I’ve read Crichton’s Jurassic Park books, and at their core they are less about running a massive park dedicated to the showcasing of the amazing resurrection of long-extinct creatures for the amusement of the masses, and more cautionary tales about the hubris of man when dealing with massive creatures far beyond our control. Developer Frontier, the team behind the two excellent games Elite: Dangerous and Planet Coaster, have partnered with Universal Studios to bring their beloved dinosaur tale to life in the form of a park builder entitled Jurassic World Evolution.
“Life, it begins”
From humble beginnings, you’ll build your park. Despite the many horrific examples of failure of John Alfred Hammond’s execution of Jurassic Park, his vision was as pure as it was egocentric. Locked in the unearthed amber and within the bones of fossils of dinosaurs lies DNA that, through the unshackled (and occasionally unethical) science of Dr. Henry Wu and his team at InGen, can be used to resurrect long-extinct dinosaurs. From “veggiesauruses” to things with “more teeth,” these beasts have long since perished from the Earth, and despite humanity’s wide-eyed wonder at these erstwhile extinct creatures, we have absolutely no chance at actually controlling them in a theme park-like environment. But that’s precisely what Jurassic World Evolution asks you to do!
Your park starts out on the very small Isla Matanceros — one of the Las Cinco Muertes (Yes, that translates to the five deaths). As you reach 3 stars in that first island, you’ll unlock the next island, and so forth until you have access to Isla Matanceros (which translates, according to Crichton, to slaughter), Muerta (death), Tacano (stingy), Pena (pain), and Sorna (sarcasm), better known as “The Five Deaths”, for some reason. You’ll also unlock Isla Nublar (cloud), which acts as a sandbox to build to your heart’s content. As you begin building on larger islands, you are encouraged to grow your park with it. Naturally, the larger and more complex your park, the more opportunity for exciting disastrous moments. Getting there, however, is the challenge. Before we get into the weeds (or in this case, raptor-filled shrubs), here’s a look at the first 65 minutes of the game in 4K on PC below.
“Welcome…to Jurassic Park!”
Using their Planet Coaster chops (and engine, for that matter), the team at Frontier have handed us the keys to the Jurassic kingdom. The first island lets you try your hand at a semi pre-built park. It has two incubators, power, pens, and everything you need to create your own Jurassic World. Much like any good builder game, you are given criteria and it’s your job to balance the finances against the wants of your guests, and the never-ending cash siphon of researching new and exciting attractions for your park. These are handed out by the three division heads over Science, Security, and Entertainment.
Dr. Kajal Dua is in charge of your science division. Her contracts are often built around discovery and pushing the envelope of science, occasionally to a wreckless degree. Isaac Clement, the head of the Entertainment Division, is excited to make your park into one giant cash-making commodity, and he’s always pushing an agenda to make the island more exciting to draw in more guests. George Lambert is responsible for the park’s security division. His only interest is ensuring that your creatures stay inside their pens, and that the power stays on. Unfortunately, sometimes that leads to what can only be described as some ethically dubious tests. I guess what I’m saying is that, like Wonderland, everyone’s mad here, and you are left juggling their eyebrow raising requests in a way that doesn’t endanger your guests.
Completing contracts raises your standing with that division, and passing certain thresholds unlocks main missions that are often more challenging, but yield far greater rewards like new building types, new creature genomes, or large sums of cash. Completing these opens up new contract thresholds with fresh objectives, keeping you on your toes, and encouraging you to return to previous islands to implement technology and release dinosaurs you might have researched elsewhere. It does a nice job of tying the whole ecosystem together.
Focusing on a particular division over another will breed jealousy in the other two. This can lead to sabotage by rogue elements of those divisions such as shutting off power to multiple power stations in your park. To remedy this, you’ll need to dispatch Rangers in jeeps to reboot the power grid. (Where’s Muldoon when you need him? Oh right…also dead.) Unfortunately, I ran into a bug where the prompt to manually reboot the downed power grid did not appear despite several laps around the building, leaving my park in the dark for several minutes while the timer expired instead of being able to proactively correct this.
Aside from research centers and pens, you’ll also have to feed your guests, supply trinkets and clothing, build bowling alleys, and various other guest entertainment and merch opportunities. Having these close to your dino viewing areas is important to cash flow. I did run into a few bugs with these as well. They are, by default, selling almost everything at a loss. Night vision goggles cost $20, but your shopkeeps are happy to sell them for $12 until you go and adjust the prices. You’d figure they’d at least be selling at the break-even price to start. Worse, they often simply stop working altogether. An arcade that was going gangbusters in my park suddenly dropped profit to zero, and no guests were entering any longer. I sold it and built another and it worked just fine. I’d take that on as bad placement, but in this case it was the third island. Sorry Frontier — you put those there. Still, it was a minor hiccup, and once moved to a different area, worked just fine and cranked out cash like it was coming out of a faucet.
“It’s a Unix system. I know this!”
The key to a financial powerhouse island is a diverse dinosaur population. There are 42 different dinosaur varieties (so far — you can expect we’ll see new dinos post-launch) but you’ll have to uncover them. More specifically, you’ll have to send out your dig team to find amber, bones, and fossils of various dinosaurs. Once you’ve gotten 50% of their genome researched, you’ll have enough DNA material to take a crack at incubating an egg at one of your “Hammond Creation Lab”. Should they survive the process (each type of dinosaur has a resiliency level, and upgrades to the building, and additional genome material will help raise their chances), the gates will open and you are now responsible for a new and wildly unpredictable life.
Each dinosaur in your island has eight stats to manage, and oh boy are some of these creatures temperamental. Ankylosaurus don’t like hanging out with much more than a small group, and the Dracorex will break out of your fenced paddock so fast it’ll make your head spin. Similarly, the gentle giant herbivores like the Brontosaurus and Diplodocus get very upset if there isn’t the right forest to shrubbery ratio and will take out any frustrations on your fences. The stats are split between health, food, water, comfort, grassland, forest, population, and social — think of these more as tolerances and wants. Some creatures like having friends, some are antisocial, some like chasing their food, and some prefer it in stationary bush form. Balancing the ecosystem when you have one dino that likes lots of water with one that likes very little can be a challenge. One giant paddock for carnivores, and one giant paddock for herbivores isn’t gonna cut it for long.
We are a long way past Hammond’s hokey animated Mr. DNA gene splicing roots here in Jurassic World Evolution. Beyond simply filling the gaps with frog DNA, Wu and his team are now replacing traits, enhancing, and twisting these beasts into something entirely different. One of the first dinosaurs you’ll get is a cute ostrich-like Struthiomimus. These little guys love crowds, can hang out with any herbivore, and can put up with just about any conditions — they are essentially the golden retriever of dinosaurs. I played around with their DNA too much and suddenly I started seeing pop-ups that I had dead dinosaurs in my paddock as my homegrown little monster was chewing through his brothers and sisters for sport. I had just turned a herbivore into a ruthless murder machine.
To help you build your ruthless murder machines, each building has several upgrades where you can apply researched improvements. These can improve the speed of incubation, success rate, grant your ranger teams better accuracy or additional queued tasks, and so forth. When applied to your power grid, they can also reduce outages or increase output, though pushing your power plant is a surefire recipe for raptors on parade.
When things go sideways in your park, and they absolutely will, you’ll have several interconnected engines to deal with those issues. Rangers can repair your broken fences and restore power, but you’ll need your ACU team and their helicopters to handle the animals themselves. They can fly out to the site and dart the creatures, sedating them. At that point, the transport choppers can lift them up and bring them back to your designated paddock. You can, for fun, jump behind the wheel of the jeep and drive it around, taking pictures and performing maintenance. You can even fly the helicopters yourself, tranquilizing dinosaurs personally if that’s your jam. It’s a fun distraction among the management tasks of running your park.
In addition to sabotage and upset dinosaurs, the weather around the islands can be a challenge. Storms can knock buildings offline and damage individual structures. Unlike dinosaur fussiness (which is more targeted), a storm can hit multiple parts of your park simultaneously. As your park grows larger, this can create mass chaos, justifying the emergency shelters. Using these causes a hit to how guests view your park safety, but I suppose raptors turning them into sushi might have some effect as well.
“I bring scientists, you bring the rock star.”
Jurassic World Evolution features a host of characters, some of them with familiar faces, and a few with familiar voices to match. Cabot Finch is the head of Public Relations and Crisis Management for the Park, and serves as a frequent corporate stooge that appears to give feckless and irresponsible advice — a great counter to the first of the familiar trio of voice actors — Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum, reprising his role as as Dr. Ian Malcolm (Let’s ignore the fact that he actually died in the first book, though Crichton resurrected him in the novel, The Lost World) delivers his dulcet reasoned tones as he warns that we are making precisely the same mistakes as we have in the past. He’s joined by BD Wong as Dr. Henry Wu (again, dead in the books, but resurrected for the movies) in a far more sinister role that matches the new movies, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire Dearing, although her lines are few and far between, and sound like they might have been delivered through a heavy dose of Ketamine.
Graphically, this game is absolutely gorgeous. The presentation is 100% authentic to the look and feel of the Jurassic Park movies. For a game that is meant to be played at a management height, zooming in on any of the objects is an eye-popping experience. The dinosaurs, the natural stars of the show, are lovingly crafted and look phenomenal. Each species moves differently, and all of them have different personalities and little ticks and behaviors. Raptors will furrow their brow and narrow their eyes as they gesticulate their claws in a nefarious way, whereas the aforementioned Struthiomimus bob around in a happy-go-lucky way, excited to hang out and socialize with their pals.
There are some frustrating elements that have, unfortunately, made their way over from Frontier’s other management project. Placing a store directly against an existing path (thankfully infrequently) renders the store useless as guests don’t see a ‘path’ leading up to it, despite being directly adjacent. There is a lack of tutorial elements in some areas, leading to early mistakes such as rushing to incubate expensive animals, only to realize that you have no way to feed them, or have the right fences to contain them. Navigating to the finance panel, you’ll find that you have no way to take a short term loan to rectify the issue, forcing a restart of the island to more carefully balance your cash flow. You can take contracts from your three divisions, but you will likely need to send your fossil crew to fetch materials or incubate a creature, both requiring upstart capital you don’t have — another dead end. A bit of pre-planning is required without the ability to secure secondary finances.
Jurassic World Evolution
Jurassic World Evolution strikes a chord with me, and that’s evident in the amount of time I’ve sunk into it. The presentation is gorgeous, the mechanics are engrossing, and balancing your veggiesauraces and meatysauraces has never been fun. There’s a handful of bugs to shake loose, but based on Frontier’s track record I’m fairly certain that these can be shaken out post launch.