The first Jurassic Park film showed that, as much as we may want it, an amusement park filled with living, breathing dinosaurs is probably not a great idea. For every moment of awe, there's the sheer terror of visitors being clawed up by raptors, devoured by tyrannosaurs, and blinded by a dilophosaurus' tarry mucus. Reinforced by numerous sequels and proved once and for all by Jurassic World's revived, and ultimately doomed, second park, the blockbuster movie series has maintained a pretty consistent viewpoint on dino-centric island attractions: Don't make them.
Still, there's an allure to the basic concept of building and managing a theme park that makes corporate profits out of a perversion of the natural world's order. This is the premise of the recently released Jurassic World Evolution, a simulation game from Frontier Developments about trying to create a version of the famous dinosaur parks that actually works.
The game's concept is simple: The chain of Costa Rican islands featured in the Jurassic books and films are largely deserted, in different levels of ruin, and ready for yet another shot at entertaining the world and making tons of money without falling into complete chaos. The player, focusing on one island at a time, needs to manage all of the moving pieces that go into supporting a tourist destination plagued with, as the first movie's Ray Arnold puts it, "all the problems of a major theme park and a major zoo" wrapped up into one potentially murderous package. It feels like a dare.
In a welcome change from so many simulation-heavy video games, though, Evolution carefully explains its many systems in a manner that's easy enough to understand. Over the first few hours, players learn not just how to build the facilities necessary for incubating dinosaurs and releasing them into secure paddocks, but the equally important steps of making their park attractive to visitors. Keeping things humming requires a steady drip of money, which comes from the wallets of guests who want to see a wide variety of prehistoric beasts (with their own dietary and environmental needs) while also enjoying a variety of shopping, dining, and relaxation spots.
Rather than focus on arcade-style action, Evolution is about wisely investing the money gained from the park into bigger and better attractions. Balance an ever-shifting list of priorities right and an island's start-up investment can be grown into millions of dollars that allow for more ambitious research projects (new dinosaur species and, in a reference to the World films, gene splicing) and a luxurious set of well-organized facilities; spend money poorly and everything falls apart spectacularly in a mess of newly escaped dinosaurs eating the guests and tropical storms decimating infrastructure.
Threading the needle between disaster and success can, at times, be extremely tricky. Each island offers early challenges based on the amount of start-up capital and the geography of the map provided. Choosing what order to build structures or which dinosaurs to raise can feel, pleasingly, like a tough puzzle on the more demanding, late-game levels.
Regardless of difficulty, though, Evolution always maintains a welcomingly satirical tone. Financial breakdowns track the lawsuits leveled at the park by visitors injured or killed by rampaging dinosaurs, and the various staff members who radio the player to give business, science, and security advice include a wealthy CEO whose money-hungry missives almost ooze grease from the computer speakers. (In one case, he'll advise the player to take photographs of dinosaurs to raise money, compliment the shots, then admit he actually doesn't really care at all about good art, only the profits generated from its sale.)
There's a sense, always, that the game is winking at the player as she skims the mouse and keyboard around an island, checking that a group of dinosaurs is comfortable enough not to break their enclosure fences. Dealing with every new accident and celebrating every financial success with a park advisor's radio call, Evolution seems very much aware of how cynical a premise it is to keep working on the park's improvement despite the mad scale of the consequences to mistakes.
Once an island has been set up well enough that further work no longer feels important (the maps are small enough that there's a clear "end point" to each one), the profits it generates become almost comically enormous. Millions upon millions accumulate with no discernible purpose, urging the player on to the next island, where she'll start the whole process again.
None of this is to say that Evolution isn't enjoyable. It's easy to lose countless, happily spent hours accomplishing task after task — sending teams out to excavate new fossils from a map of the earth dotted with dig sites, watching as an incubation facility raises a dinosaur to the point that it can be released, or shifting the perspective from the default top-down, bird's eye view of the island to a more intimate one by taking the wheel of a ranger jeep and bouncing around the park's attractions up close, snapping photos or refilling food dispensers. If anything, the game's cheeky tone is a suitable evocation of the best Jurassic Park/World movies. It reminds viewers, without being heavy-handed, of how human greed and natural beauty can rarely coexist in peace.
Clicking on a dinosaur, zooming in close enough to watch them chirp and roar at one another, sprint around their jungley paddocks, or look up at a passing transport helicopter with predatory eyes, is always fascinating. Doing so while glancing at the top or bottom of the screen, which displays park expenses and notifications of the kind of violent accidents that come from trying to control these awesome creatures, is something else. It's a constant, subtly communicated reminder that, even when faced with the miracle of our planet's natural history, resurrected in the scaly flesh, we'll always mess it up by seeing the world's wonder as a way to make a buck. What could be more Jurassic Park than that?