With apologies to “Life finds a way,” there’s a much simpler philosophical thesis lurking underneath the Jurassic Park/World franchise: You should never, ever try to run a Jurassic Park. Just don’t! It always starts fine, sure, but the next thing you know, you’ve got T. rexes chowing down on your legal team and Wayne Knight making fun of you because you didn’t say the magic word. At their core, the series’ various theme parks stress an unfortunate truth of the human condition: We’re attracted to that which can never be made entirely safe.
New park-design simulator Jurassic World Evolution attempts to play into that tension, giving players the chance to succeed, if only briefly, where John Hammond and his various descendants failed. But while its own lessons aren’t quite so dire about the inevitable dangers of filling a theme park with intelligent, man-eating predators and then shipping them a cheerful buffet of tourists to happily chow down on, it’s also not anywhere near as exciting as the original deal.
Playing across five increasingly challenge-filled islands (plus an unlockable sandbox mode located on good old Isla Nublar), players are tasked with cloning dinos, maintaining research budgets, and setting down gift shops and fast food joints for the park’s various visitors to spend their money at. They’re also responsible for laying out footpaths, restocking individual dinosaur feeders, repairing fences, redirecting power lines, and even deciding how much to charge for the commemorative lunchboxes those gift shops hock, a level of micromanagement that never does much to make players feel like any of these decisions really matter. Being forced to order each of your individual ranger teams to drive out every time your charges chew through their stock of sacrificial goats doesn’t feel like control or strategy; it feels like a chore.
The game tries to spice up these sim elements by making the player beholden to a variety of masters, as Jurassic World’s security, science, and entertainment divisions vie for your money and attention. Fulfill their requests—in the form of one-off contracts, like “Grow an ankylosaurus” or “Have 500 visitors visit your toy store,” or longer, more detailed missions that frequently involve blatantly unsafe activities like “dinosaur fight club”—and you’ll be rewarded with new buildings and dinosaur types. Ignore them, and you’ll be met with sabotage and snark. For the most part, this system is basically painless (provided you’re careful about weeding out dud contracts that are far more trouble than they’re worth), and given how simple most of the game’s sim elements are, it mostly serves to give players something to do while waiting for the money to roll in or the dinosaurs to break out.
Those inevitable breakouts, though, point to the ultimate disappointment of Evolution: its bloodless, thrill-free approach to a job that five separate movies have devoted themselves to proving is the most dangerous theme-park gig on Earth. The game occasionally attempts to reflect the franchise’s signature chaos by having events like storms sweep across your islands, shutting down fences and letting the velociraptors loose. But when stopping a potentially park-threatening outbreak is as simple as opening the emergency shelters and sending a few helicopters out to tranq up the loose lizards, it’s hard to feel like you’re actually teetering on the brink of your own self-guided destruction. There’s something slightly perverse about a Jurassic World game where over-investing in infrastructure is a bigger threat than a rampaging prehistoric predator.
At least the dinosaurs themselves are lovingly rendered and easily one of the game’s biggest draws. Each has its own personality and behaviors, and while it’s typically pretty easy to manage their comfort levels—separate your herbivores and carnivores, give pack animals enough friends to be happy, etc.—there’s real pleasure to be found in learning the dinosaurs’ individual quirks. (True to form: You can keep your raptors as happy as you like, but they’re still going to break through your fences sometimes, just for fun.) Not only is it a joy to jump into one of your rangers’ Jeeps and drive into the enclosures for an up-close look at your various animals, but it’s also the closest the game ever comes to either a real strategic layer or the all-important sense of uncontrolled nature hiding in the franchise’s heart. After all, that T. rex might draw a lot more visitors than a bunch of placid herbivores, but keeping him happy and in-check is a commensurate uptick in work and potential risk. Heck, you can even design your own genetically modified hybrids, if you’re really devoted to ignoring every single lesson that Michael Crichton ever tried to teach.
Outside its expertly crafted star attractions, though, the game’s presentation is more of a mixed bag. Michael Giacchino’s score work is in strong supply, and the park itself looks perfectly passable, considering you’ll be spending most of your time staring down at it from above. (The aforementioned ability to zoom in to ground level shows some of the seams, but it’s worth it for the visceral thrill.) The real question mark is the game’s voice acting, which you’ll be listening to a lot and which runs the gamut from competent to basically somnambulant. The day players do their best (although the guy offering up a weak Chris Pratt impression is distractingly noticeable), but the game’s guest cast members, especially Bryce Dallas Howard and B.D. Wong, sound like they knocked their lines out from bed on a Saturday morning. The exception, of course, is Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm, who sounds extremely bored. To be fair, he sounds like an extremely bored Jeff Goldblum, rambling out lines about chaos and life and doom, and bored Jeff Goldblum still translates to “actually pretty great.”
In the end, Jurassic World Evolution can never quite transcend a certain knocked-off feeling tied to its licensed roots. Fans of sim games looking for a new RollerCoaster Tycoon are going to leave disappointed, let down by its lack of power and creativity as a theme park-designing tool. But people looking to spend some time in the Jurassic world—and especially ones looking to bask for a while in the presence of some beautifully detailed virtual dinosaurs—will probably get a kick out of it, even if it fails to offer the vital sense of danger that’s always been the key element in making this franchise fun.