or while loading the next stage – as it did for us three times — you have to repeat the whole section again, potentially losing 20 minutes of play each time. It's the same story if you want to quit and return later; there are no mid-level saves in The Eternity Clock. And this is all just in the Cybermen sections of the game – there are Daleks, Silurians and The Silence to deal with after that.
It's a real shame to see these flaws and difficulty spikes so regularly, as on the presentation front The Eternity Clock does quite well with the source material. The visuals aren't top notch — some actions, such as ladder climbing, quite obviously miss out animation frames – but they're inoffensive and occasionally resemble something approaching claymation. The voicework is great, with key members of the television show's cast joining the party and making a good go of it. Audio samples do clash at times, though, if you've run forward into a new section as the speech is playing for instance, and in one play session the voice audio cut out entirely until the game was reset.
Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock is for the most devoted Doctor Who fans only, and even then we'd advise sticking to the TV series. There's enough in the series to pull together a decent game with the right approach, but we're going to have to wait a bit longer for that TARDIS-sized hole in videogames to be filled.