Several hours into my time with Jurassic World: Evolution, I stumbled upon a tiny detail that changed the way I thought about the game.
See, for a park management simulator, Evolution has an extremely limited palette of customization options, but you can get all Bob Ross up in the environment in a few small ways. You can raise, lower, and flatten out the landscape. You can also place or remove lakes, shrubbery, and trees. It’s a fairly standard paint tool, and works just as you might expect. When you remove trees, though, something interesting happens.
Tiny birds, disturbed by the hovering cursor of progress, take off from the emptiness where their home used to stand, and soar off into the distance. It’s a small detail, but it touches on the soul of Jurassic Park in such a subtle way that I found myself genuinely speechless the first time I noticed.
I carried this experience with me for the next 30 hours, because it kept it me hoping that every bland, threadbare system and mobile game-style instance of drudgery in this utterly corporate-feeling title would coalesce into some sort of commentary on itself. A nod to the hubris of commodifying nature for ticket sales, or the terraforming of lush jungles into burger stands and bowling alley parking lots. Unfortunately, even the constant subversive lamplighting of a spectacularly sardonic Jeff Goldblum rings hollow when surrounded by so much tedium. Yep, Jurassic Park: Evolution is so flawed that even Bronze Daddy Goldblum can’t save it from itself.
This was honestly painful to write, and I can feel the big, watery eyes of Terry the Triceratops gazing at me in hurt longing, but I tried so hard to love Evolution that I was looking for ways to rationalize it to myself as some sort of Metal Gear Solid 2-style genre pastiche by the end. It came on in small realizations at first. Like how I found myself going downstairs to make pots of coffee whilst leaving the game unpaused just so enough money would build up that I could do literally anything. There are no speed controls in Evolution, you see, so you’re completely at the mercy of a pace I’d describe as glacial if that wasn’t so insensitive to the dinosaurs (#neverforget).
Then there’s the way the game forces you to manually refill your dino’s feeders. It’s not especially taxing — a few hotkeys and clicks does the job — but it’s the sort of thing that seems so easy to automate I was initially confused at why this wasn’t the case. It soon becomes clear that without this needless busy work, there’d be even less for the player to do for huge stretches of time. I’m thankful I got to catch up on some podcasts, but that’s not really a selling point. Jurassic World: Evolution creates a situation where your only meaningful interaction with the dinosaurs frames them as a liability, rather than inspiring you to appreciate them as creatures. Again, this could be a statement on capitalism blinding us to the beauty of nature. Pretty sure it’s just shitty design, though.
It would be so easy, then, just to write the game off as shallow movie tie-in, rushed out of the incubator to hit a deadline, if it wasn’t for the tiny moments of complete joy and wonder that Evolution is capable of producing. The first time I took control of a ranger jeep to snap a selfie with a vicious, hulking Ceratorous as it drunk from a sun-tinged blue lake, before flooring it out of the enclosure as it roared in fierce pursuit, was exhilarating. During a later streak of the sort of megalomaniacal sadism only gamers and US presidents are capable of, however, I discovered that the dinosaurs, no matter how enraged, will never attack your rangers. The illusion was shattered, and now that’s one less movie scene I can have fun reenacting.
The periods of waiting, too, occasionally all come together in hour long bursts of frantic involvement. Evolution is such an attractive game that it’s hard not to get sucked in at times. You want your park to do well, because there’s a constant sense that if you unlock just one more building, or one more new dinosaur, the game will finally blossom into something that meets the promise of its visuals and premise. But the actual act of engaging with the game boils down to a languishing trundle of progress within such narrow parameters that you soon realize the only real challenge is your own threshold for boredom.
It’s at this point I’d like to remove my critic fedora for a moment, and acknowledge my own biases, since I feel that it’s entirely possible that the reason Evolution fails as a complex simulation is because it absolutely isn’t designed to be one. If you’re a parent of a child who loves dinosaurs and you want a game to play together, then Evolution might just be perfect for you. The interface is smooth and simple to navigate. The whole thing, as previously mentioned, is absolutely gorgeous. There’s also a huge database of information on dinos, diseases, Jurassic Park characters, famous real-world dig sites, and paleontology information for you to both read up on while you’re waiting around for some more dino land fun bucks to roll in.
Evolution also does structured play a lot better than some other management sims, though those expecting the “all-new narrative featuring iconic characters from across the franchise” are going to be disappointed. The three competing divisions — Science, Entertainment, and Security — will task you with contracts which, initially, provide an excellent tutorial. Completing contracts for a certain division increases your reputation with them, and lowers it with the others. Let your reputation with one fall too low, and you run the risk of them cutting the power, destroying enclosure fences, or infecting your dinos with disease. At which point, you just click on the thing you want to not be happening anymore and wait a few minutes. This is where the supposed narrative comes in, but it really just boils down to fuzzy cameos who quip at you for a few seconds at a time from the upper right corner of the screen. Is Goldblum good? Yes, he’s good, he’s Goldblum, why even ask? But a selection of Goldblum quotes does not a cohesive narrative make. I’m so sorry Jeff.
Is it fun to put four T-Rexes into the same enclosure for a prehistoric battle royale? Of course! Is it fun to release starving packs of velociraptors at your guests while they’re buying plastic dinosaur fossils from the gift shop? Again, why even ask? It’s impossible for these things not to be fun, but Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis nailed this stuff fifteen years ago. Heck, the original DOS Theme Park, which is 24 years old, has more customization and building options than Evolution. These are absolutely the most beautifully rendered, impeccably sound designed and stunningly realistic digital dinosaurs money can buy you at this point, but that’s really all Evolution has going for it.
With a time control option, some altered guest behaviour, a bit more complexity, and a bigger selection of customization options, Evolution could still be something special. It’s going to need some serious modding, but hey, as a great man once said, life will…
…nope, just checked, there’s literally no mod support. Screw it then.