Jurassic World Evolution 2 is, just like its predecessor, a very capable adaptation of cinema’s most beloved dinosaur franchise. From its music, to the quotations scattered on its loading screens, to the great steaming swamp of Jeff Goldblum voice acting, it’s a solid case study in how a studio can get its money’s worth from an expensive license. And at its heart, of course, is a stable of spectacular dinosaurs.
Using lessons learned from Planet Zoo’s development, which has more or less filled the time since 2016’s Jurassic World Evolution, Frontier have come back with the most beautiful, the most real dinosaurs ever to trudge and honk their way across a monitor. It’s proper John Hammond, spared-no-expense, sunglasses-off-and-gawp stuff. Which makes it all the more painfully frustrating to realise that they’re trapped, once again, in a seriously wonky management game.
The first time I wrote that sentence, it said “rubbish management game”. Because honestly, having just quit the game in frustration for the sixth session out of six that I’ve played, that’s my gut-deep impression. But it’s not a fair one: there are, in fact, some brilliant design flourishes in JWE’s underlying park-builder. It’s obvious just how much work has been put into overhauling JWE’s moving parts, and some of the tweaks are genuinely inspired.
The “territories” mechanic, for example – wherein dinosaurs can decide on the bit of an enclosure they like, leaving room to coexist with another species that enjoys wildly different terrain – is a clever bit of programming, and does something I’ve not seen before in the genre. See also the redesign of concession and amenity placement, which ditches the traditional “plop down a shop at vaguely regular intervals” approach, for something much more cunning involving concentrating and exploiting different customer demographics. It’s real dark marketing shit, perfectly in line with the Jurassic series’ noncommittally hostile approach to corporate thinking, and I like it.
But for every little sliver of management genius spliced into JWE2’s genes, it seems that a rancid great wodge of frog DNA has been slapped on elsewhere. I think it’s worth pointing out that I came to this game as a committed management/building genre nerd. I suspect, however, that JWE2 is aimed at the slightly broader and less fussy demographic of “people who like dinosaurs”. As such, if you’re interested in this mainly as a Jurassic game, rather than as a strategy game with dinosaurs, you’re less likely to find the majesty tarnished by mechanical design. For my fellow admin scum, however, here’s a grumblin’.
I get the feeling that a lot of the missteps were well-intentioned attempts to address criticisms of the first game, for being too strategically simplistic. And in a sense, they’ve achieved that. JWE2 is a more complex game, in that it presents many more factors which must be attended to in order to run a successful park.
“For every little sliver of management genius spliced into JWE2’s genes, it seems that a rancid great wodge of frog DNA has been slapped on elsewhere.”
The catch is that good strategy doesn’t spring from the number of interactions you have with a system you’re in charge of, but from the level of dilemma and brain-gnaw each interaction demands. In Crusader Kings 3, for example, you don’t really have to interact with the game at all. It’ll do its own bleak medieval thing, and it’s up to you to decide where and how to interact, if you want to increase your level of influence on the simulation. Those decisions tend to be really interesting. On the other end of the scale, look at something like fire station placement in an old-school city builder – nothing interesting happens if you do it, but if you don’t do it, your city will be on fire. It’s a binary mitigation of a fail-state, challenging little except your ability to maintain a to-do list.
Jurassic World Evolution 2 is full of this stuff. Ranger stations need to be periodically button-clicked to refuel their vehicles; scientists need to be button-clicked to rest, so they don’t go Full Nedry. Dinosaurs will suddenly get the flu, requiring a medical truck to be button-clicked to their location for treatment. None of these things present fulcrums for decision; you’re never going to think “hang on a second, what if I don’t give the T-Rex its arse medicine?”, or consider the strategic potential of a “no fuel in the jeeps” policy. You just have to stop what you’re doing and click a button, or the game punishes you.
The overall sensation is of trying to eat a hotdog, but having a clown smack it out of your hand every couple of bites, forcing you to pick it up off the floor. I found myself constantly jolted out of my focus, then forgetting what I was doing beforehand. And that’s a big shame, given how forward planning, and incremental work towards big projects, are such huge parts of the joy to be found in city/park-builder games.
The other knock-on effect of all this is that, because all of the mandatory click activities incur a financial cost of some kind, you are instantly gigafucked if you get into financial trouble. Sure, you could make the argument that this is a decent model of systemic collapse. Still, it’s frustrating when one random disaster sets you off on a lightning-fast failure spiral, taking your park from the edge of whatever milestone you’ve been ekeing your way towards to total bustitude, in 15 minutes of not-half-as-entertaining-when-you’re-running-the-place carnage.
Parallel to the micromanagement, JWE2 employs a hefty dose of forced value scaling to gate the player through what the game sets out as the “correct” way to progress through the stages of park construction. Everything from research to dinosaurs is split into tiers, with the cost of acquisition leaping at each barrier. A supposedly open play environment is funnelled into a linear process of this-then-this-then-this, with a T-Rex dangled over your head to grind towards.
I mean, there’s no reason in-setting why a Tyrannosaur would be any more expensive to make a eg of than a struthiomimus, so why not let players experiment with going big immediately? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of reasons – or potential Ian Malcolm voice lines – to dissuade such hubris, without a load of arbitrary cost barriers to force it.
I had a wider gripe with progression in the game too. There are four main game modes: a five mission campaign set after Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which is basically a long tutorial, five supersized “chaos theory” missions in which you build parks associated with each of the five movies, five complete-to-unlock challenge missions, and sandbox mode. Let’s cut to it: sandbox is pretty conclusively the most fun… that is, if you’ve got a full set of dinosaurs, buildings and the like at your disposal. And needless to say, unlocking all these toys involves grinding through every other mode first.
This is not to say that the other game modes are crap. The Chaos Theory missions, especially, are great experiences in nostalgia (I particularly enjoyed the Lost World one, since it tasks you with building Jurassic Park San Diego, and – in a stroke of brilliance – does dump a T-Rex in your lap, five minutes into the scenario). But the thing about forced progression through game modes is that, no matter how much fun they might be in themselves, they’re chorified into a mountain of over-boiled vegetables, to be shovelled through before you’re allowed pudding.
JWE2 is profoundly impressive, both visually and in its simulation of big dead birds, in a way that any amount of gameplay footage will demonstrate far more efficiently than I can in writing. Much like yer man John Hammond, Frontier set out to sell awe and wonder at living dinosaurs – and they’ve absolutely smashed it on that front. The truth is, this could be a far worse management game, and still be worth it just for the joy of deploying photo mode on an established park.
But I guess this is where JWE2 is, unwittingly, an even more perfect adaption of the Jurassic franchise than Frontier intended it to be. Because, at the end of the day, nobody was knocking Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs. They were well good. The park still went tits up, though, because the plan for everything besides the actual livestock appeared to have been scrawled down on the back of one of Samuel L Jackson’s packs of cowboy killers.
And just like fictional company InGen, who opened Jurassic World after Jurassic Park went all killy, Frontier have come back with a sequel that – despite a few tweaks and a mosasaur – repeats their first effort on a grander scale. With its even-more-incredible dinosaurs, JWE2 is the Indominus Rex to the T-Rex of its predecessor: a more powerful beast in every respect, but with just as flimsy an infrastructure to support it.
Crucially though, just as I would one hundred percent go to a real-world Jurassic Park despite the near-certainty of getting hypermaimed in a portaloo, I will one hundred percent keep mooning over this game’s wonderful dinosaurs, right up to the point where my attention span is chewed to bits by micromanagement raptors.