Long live the legacy of John Hammond. May his dream of screwing around with the natural order to bring long-dead prehistoric lizards back to life reign forever. Dinosaurs have been a staple of video games, from their surprise appearance in Tomb Raider to the awesomeness that was Dino Crisis. While there have been Jurassic Park video games in the past, Jurassic World Evolution by Frontier Developments is the best logical design choice for a game based on the Michael Crichton series. A fun twist on the amusement park management genre, the game lets you channel your inner Hammond to spit in the eye of God as you manufacture dinosaurs with all the cold efficiency of an automated assembly line.
Even though John Hammond’s dream of a dinosaur theme park had gone wrong so many times, Evolution firmly believes in that old adage, “if at first, you don’t succeed, try, try, again.” As the newest park director for Jurassic World, it’s your job to build up and sustain a series of venues spread out across the five islands that make up the Muertes Archipelago (also cheerfully known as “The Five Deaths”) that serve as the center of the Jurassic Park universe. With plenty of callbacks from the original trilogy, the video game borrows a lot of visual design and characters from the reboot, Jurassic World, where Chris Pratt tames Velociraptors, Bryce Dallas Howard splices dinosaurs, and tourists sip margaritas and ride around in giant, controllable hamster balls. These characters, along with Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm, pop in occasionally to provide tips, exposition, and philosophical treatises on the practice of manufacturing life for the purposes of amusement (and hoo, boy, does it get heavy handed).
The job of park director can easily be summed up in a few words: keep the patrons happy. Any theme park worth its salt will do everything to ensure guests spend money and this is no different. As you monitor and manage park operations and finances, you’ll have three talking heads barking at you to complete contracts that unlock missions from each industry arm they represent--science, entertainment, and security--that advance their goals and aspirations in exchange for cash rewards and increased reputation. Contracts are small, self-contained tasks that challenge you to create specially spliced dinosaurs, build certain facilities, and reach different profit-by-minute thresholds in exchange for cash and reputation boosts. Reputation influences your standing against these three departments and working with one means upsetting the other two. The reputation system feels a bit contrived. Just like in an MMO, don’t expect to work with certain people if your reputation with them is too low, which often results in grinding contracts. Earn enough reputation and you’ll unlock that group’s mission for the island, which is kind of like multi-part contracts that usually give you a new facility, DNA sequence, or some other perk. Juggle these departments accordingly or you might find them deliberately sabotaging your park.
Jurassic World Evolution behaves like many of the old theme park games I dabbled with back in the day. Profits can be spent on a variety of park facilities and attractions, from viewing pens and observation towers to hotels and gift shops. Instead of having an entire island to work with, you’re given a cordoned-off portion to place various attractions, outposts, power stations, and all the roads in between. Later islands are more challenging because of their size or propensity for attracting natural disasters, leaving you to figure out how to deal with the problems that come up as a result. While the first island does a good job with holding your hand, the feeling of being set loose to work on your own is punishing and intimidating. The overall success of the park is measured by a star-based rating system and only by achieving specific ratings will other islands open up. Get a four-star rating on the starter island and you’ll unlock Isla Nublar, home of the original Jurassic Park, which functions as a sandbox mode where you can do whatever you want with unlimited funds. The only catch is you can only use facilities and attractions that you unlocked in the main, career-focused campaign. Why not let people use everything? What is gained by limiting the things you can play with?
What separates this game from other theme park sims are, of course, the dinosaurs. Jurassic World Evolution lets you play god by sending out expeditions to hunt for fossils to extract dino DNA from. For every new dinosaur species discovered, you’ll have to harvest enough DNA from the fossils and reach 50% viability of the sample before you can pump out creatures. However, a mere 50% viability rating means there’s only half a chance that the incubation will be a success. Only by harvesting more fossils of the same dinosaur will increase sample viability and a better success incubation rate. Research facilities house science teams that can study (expensive) upgrades for park buildings, guest services, and good ol’ gene splicing to help boost productivity and incubation efficiency. Using a fairly standard upgrade tree, you can have researchers study DNA from other animals to better cure diseases and splice them with your dinos. In game-speak, splicing creates upgrades that can change the color of the creature’s skin and improve certain stats like health, attack rating, and lifespan. There are lots of ways to customize these animals, and with 40 different dinosaur species to work with, there are lots of options available for filling out your own special prehistoric zoo.
What is a Jurassic Park game without chaos? Keeping guests coming and spending money is one thing but how will you react in the face of tropical storms that cause power failures, damage infrastructure, and worse, set loose dinosaurs? This is where your Ranger and ACU (Asset Containment Unit) facilities come into play. Rangers make sure dinosaurs are healthy and happy and can be dispatched to treat sickness, replenish live animal feeders, fix broken fences, and tranquilize dinosaurs should they escape. The ACUs handle security issues and can be sent to retrieve escaped animals, extract dead dinosaurs before their corpses spread disease, and sell off stock to some unknown third party. Rangers and ACUs are my favorite thing about the game. Their actions can be automated by pointing and clicking but you’re free to take control of the vehicles they drive, letting you walk the grounds from their point of view and take pictures for promo materials or personally take down a rampaging lizard.
There’s a lot of depth to Jurassic World Evolution and sometimes it can feel overwhelming, like when you’re asked to fulfill a contract using a mechanic or service the game hasn’t told you about at that point in time. People are constantly vying for your attention, getting you to invest in their ambitions at the expense of someone else’s. A lot of game mechanics, like research and dinosaur incubation, take anywhere from thirty seconds to five minutes of real time to complete. Profits and expenses are doled out every minute of real-time, and unless you’re rolling in dough, these measured outputs result in a lot of downtime spent waiting to generate enough cash to order a new building or create a dinosaur. I struggled a bit with the other islands because of cash flow problems and given that the game loop requires facilities that rely on each other, the sudden difficulty spikes made me feel helpless at times. Without an expedition team, you can’t dig up dinosaur bones. If you don’t have a fossil center, you can’t extract DNA to make new dinosaurs. Without a good dinosaur variety, you don’t get park revenue. And all in between this, you’re left to twiddle your thumbs. The flow could be improved so much if there was some sort of “speed up” button so you don’t have to wait so much for profit to generate or actions to be completed. Heck, you even have to wait for new contracts to refresh before you can get new ones! Why?! I got so bored at one point that I opened the gates of a Ceratosaurus pen and let them eat the park visitors. After I had my fun, I sent my security staff to tranq the beasts and put them back in their pens. Meanwhile, the Park atmosphere had gone back to normal and more guests kept pouring in, undeterred by the fact that somebody’s wife literally got eaten by a dinosaur not moments before. On that note, this game requires a lot of suspension of disbelief (I mean, it exists in a universe where the first several iterations of the theme park failed spectacularly and yet, people still go and act surprised when something bad happens!).
One thing that can’t be said about the game is that Frontier scrimped on the license. The game is a celebration of the film franchise, complete with the classic John Williams theme song, quotes from prominent characters across the films, and special guest appearances by Jeff Goldblum, B. D. Wong (who got really evil since the first movie) and Bryce Dallas Howard. Even though the visuals lean heavily on the newer films, I like how certain units, like the Ranger jeeps, can be reskinned to look like those used in the 1993 film. Beyond the cool aesthetic flairs, Jurassic World Evolution looks great, especially with effects like the sun reflecting off the ocean and park facilities, dense forests and low brush move gently against the island breeze and more violently during rainstorms and tornadoes, and dinosaurs roam about their pens. The dinosaurs themselves look fantastic and are well animated as they frolic, graze, and tear into each other or at park guests. The camera favors these creatures, so there are plenty of opportunities to get in close and admire these majestic beasts.
Jurassic World Evolution succeeds at being a good nostalgia trigger. Although it’s been over twenty years since I saw Jurassic Park in theaters, and I’ve grown older and somewhat cynical since then, it’s hard not to feel something stir the moment John Williams’ classic score kicks in. A theme park sim is a perfect fit for this franchise, and while managing budgets and park prices doesn’t sound like much fun, I appreciate that you’re given a chance to view the park from the perspective of the employees. There’s a lot going on here as screens, park operators, menus, and notifications call out for your attention and when there are lots to do, the game works pretty well. It’s when you’re unable to finance new research centers or expeditions where the game gets tedious as you sit and wait for enough money to come in to make new stuff. If you don’t mind that, then you’ll find Jurassic World Evolution to be a mostly fun exercise. Fans of theme park sims will enjoy the challenge of monitoring a park where the attractions can swallow guests whole. And you know there ain’t no coming back after those lawsuits.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.