Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis Review

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Publisher: Universal Interactive
Developer: Blue Tongue

Platforms: PC, Xbox, PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 400 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 16 MB 3D video card, 700 MB HD space

No need to watch the Jurassic Park movie when you can live it. Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis presents you with the opportunity to succeed where John Hammond failed and build your own five-star theme park based around live dinosaurs. Rendered in full 3D, you develop a barren Pacific island into an active theme park. Keep your customers happy and, most of all, keep them secure. Dinosaurs behave realistically, so choose your exhibits wisely. A Tyrannosaurus in a pen of hapless herbivores soon becomes a Tyrannosaurus in a pen by himself.

Rob de los Reyes

Like the mosquito trapped in amber that inspired the Jurassic Park story, Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis boasts an impressive core surrounded by some pretty if ultimately less interesting stuff. The heart of Operation Genesis is the dinosaurs. It's not just that they look good in full 3D, it's the incredible attention to the details of their behavior. That behavior changes based on whether they are alone, in the company of their own species or in the company of companion or opponent species to name but one of the relevant modifiers. There is a genuinely advanced feel to the behavior modeling on display here. All of which makes the half-hearted theme park elements more noticeable. Ironically, the dinosaurs seem to represent the future of gaming while the theme park elements seem a bit fossilized.

That's not to say that there's nothing new about the broader game. There are three game modes: a sandbox mode (try to build a five star theme park), a mission mode, and "Site B" mode (no theme park, just play with dinosaurs). Mission mode presents a dozen or so arcade-like challenges that are based on tasks you may need to perform in sandbox mode. Some missions involve "retiring" rampaging dinosaurs or rescuing trapped people. Others have you herding herbivores through a maze of walls and hungry predators. Still others require you to drive around and take photographs of certain dinosaur behaviors. None is terribly difficult, which is no bad thing since you'll need to complete them all in order to unlock Site B mode. The missions are a moderately interesting break from pure "sims" play, though once you've finished them, there's no reason to return.

The featured game mode, sandbox play, is very much like other "tycoon" games on the market, though, unlike most, is rendered in attractive, full 3D. Before the game starts, you choose an island and have the opportunity to fiddle around with sliders that adjust terrain features like mountains, tree coverage and rivers. All those features are adjustable in-game, but at a cost, so the opening selection acts as a proxy for a difficulty setting, rigging the start-up costs for your park. Other than terrain, however, there are no real randomizing elements. Certainly nothing on the order of variety available in, say, Tropico. You always start with the same amount of cash and the same amount and type of dinosaur DNA. That the first third of your game always involves the same dinosaurs hurts replay value, even if it does have the salutary function of preventing you from lucking into a starting stock of a "four star" dinosaur species.

To expand your pool of breedable dinosaurs, you'll send Dr. Alan Grant (as in the movie character) out with teams of paleontologists to build up DNA stocks for other species. Once you've hit a certain critical amount, you can churn out a new type of dinosaur. Further DNA brings you longer-lived dinosaurs; the longer they live, the less often you must purchase expensive replacements. Selecting what species to look for is perhaps the deepest strategic element of the game. Some species are quite interesting on their own, but most generate extra entertainment value for your guests when paired with the appropriate prey or playmates. In addition, some of your fussy guests (called "dino-nerds") are only happy when viewing dinosaurs realistically paired from the same era and geographic region. Other visitors are thrill seekers looking for dinosaur fighting and hunting, while others are more interested in the frolicking of herds of herbivores. It is this need to seek out and properly display these unusual creatures that lends Operation Genesis its most interesting challenge and its real sense of freshness in gameplay.

The other theme park elements are largely yesterday's territory, at least for PC gamers. That won't be the case for the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions, since the genre is almost unknown on those platforms. The problem is that, knowing of the planned console release, you can't help but think that much of the park management has been "dumbed down" with an eye to those versions. The artwork of the structures is beautiful, but there is relatively little of it. There are nowhere near the number of structure options available in, say, Sid Meier's Sim Golf, nor anywhere near the Sim Golf level of control over landscaping. The same is true for the organization of information. No data is particularly deep, nor is information cross-linked in useful ways. To the game's credit, you have more than enough data feedback to run your park successfully, but not enough depth of data or challenge to satisfy veterans of the PC sim scene for an extended period. True, the seamless and largely successful merging of arcade elements like actually flying a helicopter around your island to tranquilize a rampaging dinosaur is a novel way to change pace, but it only reinforces the sense that some PC depth has been traded away for console accessibility.

Such nuisances undoubtedly hurt Operation Genesis' long term viability, but in some ways assist the "Wow" of your first couple of days of play. Helpful tutorials tone down the learning curve, and there's really no way to overstate just how thrillingly detailed the dinosaurs are. What's missing are the air and sea dinosaurs, though perhaps that's by design for a possible sequel or expansion. Certainly the narrative arc of the movies suggest we ought to see those dinosaurs at some point.

Spectacular though they may be, the dinosaurs on hand are not enough to give Site B mode lasting interest. Without the theme park elements and cash limits, Site B mode is essentially fish bowl mode. Drop in your dinosaurs and watch them go. It's great fun for a time since you can mix and match species without worrying about the opinion of dino-nerds. Again, the behavior model impresses. An Allosaurus wandered into the midst of a herd of herbivores looking for prey. He found it, but he also found a bold Triceratops. With the Allosaurus faced away, the Triceratops ran up, ganked the predator with his horns, then sprinted away. Over the next 15 minutes, the two dinosaurs traded turns seeking advantage, attacking and fleeing. It was all quite breathtaking. But as with even the best stocked aquariums, there's only so much passive gazing you can do before you crave input. Candidly, Site B mode cries out for the ability to drop humans onto the island so that you can create your own Jurassic Park movie. To be fair, we knew from last year's E3 that such "gratuitous" slayings were simply not going to be added. More's the pity. You can create havoc in the theme park mode by removing the fences, but then you've ruined your game. Site B would have been perfect for a little penalty-free mayhem.

In the end, though, Operation Genesis is not to be missed. The dinosaurs are beautiful, thoughtfully conceived and sophisticated enough to be worth the price of admission all on their own. Ultimately, however, Operation Genesis is fairly easy to master and not deep enough or randomized enough to provide the raw hours of play that PC simmers have come to expect from the genre. Operation Genesis is far better designed than the usual "tycoon" game of the month, but it simply needs more – more content, more options, more control. In sensible recognition of its limitations, Operation Genesis debuted at the $30 price point. At that price, you can feel comfortable gobbling it up like a pack of Velociraptors on a hapless Pachycephalosaurus.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on May 19, 2003 3:12 PM.

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