As you play Jurassic World Evolution, Dr Ian Malcolm (played, of course, by Jeff Goldblum) will occasionally chip in to remind you that what you’re doing – creating thinking, feeling creatures in a laboratory to, essentially, sell theme park tickets to tourists—might not be totally cool. He’s your conscience, and a neat way for the game to acknowledge the dubious morality of what you’re doing, which the films have made a point of addressing. So while building your own Jurassic World facility is exciting, and a dream come true for many fans of the series, developer Frontier still wants you to think about the important philosophical questions it raises.
“Getting to write new dialogue for Dr Ian Malcolm is just the best,” says lead writer John Zuur Platten. “And getting to hear Jeff Goldblum perform it? It doesn’t get any better than that. And, yes, some other iconic characters from the series will be appearing in the game, too.” These haven’t been revealed yet, but the game is being co-developed with franchise owner Universal, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone like Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) or Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) turned up too.
Set on the Muertes Archipelago, a chain of five islands off the coast of Costa Rica, you’ve been hired by the Hammond Foundation as its new operations manager. It’s your job to keep the park’s guests happy and, more importantly, alive. But that’s easier said than done when there are tropical storms, saboteurs and other disasters to contend with. The locals don’t call these islands the ‘Five Deaths’ for nothing.
“On the first island, Isla Matanceros, the weather doesn’t get much more dramatic than the odd rain shower,” says Michael Brookes, game director. “But as you progress through the other islands, you’ll start encountering other kinds of calamity. So there might be more storms, or your dinosaurs will break out if you haven’t been doing a good job of looking after them. But you’ll also have more tools for dealing with these situations as you progress. The trick is learning to predict disasters and prepare for them.
“On Isla Tacaño you have two different areas connected by a very thin strip of land, so you’ll have to ferry things around and make sure you have the right resources to do so. On the smallest island, Isla Pena, you have the added challenge of having to deal with the most dangerous dinosaurs. There’s a lot of visual variety, and the time of day can totally change the mood of an island. You’ll be working on Isla Pena at night, which makes moments when storms roll in extra dramatic.”
My demo begins on Isla Matanceros, an expanse of jagged mountains covered by a thick jungle. I start by building an expedition centre, which lets me send archaeologists around the world to hunt for fossils and mosquitos encased in amber. These are the building blocks of what will become my park’s main attraction: the dinosaurs. I send a team to a dig in South America and they return with the remains of a Triceratops.
If I spend more time and money on additional expeditions for Triceratops DNA, I could create one that lives longer, is healthier and better reflects the actual creature that roamed the planet millions of years ago. Or I could save money by creating a clone from the materials I have. This is one of many calls you’ll have to make as operations manager, and you’ll have to decide whether you care more about turning a profit or the scientific authenticity of the dinosaurs inhabiting your park.
The park is run by three divisions: Security, Entertainment and Science. As manager you’ll have to balance the needs of these three sections, each of which is represented by a different advisor. As you play you’ll be given objectives by each character, some of which will conflict, forcing you to make tough decisions. While the Science team, for example, won’t appreciate you creating fantastical new dinosaurs that never existed in reality, the Entertainment guys will love it. Think Jurassic World’s Indominus rex: a hybrid dinosaur designed to pull in the crowds at great risk to the security of the park.
“Being balanced and keeping every division happy is an effective strategy, but requires a lot more effort,” says Brookes. “You can follow one path, but the others will get annoyed. And that can even lead to sabotage.” The specific details of this have yet to be revealed, but I can’t help but think of Dennis Nedry trying to sell stolen dinosaur embryos on the black market in the first film. “You will get a loyalty bonus for sticking with one division, however, so there’s an element of risk and reward to picking a side.”
“I wanted to give each advisor an arc, and I wanted them to be people you would care about,” says Zuur Platten. “As characters they’re very natural extensions of the Jurassic Park franchise, and feel like they fit into that universe nicely. As well as watching the movies for inspiration, I also had feedback from the filmmakers and the studio to make sure it was right. We’re being entrusted with a jewel here, right? This series is worth billions of dollars, and I’m very aware of that. So when I’m creating new characters and concepts, I’m doing it with respect.”
Deciding I have enough DNA to create a Triceratops, I choose the non-extinct animal that will be used as a base for its incubation. I go for the standard, a frog, but I could have chosen a lion, which will directly affect the stats and temperament of the dinosaur when it’s born. A partially complete DNA profile also comes with the risk of the dinosaur dying before it’s born, which can be both costly and time consuming. The dinosaurs are the heart and soul of your park, and the variety and quality of the clones you bring in will have a direct impact on its success.
I use the terrain tool to create a flat stretch of grassland, which is where I’ll be housing my new Triceratops. I circle it with a steel fence, which is the cheapest kind. For more money I could build a stone wall or electrified fence, but for my starting budget this will have to do. I add a sprinkling of trees, then I finish the enclosure off with a small lake and a feeder that will automatically send bundles of food into the pen. Triceratops are herbivores so this feeder will only dispense plants, but for meat eaters a live goat will occasionally be set free in the pen—roaming around and bleating until the dinosaur it shares the space with gets hungry.
Dinosaurs in the game have very specific needs when it comes to their enclosures. You have to consider space, vegetation and other factors, otherwise their happiness and health will suffer. And an unhappy dinosaur will be increasingly likely to break out and cause havoc. If that happens, you’ll wish you paid a bit extra for electrified fences. Dinosaurs are also social creatures, and some will be miserable if they don’t have a playmate. With this in mind, I create two Triceratops and send them into their new home.
“Some islands have starting layouts,” explains Brookes. “They can be dilapidated or worn out, though, only giving you a very basic infrastructure to work with. Power can be more difficult or expensive to generate on some islands. And some islands will be covered in vegetation, so you’ll have to clear space. Isla Sorna is the final island, with the biggest play space, and at that point we’ll be throwing everything at you.”
My newly cloned Triceratops emerge into their enclosure. I click on one them and the camera swings down to their level, showing off the incredible detail that has gone into their design, sound and animation. Frontier’s developers tell me several times that the studio’s goal is making the best videogame dinosaurs ever, and when I see these huge beasts come to life I find it hard to argue with them. I pull up a menu and see the animal’s stats, which let me know how healthy and happy it is, or if it has contracted any diseases. Diseases can spread rapidly, so making sure you medicate your dinos is vital.
“There are buildings designed to help counter the various disasters you’ll face,” says Brookes. “Ranger teams are essential, resupplying food, repairing damaged buildings, and medicating sick dinosaurs. They can be sent on missions, but you can also control them directly, and that’ll often be quicker than when the AI does it. So when things are going bad in the park you can roll your sleeves up, jump in, and become the hero.”
Other buildings include shops that sell merchandise, restrooms, viewing platforms, and food stands. This stuff isn’t as exotic as the dinosaur enclosures, but you need it to keep your guests entertained and spending money. Your advisors will inform you if the park is missing a building that serves a particular need, reflecting their own interests. If you don’t have any merch stands your Entertainment advisor will pipe up and suggest you get one, because that’s a lot of profit you’re missing out on. And your Security advisor might be happy if you build stronger walls or invest in more rangers to keep an eye on the your dangerous dinosaurs.
Later, without thinking, I create a Ceratosaurus—a carnivorous dinosaur—and release it into the same pen as the Triceratops. The enclosure is big enough that they don’t immediately meet, but if I leave them in there, there’s gonna be trouble. I send a helicopter into the air and take control of it myself. I could let the AI do this, but it’s more fun being a hands-on manager. I fly over the enclosure and switch to an over-the-shoulder view of a rifle-toting ranger, letting fly with a tranquiliser shot and sending the Ceratosaurus to sleep.
Next I send a transport chopper in, which scoops the heavy dinosaur up and flies it over to another enclosure I’ve built nearby. There’s something hilarious about the way the snoozing Ceratosaurus’ floppy limbs hang in the air as it’s carted from one area to the other. Moving dinosaurs around is something you’ll be doing a lot in the game as your park expands and your goals evolve, and this is how you do it. That tranquiliser rifle will also come in handy if an unhappy dinosaur ever gets loose and starts murdering your terrified, screaming guests.
Jurassic World Evolution is a sandbox facility building sim, but there is some structure to it. You’ll be told a complete story, but the pace and frequency of the events that occur will depend on your playstyle. And how the story unfolds will also depend on the division whose path you choose to focus on. A player who leans into Science will experience a very different story to someone who prefers Security, and vice versa. While this does limit your freedom, I like the idea of a simulation game with a strong story that lends your actions some context and consequence, rather than being totally open-ended.
“I look at it like I’m setting the table, then letting you pick what you want from the buffet,” says Zuur Platten. “There isn’t a lot of beat-to-beat narrative, but the game does have campaign elements. The three divisions have their own characters and stories that are unique to those paths. And if you complete all the missions for a division, they’ll tell you a complete story. So the game is both free-form and scripted.”
Although Jurassic Park simulation/strategy games have been attempted before—including 2001’s Park Builder (weirdly, a Game Boy Advance exclusive) and 2003’s Operation Genesis—this is the first one that really feels like it might make the dream a reality. With the backing of Universal and a studio as talented as Frontier working on it (whose experience with Planet Coaster should come in handy), this is shaping up to be something pretty special. Playing god and filling a theme park with dangerous prehistoric creatures might be a morally questionable endeavour, but it sure as hell is a lot of fun—even if Dr Malcolm disapproves.