Movies based on video games may be consistently and notoriously terrible, but video games based on movies historically haven’t fared much better. A lot of that comes down to publishers rushing a game to get it on shelves before the related film is irrelevant, or hammering any piece of trash together just so they can slap the movie’s title on the box. A license like Jurassic Park (or World, as you kids call it these days) should be an easy sell when it comes to video game tie-in, yet no one has ever really done the brand justice. I put it to you now that Frontier has cracked it here with Jurassic World Evolution, largely because the game eschews the traditional film tie-in tropes, and takes a different route altogether.
Let’s imagine you’re making a game based on a film franchise that is 12% pseudo-science chit chat, 26% love interest, and the rest pure dinosaur-centric fear, screaming, hiding, shooting, exploding, teeth, and death. So you can’t really blame publishers and developers for thinking that’s what makes a good Jurassic Whatever video game. Jurassic World Evolution, however, wins because it does almost the opposite – the bombastic action set-pieces, the clichßd characters with their cheesy one-liners, the rollercoaster ride of dental melodrama, all of that is gone. By ripping the Hollywood out of the Jurassic brand, and detaching it from the franchise’s worn out narrative, we get the most enjoyable Jurassic Park/World/Galaxy game ever made.
It’s surprisingly sedate too, if you want it to be. Which is a first for anything with Jurassic Something written big on the front. More so than most park management simulators, actually, which is surprising since you’re managing flesh eating behemoths, in the middle of nowhere, on a chain of islands with a name translating to The Five Deaths.
These five islands represent your progression through the game, working towards opening a final island with all the bits and pieces you’ve unlocked through the campaign, which acts as the game’s only proper sandbox experience. You start off on Isla Matanceros, your entry level, garden variety island, which comes pretty much ready to run right out of the box. It’s a very easy start, slowly introducing you to the various game mechanics involved in running a successful park – research expeditions, fossil analysis and DNA extraction, enclosure planning, dinosaur micromanagement, and then the business side of things too, like making sure you’ve got enough shops selling overpriced food and cheaply made trinkets.
It’s all quite basic, as far as park management goes. Here’s the thing though… if you love dinosaurs, it’s just lovely. I love dinosaurs. I’ve got a top five list and everything. And so, for me, even these initial stages of Jurassic World Evolution were wonderfully engrossing. It helps that on your first island you’re swimming in cash within minutes, so, unless you’ve got the park management skills of a depressed turkey, money won’t even be a consideration.
Things get substantially more high maintenance once you move to the second island and beyond, but even then there’s a strangely calm atmosphere to the whole thing. It’s not that you won’t be challenged, but there is rarely an unsettling sense of urgency that sometimes comes with games like this. You rarely feel like things are beyond your control, or that a threat situation is more than you can handle.
What urgency there is, comes down to how hands-on you want to be. And here comes my Big Thing. I’m even excited just to tell you about it. If you really want to get the most out of Jurassic World Evolution, you can drive your Jeep through the encampments and do dinosaur park ranger stuff up close. It sounds simple enough, but it’s enough to turn this game from simple park management to a proper dinosaur experience. Building hotels, researching new kinds of electric fencing or unravelling new DNA modifications is fine, but driving alongside the creatures in a proper Jurassic-branded Jeep and darting a sick Triceratops with meds, before heading off to restock your live feeder in the carnivore camp is just sublime.
You can delegate these smaller tasks to your rangers, allowing the AI to take over, but unless things are particularly busy in multiple sections of the park you really should take the time to get stuck in by yourself. I had some of my happiest Jurassic World Evolution moments trying to time my movements through my meticulously planned system of gates to put fresh goats in the feeder for my Ceratosaurus camp without being eaten. Other times I would just drive along the edge of a large dam I had created in my herbivore camp, admiring my peaceful veggiesauruses as they socialised or hunkered down to drink.
It’s from this up close perspective that you learn to appreciate the work gone into creating the game world here too. Dinosaurs have a slightly shiny look, a little too like plastic when the sun hits them from some angles, but the character models are nicely detailed and their movements are incredibly believable, even up close. Their behaviour, too. I spent a lot of time watching big carnivores hunting goats in densely wooded areas I had built up, and while I may have been seeing it because I wanted to, I could swear there was some pack hunting going on. Even if I just imagined it, the result is much the same.
The environments are properly pretty too, especially once the bad weather rolls is. Rain pools in the fields, grass moves in the wind, the sun glistens off water surfaces in a beautifully realistic way. Man made structures are less impressive – mostly just suitably modern slabs of concrete, but they get the job done. The overall effect, when you’re panning your view across a bustling, highly developed park, is impressive. Most artifacts in the game world hold up well under closer examination, instead of the “nice from far, but far from nice” school of design laziness we see too often.
The game engine holds up really well, too, considering the level of detail, heavy weather effects, and large number of variables at play. I reviewed this on an Xbox One X, so can’t speak for the other versions, but even when my park was crawling with guests, stocked up with almost too many dinosaurs, and packed with research facilities and power plants, I never noticed any kind of tearing, pop-up, or judder.
It’s all sounding a little too perfect, I’ve just realised, so let me just point out that it’s definitely not. There are aspects which knock Jurassic World Evolution down a good few pegs, although none of them should be considered dealbreakers. Small things, like the strange progression system based on three factions within your organisation – science, security, and entertainment – who for some reason are so savagely competitive within your organisation that they will resort to sabotaging your park if they’re neglected. Take on a challenge for one department, and your favour with the other two drops, resulting in an awkward juggling act to keep your employees happy and to unlock the more advanced park features. The issue is that the challenges put forth by one department has no real negative impact on the other two, so why it should make them so terribly unhappy is a mystery.
The interface and menu navigation system sometimes also implodes on itself with layer upon layer of tabs, and there are important stats which you should be keeping an eye on which I only ever found by sheer luck while looking for something else. I could also imagine that, for those without a bit of a thing for dinosaurs, Jurassic World Evolution may seem to reveal a shallowness as you progress – the game does well to hide its simplicity for a while, burying you in dino science and things to keep you busy, but dig a little deeper and you’re soon out of new buildings to unlock, fresh out of improvements to research, and spending most of your time watching your dinosaurs die of old age.
That geriatric death comes far too quickly, by the way, and therein lies the part of the game which disappoints me most. When I took over as park boss on Isla Matanceros, the first dinosaur to step out of my incubation center was a mesmerising moment for me. I thought long and hard to choose the perfect name for the debutant before he headed off to hide under a tree and hope for friends to join him. Before long he was surrounded by brethren, his social requirements met, chattering in a large group at the waters edge. They all had names, and I imbued them with their own personalities based purely on the names I had dreamed up for them. I do this – I get into my games, my assets, my stuff, I like to rename the buildings and make it personal. But I soon realised that these muscular beasts’ lifespans were so short that any time spent getting to know them was wasted, and soon they were defaulting to STR021 and his cousin TRI001. This sort of thing ends up killing the immersion for me. My time with each beautiful animal was so fleeting, it’s like they all melt into one.
Taking the soul away from the dinosaurs ends up taking some of the soul away from the game itself. In the end all it really required was a mindset shift, to learn to not get attached to Descartes, Voltaire or Manson, and just think of them as assets, as they are referred to in the game. This isn’t going to be an issue for everyone, but the clincher is that the people who will love this game are the same people who are going to want to get personal with their park inhabitants. And will realise that it’s a pointless pursuit.
Get over the need to form a bond with your dinosaurs, and there’s still a lot to love about Jurassic World Evolution. It’s a park management sim with moments of genuine thrill rarely seen in the genre, and although the late- to endgame section loses momentum, the pacing in general is impeccable. Visually arresting from far and up close, Frontier has done a lot more than simply reskin a Tycoon game and add dinosaur bits – the developer has handled the source material with style, especially with the smart choice to abandon storytelling and focus on the animals at the heart of the Jurassic World experience.
Oh, one more thing: an update has just been released which adds six new dinosaurs, three new dig sites, and a long list of tweaks and fixes. If Frontier continues with this kind of post-launch support, Jurassic World Evolution will be well on its way to cement its place among the best management sims of the current generation.