“I wasn’t rage-quitting, I was taking a frustration break” – Bee Bonthuys on Jurassic World Evolution
Gamers were right to be optimistic about movie tie-in Jurassic World Evolution, from Cambridge developers Frontier Developments. They weren’t theme park genre virgins, having inherited Chris Sawyer’s much beloved Rollercoaster Tycoon series and released the highly rated final entry in the trilogy. Yes, there were some missteps over the years – among them the overly cutesy and nightmare-fueling Kinectimals, and the thoroughly bland Dog’s Life – but they came back punching with games like the unapologetically old-school but absorbing Elite Dangerous, and the infinitely customisable Planet Coaster.
With all that gaming bling, it made perfect sense for NBCUniversal, anticipating the release of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom in cinemas, to task Frontier with making the spiritual successor to 2003’s Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis, an underappreciated classic among the plethora of titles based on the franchise. It was with that in mind that, after my second untimely retreat to the desktop in the first 49 minutes of play, I kept telling myself that this was just another diamond in the rough. A few hours later, I decided I needed to step away for a while; I wasn’t rage-quitting, I was taking a frustration break.
It wasn’t the base mechanics that fuelled this mounting frustration. Jurassic World Evolution doesn’t stray far from the Zoo Tycoon formula: you start off on a thematically appropriate Central American island, charged with taking cash from schmucks unaware of the short life expectancy of tourists on Islas Matanceros, Muerta, Pena, Sorna and Tacaño. These potential happy meals are lured by the player’s ever-expanding menagerie of big, ferocious animals. Oh and remember to keep those dinos happy and fed (preferably not on the bloody remains of your visitors).
As the boss, your other main job is hatching a cornucopia of prehistoric movie stars, from small fry like Struthiomimus, to the infamous Indominus Rex. Excavation teams will jet around the world looking for appropriate fossils to reanimate. and while this should be an exciting opportunity to discover something new and rare – much like finding a unique item in Path of Exile – it amounts to nothing more than picking a preordained spot on the world map and waiting around until the popup informs you it’s time to extract some DNA. You’ll rinse and repeat this rote process ad nauseam.
Research, while there’s enough to uncover, is a similarly muted affair, lacking the fun trial-and-error approach found in games like Waking Mars. There are some new tourist buildings and power plant upgrades, as well as modifications to your dinos, but the buildings are lacking in the creative design department, and while I experimented with some dino behaviour changes, nothing ever justified the effort involved. What’s the point of making a T-rex a tiny bit more defensive or aggressive? We’re not running Jurassic UFC here. A more sympathetic park owner might’ve invested a few bucks in extending the lifespan of their Edmontosauruses, but I found it easier just to wait a few years for the cash to come rolling in and hatch a replacement, for that new dino smell.
Richard Attenborough was onto something here, by the way: dino parks are insanely lucrative. Outside of sandbox mode, tycoon games are usually tricky to balance; the player should have enough money to upgrade and improve to their heart’s content, but there should be a steady increase in difficulty as well as ample exciting money sinks. Jurassic World Evolution has neither; once the park is teeming with predators, its rating and profitability skyrockets, but with very few opportunities to reliably drain off that cash, the devs instituted their own version of chaos theory.
Suspiciously, just as things are going super well, one or more of your generators might get sabotaged, which shuts down the park’s electric fencing and unleashes hungry lizard beasts on your unsuspecting guests. Nothing sinks your bank balance as fast as the lawsuit payments from a rogue T-rex on the hunt. While I appreciate a difficulty spike or two (seeing brimstone and hellfire raining down was one of Sim City’s most appealing aspects, after all), Evolution’s insistence that you micromanage your emergency procedures makes the whole thing a chore; often you’ll find you can’t click fast enough to contain the expanding calamity.
If it’s not arbitrary difficulty spikes making your life hell, a trusty department head might pop in for a chat. Representing the science, entertainment and security branches of your park, they assign random contracts in exchange for more dough, and unlocking new islands. Contracts range from the super easy to the much more imposing challenge of getting two different species to happily co-habitat. With build areas as small as provided, good luck finding comfortable digs for Dippy and friends.
While I always welcome a distraction from the mundane, the demands of these department heads are a bit puzzling. Entertainment once, understandably, needed a photo of three Styracosaurus for the park catalogue. But when Security demanded some similar dino headshots, I was a bit bewildered – what were they planning on doing with these cheeky snaps? Pin them to the breakroom dartboard for some target practice? Surely my untold millions could buy some better training.
At least you’ll have some pretty things to gawk at while the world burns. The dinos are mostly well-rendered doppelgangers of their movie counterparts. The park, too, while a bit magnolia is bright and tropical, and fittingly chaotic when a fierce storm strikes. But just don’t zoom in on the guests: they’re oddly clumped together in groups of three and are severely lacking in individual detail and personality. Even the patrons in Thrillville for the PSP (also a Frontier title) were a more interesting bunch.
Shaping the environment also leaves a lot to be desired. Without the ability to place any real decorations or other distractions, except for the infuriating monorail, building anything truly epic is nigh on impossible, and the terrain tools, with their incredibly flaky and the often confounding building placement, are best avoided.
Let’s be real, though. Jurassic World Evolution was not designed with the hardcore park simulator devotee in mind. It’s aimed at fans who love the movie franchise and want to see if they can survive the hazards of John Hammond’s doomed dream. Such players won’t be disappointed: there’s tons of information to be found in the game’s glossaries, from dino facts to movie trivia. Jeff Goldblum’s Dr Malcolm even butts in with snark and ominous warnings about life…uhm…finding a way. Bryce Dallas Howard woodenly laments the hardships of park management and running in heels, and BD Wong’s monotone, laced with ruthless ambition, freaked me out ever so slightly.
However, Evolution’s truly stand-out feature is its soundtrack. John Williams’ iconic score flows beautifully along with your every action; the music swells and ebbs at just the right moments and I often found myself humming along. The merriment is only interrupted by the deafening roars of your park residents – worth turning your speakers to eleven for the full effect.
Frontier Developments was saddled with a herculean task in creating a movie tie-in that didn’t stink of dino dung. What they managed plays like a misguided love letter to the Jurassic Park franchise, and much like the current film series, it’s in lacking scope and some down-to-earth logic. Gamers looking for a much better-realised dinosaur park experience might be better served by picking up an old copy of Zoo Tycoon and its Dino Digs expansion.