Review: Telltale Games Back to the Future Ep 1 HD
Company: Electronic Arts
Title: Back to the Future Ep 1 HD
If ever there was a poster child for ambitious but buggy iPad gaming, Telltale Games would unfortunately top the list: the developer behind last year's seriously glitchy Wallace and Gromit The Last Resort has just released Back to the Future Ep 1 HD ($7), a similarly amazing use of the iPad's 3-D graphics hardware that feels as if it wasn't debugged before release. Fans of the Back to the Future movies and light walk-and-tap adventure games will be impressed by this title's ambitious storyline, voice acting, and fully realized 3-D world, but they'll also be shocked by the pervasive stuttering and glitches Apple overlooked when choosing its latest "iPad Game of the Week."
Back to the Future includes a completely new storyline that seems to pick up where the first movie left off, following a relatively inexperienced Marty McFly on a quest to rescue mad scientist Doc Brown from a jail cell in the 1930’s—back when Hill Valley was in the midst of Prohibition-era boozing and mob activity. Using the time-traveling DeLorean and clues found by tapping on objects and people within Hill Valley, you move from one truly 3-D environment to the next, getting the chance to play with everything from the car’s famous Flux Capacitor to the massive speaker in Doc’s lab and new, less well-known inventions.
Characters actually speak their dialogue using sophisticated facial animations; Marty, Doc, Biff, and George McFly all look and sound basically as they did in the films, albeit as cartoony avatars rather than photorealistic versions, with modestly caricatured features for dramatic effect. Additionally, familiar Hill Valley roads and areas are shown as they were in a decade sandwiched between ones presented in the films.
On the surface, there’s no question that Back to the Future Ep 1 looks and sounds great. Telltale has taken what could have been completely pre-rendered scenes and made them truly interactive, including a walkable 3-D version of Hill Valley’s town square that many developers would have been happy to leave flat, and some animations that suggest an amazing degree of attention to little details—a slight bounce of the DeLorean as Marty gets in and out, flopping manes of hair, and an inventory screen with steampunk gears. The music sounds as if it came straight out of the movies, as does the dialogue, albeit with a little extra punch to keep you enjoying the multiple text choices you’re given on screen. Fans of the original trilogy will be impressed, possibly enough to follow through what are supposed to be five total monthly episodes in this series.
But somehow, despite all the great assets this title brings to bear, Telltale managed to make a mess out of the big picture. Lip-synchronized dialogue doesn’t just miss by split-seconds, but rather entire sentences, and scenes that are supposed to dramatically fade in and out instead feel as if they’re overlapping one another. The triggering events inside of areas you’re exploring too often feel unintuitive and forced, forcing you to rely on an in-game tip system to figure out what sequences of actions you’re supposed to be taking—even when your next step or two appears to be completely straightforward. Controlling Marty, which is handled primarily with a virtual joystick, object-tapping controls, and a dialogue selector, is stilted and imprecise. By video game standards, Back to the Future Ep 1 just isn’t fun.
What ultimately saves this title from an even lower rating is the strength of the content inside its seriously flawed engine; fans of the completely non-interactive films may be largely satisfied by even the awkward interface given that what they’re getting here feels like a part of a fourth movie, only with added user involvement relative to the films. While it’s easy to say that most of the game’s problems could be fixed with a little post-release clean-up work, we’re not confident that it will happen here given that Wallace and Gromit has sat unfixed with serious, game-stopping bugs since the middle of last year. That Telltale Games would release something so undertested is only a little more disappointing than Apple’s decision to spotlight this title on the App Store without any regard for the spotty user experience it delivers. Our advice would be to save your cash until and unless it receives a substantial patch to fix its issues, or perhaps winds up in a larger, less expensive compilation with the rest of the story’s pieces.