Sat 22 Jan 2011
When Telltale announced they were developing a series of official Back to the Future adventure games I was pretty damned excited. I had just finished playing through and reviewing the excellent third season of Sam & Max, and, more importantly, Back to the Future is one of my favourite blockbuster, fun, 80s films. One of my favourite film franchises, in excellent hands – what could possibly go wrong?
Well, firstly let’s have a gander through the story. Set after the events of the third and final film, Marty is still living with his (new and improved) parents and Doc Brown is nowhere – or nowhen – to be seen. Doc has been gone so long, in fact, that his lab is being sold on and his stuff cleared out. The game starts out, after a slightly awkward re-imagining of a famous scene from the first film, with Marty looking through Doc’s stuff – he has been told he can have something to remember his friend by. Inevitably, Biff is there and the first puzzle revolves around getting Doc’s notebook back from him. It’s a ‘learn the ropes’ puzzle and works out fairly well, albeit being a little contrived.
Before long, though, the real game starts when the Delorean materialises outside, piloted only by Doc’s trusty dog Einstein. Doc has been roving time and got himself into a spot of trouble in the prohibition era – and he needs your help. The puzzles are fairly standard fare for a Telltale adventure, and that’s where the problems with Back to the Future start, really. The early half of the game possesses a rather slow pace; add to that the new hint system, which, if you’re bored, can basically just tell you the solution, and what you have is a complete lack of mystery, urgency or frustration. The pacing does pick up nearer the end, in particular with a fun puzzle involving the young Doc Brown but overall the game suffered from not pulling me in enough at the start. This uneven, and at times rather dull, pacing goes contrary to the spirit of the Back to the Future franchise and, being the fan I am, quickly sapped the magic from the whole experience. So, if the pacing doesn’t capture the spirit of the films, what about the dialogue?
As ever with a Telltale game the dialogue is pretty much completely solid. The scripted dialogue manages to capture the personality of all the characters very well, and did well to make up for the slow pacing by pulling me into the story and its situations. Marty’s conversations with Doc are especially well handled, for example, and very much feel like lines from Back to the Future: Part 4. The dialogue options you get to choose when in conversions with characters, however, didn’t feel like they had been taken full advantage of. At one point, you need to get an object back from a Tannen, with only dialogue options at your disposal. Without giving away too much, you end up getting to use a famous Back to the Future phase to solve the puzzle. Apart from it really doesn’t feel like a puzzle, it’s just the last dialogue option you get to. It would have been more interesting if your knowledge of the famous characters’ personalities could have been used for the solution, rather than clicking on everything, then, a few seconds later, realising you’d said something familiar.
And so that brings me to the general ‘difficulty level’ of the game. I’ve talked already about how the hint system dulls the game, but any player even remotely familiar with the adventure game genre shouldn’t need to use them – the puzzles are thin, simple and easy. There is also a fair bit of repetition, with one particular example being a rather contrived puzzle of giving Einstein random items, from which he then runs off and finds someone connected to it. I can see this problem improving across the series, though, with episode 1 clearly aiming to provide an introduction; the gaming audience is quite obviously larger and less niche for this game than it was for Sam & Max, or Strongbad.
It’s lucky actually that the puzzles don’t require too much tramping around the environments, because the control system for Back to the Future: The Game is woeful. I remember there was quite a bit of hostility aimed at Telltale when they changed the control system for Sam & Max in time for developing the third season. To be fair, the changes they made there were understandable with the move to other platforms and, on balance, the new system worked. For Back to the Future, however, they seem to have taken it all one step further. Movement is still governed by holding down the mouse and dragging in the direction one wishes to move, yet, this time it just doesn’t seem to work. I ended up with Marty flitting around in circles on the spot at one point. Furthermore, the camera angles – which were very well positioned to work with the controls in Sam & Max – seem to have been chosen with no thought whatsoever. Walking from one end of a room to the other in a straight line can quite often require two or three changes of direction with the mouse.
I’ve left discussing the visuals until the end because, although it makes little logical sense, I was determined to finish on a positive note. The two main characters are very well realised and it’s in its visual style that the game really succeeds. Adopting a cartoony, yet detailed look for the characters, Telltale have managed to capture the personalities of Doc and Marty whilst still making the game feel distinct and original. I few of the supporting characters are a little less well realised but, in general, the visual style is attractive and detailed. The voices are another very strong aspect of Back to the Future: The Game, as with many of Telltale’s offerings. Christopher Lloyd returns as Doc Brown and provides an enthusiastic and spirited performance – despite his now more hoarse voice – which really helps to solidify the game’s status as an official title. AJ LoCascio, the new talent who plays Marty, does a stellar job of capturing his character without making the whole thing sound like an impressions show and, again, this is immeasurably important for sealing the game’s authentic feel. The strength of the leads also allows Telltale to get away with a somewhat less successful supporting cast. That said, I’m automatically judging the like-ness of the voices to the film over the raw performances and, as ever, Telltale have managed to find some pretty solid actors.
So, all in all, I’m a little disappointed with the first instalment of this five-part game. It’s the game parts that grated the most for me, with the puzzles being a very safe and simple, and a control system that plain doesn’t make sense. On the plus side for Back to the Future: The Game, however, this is only episode 1 – a beginners-friendly introduction. Furthermore, Telltale has created a solid and promising visual and stylistic template to build upon. Let’s hope, come the next episode, we have a more risky game that tries harder to bring something different to both Back to the Future and to the Telltale adventure game format. Certainly from the ending of episode 1 it looks like they have part 2 of that hope covered, as it suggests we will be treated to some interesting game mechanics, based around on one of the most fun ways the Back to the Future franchise played around with time travel. At the moment though, to be honest, Back to the Future: The Game plays like a weak Sam & Max episode with Marty and Doc Brown in it – occasionally spinning around on the spot.