Version tested: PC
Touch of Evil may be the classy choice, but for me, the first moments of Back to the Future offer the greatest opening shot of any movie ever made. The magical twinkles of sound that accompany the date and time date and time! First thing you see! appearing on screen, followed by the steady, comforting chittering of dozens of pendulums and cogs, and then the fade up and the pan past that endless array of time-pieces.
There's an awful lot going on in that tracking shot in terms of exposition the news report on the telly, Marty's skateboard thudding against the plutonium crate, the mad-scientist dog food dispenser but there's even more at work in terms of theme, and in terms of foreshadowing. Look closely, and you'll see a 1950s jukebox nestled in amongst the junk of the cluttered lab. Look even closer and you'll see a hint towards the very end of the film: one of the doc's many clocks has a tiny human figure hanging from the hands.
The opening of Telltale's Back to the Future game is similarly packed with information. While the first episode of five will ultimately whisk Marty and the DeLorean back into the past on a new adventure to save the Doc, it starts with a reverent reworking of one of the first movie's greatest scenes: night has fallen on the glittering rain-slicked tarmac of at this point Twin Pines Mall, and an unwitting dog named Einstein is about to make fictional scientific history.
Telltale plays the scene straight, for the most part right up until the twist ending that propels you into the game's own narrative, which takes place a few months after the end of Back to the Future III. While you could argue that the developer's using a touch of the familiar to clue you into the adventure game's movement, inventory and dialogue systems, in reality, you'll know this is a promise being made. We understand the movies every bit as well as you do, Telltale is whispering. You're in safe hands.
That's a relief, because a Back to the Future game is a frightening prospect. For fans, there's the fact that all previous Back to the Future games have been terrible, but there's also that slight twinge that comes from having to acknowledge that something you love so personally is loved, equally personally, by hundreds of thousands of other people. Anything that ropes in Doc Brown, Marty McFly and Hill Valley had better be worth it.
For the developer, it's even more terrifying: fumbling a license this powerful would be a difficult disaster to distance yourself from. That it's fallen to Telltale, then, is both natural and quietly worrying. With a growing reputation as the voodoo witch doctors of gaming, reanimating the most cherished corpses of childhood to make the limbs twitch and jerk for a few final hours, Telltale has always delivered, on time and on budget, and with an admirable sense of warmth. The games themselves, however, can occasionally be workmanlike rather than genuinely involving.
Happily, Back to the Future is one of the team's better efforts: it may not be the most satisfying of adventure games as far as puzzles go, but it's heartfelt, engrossing and often clever. If you spent your early years dreaming that the family's Citroλn Dyane was a DeLorean, constructing your own Flux Capacitor out of cereal boxes or urging Mum to hit 88mph on the way back from Morrisons, you're likely to find this an enjoyable two or three hours, leaving the four subsequent episodes with a promising foundation to build upon.
Crucially, It's About Time really looks and feels like Back to the Future. The choice to go with an art style based on broad caricature is a good one: it fits well with the limitations of Telltale's rubbery graphical approach and allows the cast to shine.
Biff still says things like "Lookee what we have here" and boasts an obvious blond wig, while the freakishly good Michael J. Fox vocal impersonator is wedded to some truly brilliant animation touches which capture every nuance of Marty McFly, right down to that particular way he rubs the back of his neck when stressed. Christopher Lloyd is on hand as the Doc in a typically wonderful turn, while Bob Gale, one of the series' co-creators, makes a very welcome addition as story consultant. (Pointless trivia: Gale also had a stint writing Batman comics.)
The world of Hill Valley, meanwhile, is filled with familiar sound effects if you don't get a chill when the time circuits first bleep to life, you are a hollow shell of a human being and neat little details. A to-do list tucked into one of the Doc's notebooks includes a reminder to pick up a bullet-proof vest; a sign announces the law offices of Gale, Zemeckis, and Fine; and the framed black-and-white clock tower snap sits in Marty's bedroom alongside Miami Vice and Weird Science posters.
Doc's famously unpredictable giant amp features in an early puzzle, and while the adventure soon heads for an entirely new time period it doesn't seem fair to say which one and spoil your first play-through it feels like a very natural choice: another era in Hill Valley's cyclical history in which a generation of Tannens are booting a generation of McFlys around, and the Jones family is still in the manure business.
As an adventure game, however, it's a solid effort rather than a dazzling one. It's a pacey riff on (what else?) the Three Trials, with a strong focus on story and dialogue and just enough room at the end for a blast of action and a tease for the next instalment. There are a fair few hints suggesting that the game was slightly rushed movement is inelegantly handled, the game's environments grow increasingly non-interactive the further you get into the story, and one puzzle mechanic is used twice with little in the way of variation but the scenarios zip past in a pleasant blur, and there's a gentle humour that gives life to even the slowest moments.
If you had any hopes for the time travel theme bringing with it a Day of the Tentacle-style causal complexity, however, you're going to be disappointed. The teaser for the next episode hints that a touch of temporal intricacy is on the way, but for now, the developer is playing it safe, using the Flux Capacitor as a way of opening up new environments rather than allowing the flow of time to tangle itself up with the puzzle mechanics. The film series had the fleet-footed audacity to fold up crucial parts of a sequel and stuff it back inside the timeline of the first movie; it would be nice to see Telltale engaging in the same kind of tricks at some point.
Ultimately, It's About Time is a decent enough adventure game in a wonderfully-realised universe, where a little bit of corner-cutting can't ruin the pleasures of all the unlikely elements the developer gets right.
Having never given a toss about things like Star Wars, I was largely unaware of the power of videogames combined with the right license. But the swell of Alan Silvestri's score with the firing up of time circuits and the rev of the DeLorean's engine caught me unawares and genuinely made me feel like I was seven again: seven and filled with dreams that I too could listen to Huey Lewis and the News tapes on my Walkman and tit around on a skateboard. An authentic tribute.
7 / 10