Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Special Review: Jurassic Park - The Game.

In preparation for Steven Spielberg's The BFG this Friday, I decided to revisit my beloved Jurassic Park in the interactive format.

For whatever reason that I can't think of, until now, I had never heard of Jurassic Park - The Game. Sure, I've played several retro Nintendo and Genesis games, but for some reason, this one, which essentially serves as a direct sequel to the original Jurassic Park but with a different cast, completely slipped my mind. Seeing that it was produced by the developers of Telltale Games, best known for their Walking Dead series, and given that Jurassic Park is my favorite movie of all time, I thought it sounded promising enough to give it my attention. I really am just a sucker for novelty like that, but even novelty and fond nostalgia can only go so far in masking a product's flaws. Thank goodness that I still have Jurassic World to look fondly at, because Jurassic Park - The Game is just as weak and ridiculous as either of Jurassic Park's two immediate sequels.

Split into a set of four episodic stories, Jurassic Park - The Game follows various characters trapped on Isla Nublar after Nedry's drastic sabotage. We have park Vet Gerry Harding, making his way through the park while protecting his troubled daughter Jessi. At the same time, a mysterious mercenary named Nima is sent on a covert mission to recover Nedry's canister of embryos, and who also has mysterious knowledge of the island. We also have scientist Laura Sorkin, a dedicated caretaker of the various dinosaur species who wants to ensure the dinosaurs' safety following the mass exodus of the human workers. Then last are a pair of InGen employed troopers sent to rescue the survivors, and once all six characters meet, they'll have to put their differences aside and band together in order to survive... YET AGAIN!!!

The main issue with the actual storytelling of the game lies within the characters. While it is true that the characters of the Jurassic Park series have never necessarily been the deepest or most complex, I still maintain that all of the best ones have managed to rise above their limitations with excellently defined personalities and endearing traits, as well as the terrific work delivered by their performers. That's the first death mark against this game, as it has little to none of those, featuring some of the most barren and stock characterizations in the series since Jurassic Park 3.

The first of these characters is Gerry Harding, who you may remember best as the briefly seen employee in the original film that greeted the group as they approached the sick Triceratops. It's an interesting concept to center most of the game around such a little seen character in the original, and give them more of an expanded presence, but the fact is that Harding is simply not an interesting character, a thoroughly bland and predictable cardboard cutout of a worried dad and boy scout, and wields such little genuine command throughout the game. Only slightly more intriguing is his daughter, who is defined solely by whining, running her mouth at an annoying rapid fire rate, and stealing things with the frequency of a Kleptomaniac, the latter which reaches especially questionable levels as that habit eventually ends up saving the day. I understand the feelings towards it are meant to feel ambiguous, but it ends up sending some very mixed signals.

Next up is Laura Sorkin, an initially interesting character who plans to reverse the lysine contingency implemented by Henry Wu, but eventually gets boiled down to one of those insufferable "Animals good, humans bad" stereotypes that almost reaches Uma Thurman-Poison Ivy levels of self-parody. Not helping matters is her infuriating habit of acting cryptic, and acting on impulse without any clear thought.

Then we have Oscar, one of the troopers sent to rescue the survivors. He's a generic wise brute with an accent, nothing more, and nothing less. On the other hand, his close colleague Billy Yoder (Is this even a real last name?) is probably the single worst thing in the entire game. Remember that scene in Jurassic World where Chris Pratt makes a bunch of off-putting comments to Bryce Dallas Howard, and has a very cocky attitude while doing so? Imagine that one scene applied to this entire character, and you can imagine how quickly his antics get old, at least until his jarring transition in the fourth and final chapter, where he basically transforms into Michael Biehn's character from The Abyss. Making matters worse is the horribly applied voice over work of Jason Marsden, whose distinct voice can make for a seamless fit for a character if used right (see Spirited Away for an example), but when that voice is fitted to a character who goes off the walls insane in the final stretches of the game, the result isn't intimidating so much as it is unintentionally funny.

The only semi-interesting character is Nima, a mercenary shrouded in a lot of intriguing mystery, and who admittedly has some well performed scenes to her credit, especially due to the fact that she happens to know so much about the island, which you constantly spend waiting to hear more of. Only thing is that these answers take far too long to make their way to the forefront, leading to her character being very hard to initially connect to due to murky motivations, and surface value details - like an established tie to Oscar that the game never expands on - that feel vapid rather than enlightening. However, once the fourth chapter begins, it's like the developers were aware of this, so their idea of addressing this is to have all of that information funneled to us via giant, clunky exposition dump that brings the entire game to a sluggish standstill. But by the time we've actually reached that point, it feels too little, too very late.

As far as actual storytelling goes, like The Lost World and JP3, JP - The Game is riddled with stupidity that requires more suspension of disbelief than we're willing to give. Not only do the characters have no spark or chemistry with one another, but if you thought characters like Nick Van Owen and Billy Brennan were idiots, you'll be amazed at how these supposedly intelligent characters manage to stay alive throughout this entire game, always coming to the most imbecilic conclusions and plans as they attempt to stay alive, leaping impulsively into action like they're Captain America, and because of their murky motivations, it makes it hard to feel any emotional pull to them. After a while, should I even care about who makes a deal with whom, or why one character is betraying another? Worse still, the entire game reads like little more than internet fan-fiction, full of massive gaps in logic to desperately pull new story ideas out of thin air (turns out those Velociraptors that Muldoon said "Clever Girl" killed *weren't dead after all*, they were just in quarantine). Not only that, but in an effort to tug at the nostalgic heartstrings of viewers, the game frequently makes callbacks to the original film, some of them clever, but most of them forced like the developers directly remaking the "We've got Dodgson here" scene.

When it comes to actual gameplay, the game's story and the control scheme are directly correlated with each other. The game is a mix of a point and click type of adventure, while also serving as a Heavy Rain-esque series of quicktime events and button prompts. A common derogatory term for games in this vein is the phrase "Interactive movie", used in the context of the player only minimally contributing to the direct storyline. As misguided and unfair as that term can be, I can think of no better way to describe JP - The Game. While games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead have multiple outcomes and countless twists that determine how story and character relationships play out, Jurassic Park has no such branching paths, with all of its vapid dialogue choices feeling streamlined and driven to one linear end without any real variety, and at best, has only one other alternate ending to its credit. The game can quickly be finished in just over five hours, but without any real variety in the writing and character interplay, there's absolutely nothing here that will make players want to suffer through the game again, especially when the control scheme is so clunky, and the quicktime events leaving very little room for error, that the interactivity becomes more frustrating than fun.

Technically the game looks and sounds fine, if a bit misjudged and quite glitchy. The entire game is designed with a very cartoonish comic book visual style, which works for a game like The Walking Dead where such a style evokes the spirit of the comics, but for Jurassic Park it feels like a jarring accompaniment. Still, the dinosaurs look impressive, and the animators have clearly gone to great lengths to match the behavior and mannerisms of their film counterparts. The same attention to detail is less impressive in music, however, with the game overplaying and badly orchestrating the original John Williams themes, and replaying what feels like four tracks on an incessant loop.

Speaking of the dinosaurs, they look as cool as ever, but what irritates me is how inconsistently the game decides to treat them. While nowhere near as disastrous as JP3's treatment of them, the creatures are once again treated less like soulful, empathetic animals, and more like the brainless brutes that the original film subverted so seamlessly. There are some fascinating touches to be felt, like when looking over a baby Triceratops, or aiding a group of Parasaurs out of their paddock, but for the most part, these are not enough to cut it for me. It's particularly annoying to see the majestic T-Rex, my most treasured childhood icon, relegated to little more than a slasher villain that only exists to briefly foil the main characters every so often. I personally think it's a mistake that the Rex made it's first appearance in the very first chapter, as the novelty becomes less exciting with every following appearance, and the game should have built it up and saved it for the very end of the second chapter leading into the third with much more Pomp and Circumstance. That's precisely what they do with the Velociraptors, and those guys are all the better for it.

There's a pronounced lack of any real terror in the game, with suspense set at a very low bar due to the unappealing characters, and the game suffering due to a series of incredibly disparate strands. One of these comes in the form of a new species to the Jurassic Park series, the Troodon. Throughout the entire game, these creatures are consistently built up as great menaces, hidden in shadows with only their glowing eyes alerting the gamer and characters to their presence, stalking victims that they infect with poisonous and hallucinogenic bites, and are seemingly so terrifying that even Raptors and Dilophosaurs cowardly flee from them. It isn't until the final chapter of the game that we end up seeing them in their full glory, so what important role do they end up playing in the plot? What do they contribute in the narrative?

ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!!! After spending so much time building up what a terror they are, they end up feeling useless in the grand scheme of things. They don't even show up at the very end to give the villain his big comeuppance, for crying out loud. Why go to all this trouble if you're not even going to do anything with it? There is no reason that these dinosaurs couldn't have been easily swapped out for Raptors and Dilophosaurs, and I think that says a lot for how much potential this game ends up wasting.

From the moment that it begins recreating the original film's booming opening drumbeats and choir, I felt a lot of excitement going into Jurassic Park - The Game, but after the nostalgia goggles come off, I genuinely couldn't believe how this game could crash and burn so spectacularly. It's a shallow, surface-value imitation of the original film's charm and majestic sense of wonder at best, and at worst it's one of the most insufferable gaming experiences I've had in recent memory. The new additions to the Jurassic Park lore are of little value, overrun with finicky and occasionally unresponsive controls, and its pure lack of replayability is inexcusable. Even for a budget title it's not worth your time.

In no way is it as technically incompetent as another terrible game based on a classic Spielberg film, that being E.T. for the Atari, but this is by far the more personally disappointing product in comparison. Even childhood nostalgia has its limits...

* / *****

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