Like Sam Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant from Jurassic Park III, the theme-park simulation game Jurassic World Evolution believes that to create a dinosaur is to play God. In the game, players can breed dinosaurs in the Hammond Creation Lab, but one is limited to a carefully licensed list of 47 species, and what few genetic modifications can be made to dinosaurs are largely cosmetic. You can comically or murderously manage your theme park—or more likely, given the game’s lack of tutorials, inadvertently do both.
If you create a carnivorous Ceratosaurus but accidentally fail to fence it in on all sides, the animal will kill your park’s guests. Alternately, if the player reloads an earlier save file and this time properly cages the predatory theropod but fails to provide its electric fence with power—or fails to give the dino enough space or food to keep it happy—the park’s guests are again toast. Of course, if you want these people to live another day, you could always conserve resources by attempting to place the Ceratosaurus in an enclosure with a bunch of ostrich-like Struthiomimus, maybe even a lone Triceratops, but then it’s the gentle herbivores that will be on the menu for the day.
That the player doesn’t have to be a perfect, or loving, God is what makes Jurassic World Evolution so empowering. But while the game, a cross between Rollercoaster Tycoon and The Sims, benefits from having an awe-inspiring menagerie of creatures at its core, its mechanics are simplistic and lean too heavily on trial and error. In lieu of providing you with tutorials, Jurassic World Evolution offers fortune-cookie wisdom from franchise characters like Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and Henry Wu (B.D. Wong). The game’s teachable moments occur indirectly, through unlockable, thinly plotted story missions that ask players to, for example, breed a more aggressive Deinoychus, or through the repeatable money- and reputation-generation contracts that ask you to do random tasks for the three central divisions of the park: Kajal Dua, Science; Isaac Clement, Entertainment; and George Lambert, Security.
Under George’s strikingly incompetent eye, players learn how to open a paddock gate and release a dinosaur—simply to test how long it takes for an asset containment unit (ACU) to copter over, tranquilize, and transport the beast back into its cage. It’s at Isaac’s demand that you’ll learn how to send teams out on an expedition to find new extractable dino DNA in fossils and amber, and at Kajal’s request that you start researching new genes that can then be spliced into those dinosaurs. (Players can unlock a dinosaur, such as a T. rex on Isla Tacano, by discovering 50% of its genome at dig sites.)
Jurassic World Evolution has a habit of keeping information frustratingly hidden from the player, retrievable only under certain conditions. For example, there’s a sub-menu that displays the factors that contribute to a dinosaur’s happiness, such as sociability and terrain. But this menu is accessible only by selecting a dinosaur that’s in your park, which means that when a new species is first released, you’re blindly hoping that its accommodations are adequate. If not, players have to expensively restructure the creature’s habitat or busily transport the dino to a different area.
A Brachiosaurus, for instance, requires a massive amount of space, much of which has to be forested. But because there’s no way to measure the square footage of an enclosure, players will be left struggling to eyeball how much more land to cede to the Brachiosaurus. There’s no easy way to terraform that new acreage, which forces you to awkwardly fumble with adding or removing trees and water. These clumsy, obtuse mechanics represent guesswork, not meticulous management. It’s a bit like playing chess, only in this case one doesn’t find out what a piece does until it’s been moved for the first time.
By the time players make it to Isla Muerta, the second of the game’s five parks/islands, it’s not only necessary to build emergency shelters and storm defense stations to defend against weather conditions, but also to manually take control of ranger units, driving their jeeps to repair damaged stations. As the parks grow larger, one no longer has the luxury of fixing Jurassic World Evolution’s camera on a fight between a T. rex and a genetically modified Metriacanthosaurus, because something is almost always going wrong elsewhere in the park, even if it’s just a tourist who’s unhappy that there aren’t enough shopping options over by that third hotel that’s just gone up. The inability to automate assignments, like replenishing the various feeders, is particularly irritating, as busywork makes for terrible gameplay.
Despite the variety of tasks to manage, there are remarkably few ways in which to handle them. There’s a lengthy and scientifically accurate list of diseases that dinosaurs can contract, but treating them simply requires that the player has researched an ailment and that there’s a ranger team available to administer a treatment. Tourist needs are no less undemanding, boiling down to dinosaur visibility, fun, shopping, food, drink, and transportation. Whether you build a clothing store or a fossil zone, the shopping rating will improve—and once a bigger power station has been unlocked, there’s never a reason not to build one. By a certain point, most of the choices you make will feel entirely aesthetic, like the construction of gyrosphere stations.
Ultimately, Jurassic World Evolution feels built largely for the film franchise’s biggest fans. Which is to say, for those who will be so giddily distracted by the ability to drive alongside dinosaurs, snapping pictures, that they won’t mind that the simulation options offered up only go skin deep.