Be careful what you wish for’ is definitely the lesson learned from Telltale Games’ latest episodic adventure. The point-and-click adventure specialist has made a living for the past seven years simply by regurgitating LucasArts’ age-old SCUMM style across a range of intellectual properties.
At first these provoked a welcome nostalgia after half a decade starved of decent story-driven puzzlers, but as the undeniably excellent Back To The Future screeched away earlier this year it was hard to shake the thought that Telltale had slumped into a comfortable but predictable template.
A new direction seemed necessary but, sadly, the disastrous design of Jurassic Park is so bad that Telltale would have been better off just taking Guybrush out of Monkey Island and replacing him with a T-Rex.
It’s easy to see how Telltale got into this mess. The Jurassic Park license is defined by its thrilling sense of mortal danger, which is as unsuited to the slow pace of conversational conundrums and inventory puzzles as it’s possible to get, so a new gameplay template was necessary; one that retains a sense of adventure but is framed in a more accessible cinematic structure.
Clearly taking inspiration from Heavy Rain, Telltale is thinking along the right lines with Jurassis Park’s design but the execution is so woefully inept it demonstrates a complete lack of appreciation for what David Cage’s magnum opus did right.
The quick time events are the major fault at the heart of Jurassic Park’s failure. Mis-time a button press and the direction of the story changes a little, eventually halting progression and killing a character if you bodge too many in a row.
Yet while Heavy Rain used clever perspective tricks to integrate its commands and gestures into the background, Jurassic Park unceremoniously slaps them over the top of the action and you’re left feeling like you’re not actually in control of any of the characters but rather a disembodied spectator with only minimal influence over the course of events.This flaw is compounded by Telltale’s confusing approach to character-player identification. Where Heavy Rain cleverly switched between its four protagonists with each chapter in order to give multiple perspectives on the plot, Jurassic Park switches control repeatedly, even within each scene, leaving you totally unsure of who you’re in control of.
One second a character is an antagonist you’re arguing with and the next moment you’re in control of them, choosing their words and adopting a defensive stance.
The result is that you never feel like you are any of the characters and consequently fail to care about their fate. Which is fatal in a game of ‘try not to be eaten by a dinosaur’.
When a character does find itself caught between the jaws of a terrible lizard. It lacks any of the horror, impact or consequence that you’ve come to expect from the franchise – Jurassic Park III’s magically reappearing, Pterodactyl-savaged, Billy Brennan excepted, of course.
Allow someone to die and you’re presented with a game over screen and lose points, as though game design really hasn’t moved on since 1983’s Dragon’s Lair, and then you’re bounced back to the beginning of the scene to have another crack, watching exactly the same cut-scenes and tapping exactly the same buttons, in exactly the same sequence, like a rhythm-action game but without the rhythm.
Or, sadly, much action… The story seems to have been written by some of the most boring scriptwriters on the planet. One excruciating scene, for example, sees our heroes discussing the best way to extend an emergency ladder while an early dialogue sequence actually allows you to choose to talk about the weather. It’s almost as if the designers want you to switch off and go do something else.
If Telltale had implemented permanent death as a core feature in Jurassic Park then it would instantly be a better game. The ever-present threat of dinosaurs would be suitably terrifying.The fractious in-fighting between the human cast could lead to terrible consequences and the flow of the narrative could branch in unexpected and meaningful ways that would make the player really feel involved in the drama rather than just a passive, and pretty bored, spectator.
So what does Jurassic Park get right? Not much. Presentation-wise the game is fine. Telltale’s artists have made the best of a limited budget, carving memorable and detailed characters despite a lack of delicate tools, while the sound designers – who must surely have had access to Universal’s library – still manage to send a shiver up the spine with a single T-Rex roar or the tap of a raptor’s toe.
The occasional puzzle also creeps in. These have more in common with the puzzles you’d find in Uncharted than Sam & Max and the way in which they actually make you feel as though you’re doing something would come as welcome respite from Telltale’s slow dinosaur slideshow, were they not so infrequent as to be redundant.
It’s possible that the staggering lack of interactivity on display in Jurassic Park: The Game is a product of Telltale acquiring ever bigger licenses that attract audiences unaccustomed to proper videogames.
But would that audience really want to spend $30 on a Jurassic Park product that didn’t offer something significantly different to the films - one that takes advantage of its medium rather than running from it out of embarrassment?
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