Review Shooter: Jurassic Park: The Game
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Jurassic Park has long been a revered cultural icon, with Michael Crichton’s novel and the Steven Spielberg film based on it both standing as among the most celebrated productions in their respective media. While several games bearing the Jurassic Park name have been made, none have even approached replicating the memorable characters or exciting plot of the book/movie–let alone capturing the dinosaurs that make the franchise so unique. With Telltale Games’ 2011 release, unimaginatively title Jurassic Park: The Game, a studio known for carrying the torch of the modern point-and-click adventure genre while pioneering the episodic release format aims high in its most ambitious production yet (remember, this was released before this year’s stellar The Walking Dead series). While the studio absolutely nails many of the aspects that make the historic (or should I say, ‘prehistoric?’) franchise sospecial, some truly infuriating shortcomings hold back Jurassic Park: The Game from true greatness.
Despite the generic title, Jurassic Park: The Game is not an interactive re-telling of the famous classic. While there is some overlap with the original story’s timeline, Telltale’s adventure introduces a brand new cast of characters with a wholly original story. In an interesting nod to series fans, the game uses Nedry’s lost Barbasol can full of dinosaur embryos as a launching point for the new narrative, as a pair of newcomers are revealed to be the people that Nedry was attempting to make the transfer with before an ink-spitting Dilophosaurus spoiled it. Once the game picks up the narrative from there, it kicks off an adventure that explores several new areas of Isla Nublar, only intersecting with the movie when another group of characters stumble into the T-Rex-occupied visitor center in the aftermath of the film’s climax.
While the narrative has some growing pains in trying to neatly build up this transition, it truly finds its own once the writers are set free to fully explore their own story. The whole story is broken up into four episodes, each of about an hour and a half in length and follows several characters that inevitably cross paths with one another. The writing has some sore spots–some cheesy dialogue, minor plot grievances, and a few narrative sacrifices that were clearly made to bolster the accompanying game design (to insert puzzles, for example)–but overall is a remarkable effort that earns the title on the game’s box. In fact, the structure of the plot evokes the classic film to a very large degree in that it centers around a group of memorable characters as they deal with the challenges of trying to escape the danger incumbent on a remote island infested with wild dinosaurs. Each of the main characters introduced throughout the first two episodes is extremely well-written, well-defined, and nuanced. They each have their distinct personalities, backstories, and motivations that come into frequent conflict with one another repeatedly. All the characters evolve over the course of the narrative, all have surprise moments, and all are flawed (in a good way) yet retain likeable qualities. One notable exception to the high quality character development is the history between two characters, Nima and Oscar, that is repeatedly referenced in dialogue but never actually explored beyond the surface. There are some other nitpicky exceptions, to be sure, but generally the drama birthed by these conflicts is central to both the beats of the story and the corresponding gameplay, and stunning twists at the conclusion of each episode add a tantalizing hook that leaves you eager to keep going.
Of course, strong writing means nothing in a visual medium like games if it is not empowered by an equally strong presentation, and this is another area in which Jurassic Park: The Game is outstanding–with some significant caveats. The aforementioned characters are brought to life by very good voice acting, particularly the characters of Jess (a dino doctor’s teenage daughter) and Nima (a mysterious mercenary hired to collect Nedry’s embryos). The entirety of the experience is also masterfully captured by some of the best cinematography I’ve ever observed in a video game. Granted, that generally isn’t saying much, and the style of Jurassic Park’s gameplay certainly enables a presentation style that other games are mechanically incapable of, but the use of angles, cuts, framing, and movement are of a quality on par with a good Hollywood production. Some lighting issues do provide for a few minor warts in this department, but overall it is clear that the game’s designers spent a lot of time nailing the right way to capture Jurassic Park’s numerous scenarios. The mastering of film language is further empowered by wonderful sound design that greatly enhances all types of scenes throughout the game, as good sound design should do. Action scenes are filled with tension after being slowly built up, while the calmer scenes are complemented by softer melodies. Dinosaur sounds in particular are reproduced with near-perfection and are drizzled throughout the experience in a variety of ways that add greatly to its ambiance and authenticity–a crucial accomplishment for a Jurassic Park game. The legendary John Williams score is also used as the fabric to tie it all together, masterfully ramping up and down in key climactic moments to further the game’s unquestionable resemblance to its inspiration.
Strong writing, acting, cinematography, and sound are critical areas for a story-heavy game like Jurassic Park to succeed in, and Telltale’s team has done so to great degree. Unfortunately, several technical problems hold the game back from being something truly revolutionary, chief among which is the horrendously ugly graphical quality that permeates the game’s art design. Likening the visual fidelity to that of PS2-era consoles may be a tad harsh, but it’s unfortunately not that far off, either. There are clearly some severe limitations to Telltale’s aged underlying technology–and undoubtedly the small studio’s budget–but it’s a huge hit to take for a game that takes so much pride in its cinematic presentation. The poor graphics are further dragged down by muddy textures, clunky animation, and a frequently sputtering framerate, all of which detract heavily from the things the team got so right. The technical shortcomings even go from inconvenient to flat out disruptive as the game regularly struggles in transitions, both in the branching in-game sequences and between the scenarios themselves, which, without exception, hang for several seconds before kicking out to a standard load screen. Even the superb audio design falls victim to the game’s technical struggles as a nasty distortion bug rears its head three or four times per episode, usually during a line of dialogue. I don’t like to hit games too hard for occasionally struggling on the technical side of things; games are extremely complex and very difficult to produce, and, when combined with the variations possible due to user input, flaws are inevitable. However, Jurassic Park is in many areas such a technical mess that it negatively impacts the overall experience–a shame, really, given the aforementioned areas in which it excels.
As for how Jurassic Park actually plays, it is a mash-up of several different styles. Telltale’s signature brand of point-and-click adventuring is sprinkled throughout and serves as the crux of the game’s numerous puzzles. None of these puzzles themselves are particularly difficult, but most are still engrossing and require careful observation and manipulation of the environment. While the puzzles at times can feel very “gamey,” they are for the most part neatly woven into the narrative and serve as a natural consequence and set-up for the events before and after–even if the justification for these puzzles can border on ridiculous. Given the heavy emphasis on characterization and story, it is no surprise that interactive dialogue is also a central gameplay element–it is even featured within all of the aforementioned puzzles and point-and-click areas. In a few cases, the dialogue interactions are the puzzles, which provides for a neat shake-up that has the added effect of immersing the player in the characters. Dialogue is structured similarly to the dialogue wheel pioneered by the Mass Effect series, but it isn’t quite as polished; choices on the wheel are usually identified by topic rather than summarizing the line that the character will actually say. As such, it isn’t always easy to know what you are selecting, which leads to some moments where the character takes the conversation into a direction that wasn’t intended. However, dialogue branches aren’t quite as developed or two-sided, more often straying along the lines of different flavors of the same kinds of sentences rather than going into wildly different directions altogether.
As discussed by the developers prior to the game’s release, Jurassic Park’s physical actions are heavily informed by the design of 2010’s Heavy Rain. Actions occur mostly in a pre-determined, occasionally branching sequence that is moved along by elaborate Quick Time Events (QTEs). Like Heavy Rain, Jurassic Park’s take on this input mechanic attempts to replicate the controlled characters’ actual physical motions and provide for new circumstances should the player fail to perform the inputs correctly. Implementation of this idea, however, is of mixed success. Sometimes failing to perform actions will result in a branching variation of the events, or–in a cool twist–impact the story a little further down the line. In one of my favorite examples, a tense encounter with a predatory dinosaur in a maze of dark corridors involves the use of flares. Failing to react quickly during the escape from one scene results in one or more characters failing to pick up extra flares, which changes the dynamic of the ensuing puzzle. Too frequently, however, failure simply results in a main character being killed, which, after an admittedly gratifying death-by-dino animation, simply reloads to the nearest checkpoint. Even more egregiously, failing a less consequential action doesn’t even have a measured impact on the way that scene plays out and simply takes points away from the player’s medal rating for that scenario. These shortcomings feel like a cop out to some extent, a far cry from the Heavy Rain philosophy of not having any fail states and allowing protagonists to die and virtually any point. However, Jurassic Park is a completely different kind of story, and the primary impulse to progress is driven by narrative drama rather than pure mechanical feedback. In a way, Jurassic Park is an intricate interactive movie with a mostly defined structure, allowing players’ input to change up variations at predetermined points that don’t throw the narrative wildly off kilter. It’s a different approach, and one that is sure to alienate some gamers who simply want to play around with dinosaurs. However, Jurassic Park establishes itself very early on as a very particular kind of interactive experience, and despite shortcomings it generally succeeds where it needs to most.
Despite the strong emphasis on storytelling, dialogue, and drama, there is a very measured pace to the way the entire game progresses. Action, tension, and introspection ratchet up and down in a way that feels very organic to the plot, and the beats of both the story and the gameplay are very tightly interwoven so that each is constantly complementing, informing, and enhancing the other. As previously mentioned, there are a few times when the need for a certain gameplay element, such as a puzzle, feels forced upon the narrative to a certain degree, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. The scripted action sequences are generally intense and satisfying, but do suffer a bit from inconsistency in the control scheme (ironically, this serves to add to the tension, but also to frustration). In one particular poorly-conceived hand-to-hand fight near the end of the game, the player is tasked with rapidly responding to arbitrary button prompts faster than can reasonably be expected in a first take. Had the designers built up a more consistent input, like mapping specific buttons to specific actions or body parts, the rapid clip of prompts might have worked. Instead, the control scheme limits the action to a disjointed exercise of patience. Additionally, a central plot element in the final episode–namely the fate of Isla Nublar and its dinosaurs–is left completely unaddressed amidst the adrenaline-fueled climax. But these are, again, merely notable exceptions to a generally well-planned and deftly executed meshing of narrative and design, sticking out so sorely only because of the quality of all the other examples.
Telltale’s Jurassic Park is by no means a perfect game. Several significant technical issues, along with some flat out terrible graphics, give the experience some nasty, debilitating bruises. Some might even argue it’s not technically a “game” by a strict interpretation of the word, but in my view that is completely overlooking the wonderful approach it offers. However, if you can get past the warts and accept that this more an interactive story than a game that you can win or lose, you’ll find a truly rewarding piece of entertainment. Fans of the Jurassic Park movies in particular will find that the game tallies a lot of the same strengths, including great characters, a thrilling plot, and a healthy dose of prehistoric reptiles. Yes, it falls short in several areas, but in others reaches a level that few games can even aspire to, and it’s a hell of a ride along the way.
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360