I realise that I’m very late to the party with this one but – having spent most of 2019 covering indie and retro games – I’ve realised that I hadn’t played a big, more recent triple-A game for a decent length of time for quite a while.

The double whammy of a Games with Gold giveaway and the Christmas break meant that I was able to sit down and play Jurassic World: Evolution and at length; so much so, in fact, that I’ve been able to use it as the basis for my first review of 2020.

You know the drill by now, surely – unless you’ve been living under a prehistoric rock: Jurassic World: Evolution is a dinosaur park management sim, which the Jurassic Park brand is absolutely built for, but – mobile games aside – we see far too few of (notably, Jurassic Park III: Park Builder on Game Boy Advance in 2001 and Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis – on Xbox and PS2 – way back in 2003 are the only non-mobile park management sims we’ve previously been blessed with).  

Campaign mode in Jurassic World: Evolution sees you working your way through a variety of challenges on five islands – plus Isla Nublar, the setting from the very first Jurassic Park – given to you by three divisions responsible for the running of the park: Science, Security and Entertainment. Completing these challenges gives you a financial reward to assist with building more facilities, but will often (because video games) cause your rating to drop with one or both of the other two divisions.

Generally, these challenges do a great job of getting you used to the various systems in the game, which include digging for – and subsequently extracting DNA from – fossils, engineering and taking care of dinosaurs, as well as building entertainment and transport facilities for park visitors.

It’s a little overwhelming at first and there’s a few concepts that aren’t particularly well explained, but most tasks and systems are easy to pick up and become like second nature once you’ve played for a few hours. Controls are well handled on console, despite the game being a natural fit for mouse control and there are lots of sensible shortcuts to make things smoother.

The stars of the show are the dinosaurs, of course – and they don’t disappoint. Wonderfully textured and animated, they’re treated reverently every single time they’re released into the ‘wild’, with snatches of John Williams-esque orchestral fanfare (with the actual, iconic Jurassic Park themes by also being used at points too) and brilliant sound effects. They’re a joy to behold in enclosures too; their behaviour is great to watch and aside from the odd issue where dinosaurs seem able to pass through one another – feels entirely naturalistic.

Taking direct control of a jeep or helicopter and administering medication, tranquilising a dinosaur or even just performing mundane tasks such as resupplying feeders, fixing fences or rebooting power stations is well implemented and always fun. The AI struggles somewhat with even simple tasks, however – even resupplying a feeder has become deadly for a ranger team during my games, with them just sitting idly while their vehicle is attacked by annoyed herbivores. Their struggles to keep up are particularly noticeable when you have a big emergency such as a dinosaur escaping.

It must be noted, also, that it’s incredibly stressful when one – or more – of the animals gets loose though. Which is, I suppose, as it should be. Sending teams to tranquilise a rampaging or confused dinosaur, then airlifting it back into a pen while at the same time making sure the fences are repaired and secure – as well as opening emergency shelters for your guests – is an exhausting but rewarding experience, though it does get very tiresome when it repeatedly happens in a short space of time. Sometimes, despite being given stats on a dinosaur’s condition (lonely, missing forest etc), it’s not clear exactly why it continues to happen either, which does add to the stress and frustration when you’re trying to raise your park’s star rating or attend to other matters.

Those other matters – digging for fossils, researching building upgrades and genetically modifying dinosaur genomes, to name a few examples – are all handled via nicely themed but very simplistic menus. The ease of use and ability to shift between tasks can’t be faulted, but it’s a shame that fossil hunting isn’t a little more involved than pointing at a destination on a map and then waiting a few minutes for your team to come back, for example. It’s also a bit of a disappointment that there’s no way to speed up time at all; there are points where it does feel a little like the timer on a mobile game, ticking down almost arbitrarily as you wait for more funds to roll in. Speeding up the passage of time would have been a great option during those moments where you’re short of funds and just waiting for them to build back up again.

The various islands you’ll unlock are each themed around specific situations – one is prone to natural disasters, another has already seen a Jurassic World facility fail and leave mountains of debt for you to work your way out of, for example. The bankrupt island is probably the most challenging of all, though once you’re able to use a fossil centre, it becomes easier – if a little cumbersome – to earn enough money to get moving again. This is because funds are specific to each island, but – somewhat bizarrely – fossils gathered on expeditions can be extracted or sold on any island. It’s a little long-winded to switch between sending an expedition on one island and then access the fossils on another, but it does the job. The other odd touch here is that time seems to freeze on all islands except the one you’re currently on, which is a blessing when it comes to dinosaur and general park management, but a bit of a pain when your expedition and research centres only exist on other islands. Needing to hang around on specific islands for missions to complete is another bugbear of mine.

That said, I’ve been having an absolute blast with campaign mode. Unlocking the more sandbox based gameplay of Isla Nublar is an absolute treat and having actors such as Jeff Goldblum, BD Wong and Bryce Dallas Howard on hand to voice their characters is fantastic, though the actor filling in for Chris Pratt isn’t even trying. He’s not bad, as such – he just sounds absolutely nothing like the character.

There’s a few niggles with the DLC, unfortunately. There’s some dinosaur breeds locked behind a paywall and Jurassic World’s big bad genetic monstrosity, the Indominus Rex, has one of its abilities only available via a DLC campaign, which doesn’t seem fair. Likewise with the skin colours for Jurassic World’s Raptor Squad; having them as DLC seems a little cynical to me, when they should absolutely be included in the full game.

However, by all accounts the recently released, nostalgia fuelled Return to Jurassic Park DLC – which is set in the aftermath of the first film and features Sam Neill, Laura Dern and, again, the brilliant Jeff Goldblum – is a more than worthwhile retheming of the main game with some fantastic touches. I’ve yet to try this, however.

I did worry in my first impressions article that the appeal of Jurassic World: Evolution may be short lived, given that the core systems are pretty simplistic and management of the park is minimal at best. However, I’m now more than thirty hours in and the game still has its claws in me; despite – or perhaps because of – its straightforward core gameplay loop and the fact that multiple sites can be managed with different conditions and challenges on each, it remains a compelling experience even when all islands have been unlocked – which I managed to do at around the 30 hour mark. Unfortunately, another negative – albeit less important than anything that affects the actual gameplay – is that the achievements on Xbox One seem to have issues; some of the unlocked islands have failed to register, which seems like something that should have been fixed by now.

All things considered, however, I’ve very much enjoyed – and will continue to enjoy – channelling my inner John Hammond with Jurassic World: Evolution. I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into the Return to Jurassic Park DLC once I’ve exhausted the campaign mode’s missions entirely too. As long as you’re not expecting to be able to micromanage absolutely every aspect of your own Jurassic Park, it’s likely you’ll enjoy Jurassic World: Evolution too.

It seems important to note, for historical purposes of course, that Jurassic World: Evolution was the final game I played last decade and the first of the new decade too (I wonder what I’ll be writing about at the end of this one and the beginning of 2030?). It’ll be interesting to see if the franchise moves into the next generation at some point over the coming decade – I’d certainly like to see Frontier, ahem, evolve the formula on more powerful hardware and can only hope they get to do so, given the mostly excellent work done here.

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