For the location-based game aficionado there’s been a glut of attention-grabbing news of late. Of course, there’s the big, deep breath we’re taking before Niantic releases their Harry Potter game this summer, but there’s also news of a Men in Black game, a Dragon Quest game (though that’s unlikely to come to the U.S.) and something based on Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series. I can’t say that I’m particularly anxious to play any of those, but I’m always down to at least *try* any location-based game. Eventually. I’m (forever) catching up on my backlog.
I finally fired up Jurassic World Alive, figuring it would be a big hit in my house with my preschooler being VERY into dinosaurs. I had quietly phased Pokémon Go out of our routine, but missed our walks together. This style of location-based game isn’t my favorite, but it does make for a good excursion when your kid is bouncing off the walls and you don’t have time to go to a playground. After making sure the gameplay was suitable for a preschooler, and free from dudes being eaten off toilets by T-Rex’s and other general dinosaur-based dismemberment, we took our walk around the neighborhood.
If you’ve played any of these sort of games you’ll be able to jump in fairly quickly. You wander around the real world and the game’s map displays dinosaurs to catch, and “supply drops” to fetch in your neighborhood; these contain items and money to amass. The dinosaur-catching conceit is that you’re piloting a drone that fires tranquilizer darts to catch dinosaurs on the loose. That little mini game is challenging unto its own and I quite like it. It feels far less luck-based than the capture mechanics in other games of this style.
I also like how dinosaurs are populated on the map; both being openly displayed and randomly appearing as you walk. You can actively head toward a dinosaur you want to collect, and having that goal in mind can give your walk purpose, as opposed to hoping you’ll get the type of dinosaur you need via random encounter.
There are a lot of small touches in the game that show the developers gave their design a lot of thought. Sure, Pokémon Go led the way, but Jurassic World Alive has made some smart tweaks to the format. For instance, after you’ve captured a certain type of dinosaur for the first time—say a Stegosaurus—every Stegosaurus you capture thereafter contributes to a banked value (DNA, here). Get enough Stegosaurus DNA and you can then level up your Stegosaurus repeatedly. I realize this is a super specific call-out, but players of Pokémon Go who like me, burned out on forever calculating the “IV” of every single creature you capture, will appreciate the distinction.
And here’s where Jurassic World Alive has its claws deep in me, where I’ve been playing it nonstop, selfishly hiding my phone’s screen from my child because I just want to play it in peace:
The part where you battle with your dinosaurs is really good.
At any time, you choose a team of eight dinosaurs from those you’ve captured, and upon starting a match, the game randomly selects four to pit against another real player. It’s a satisfying, turn-based tactical game of punching and counter-punching since each creature has a suite of special abilities. Large carnivores tend to be able to break through shields and armor, flying reptiles have hit-and-run abilities, triceratops’ have a stun-lock powers, and so forth. You build out your squad of eight trying to set up particular combos, but the random draw of only four is smart design by the Jurassic World Alive team; it (mostly) keeps unbeatable combinations from ruling the competition ladder since you never quite know what your lineup will be.
After you play for a while though, you start to see some patterns to the battles and begin to feel the control of Jurassic World Alive’s developers. As you rise in level and ranks in the game, you see other players owning a lot of the same dinosaurs as you and that’s no coincidence. The DNA-awarding canisters you open frequently in the game are very prescribed in their contents. I found some success in trying to counter the trends but it was hard to collect the necessary DNA to build a squad capable of doing so. The game would only serve me up what I was apparently supposed to be working toward at that level. There was one stretch in particular where every player I faced had some combination of Triceratops, Sinoceratops, Alanqa, and a handful of other creatures, and the battles were quickly becoming stale. I refused to build the same squad of eight as everyone else.
Other than that, the developers do good work masking their involvement in the multiplayer battles. If you lose two fights in a row, you’ll get matched up with what is clearly a fake player so you have an easy chance to stop your freefall in the player rankings. Also, sometimes it’s clear that player you were facing dropped out, but instead of ending the match, the computer takes over, still serving up an easy fight, but at least you get to finish it out and get the points.
There’s some other stuff that’s not quite so charming. Boy, oh boy, does Jurassic World Alive go heavy on microtransactions and upselling. So much so that I’m pessimistic about my ultimate longevity with this game, worried that I’ll never compete with the top players because I refuse to spend money. At some point I’ll drop some cash into the game just as a tip to the developers. It’s a free game that has already brought me a ton of enjoyment, but it’s hard to not look at all the bonuses awarded for spending money and not find it unfair.
The map in the game can be unreliable at times as well. There have been quite a few times when I’m walking toward a particular dinosaur, going out of my way just to grab it, to have it vanish from the map right as I’m only a block or two away. The GPS in the game is rather fussy fairly regularly, bopping me around at high speeds even though I haven’t gone anywhere.
Nevertheless, unless I reach a brick wall of difficulty in the battles of Jurassic World Alive or the advantage of microtransactions becomes too much, I think I’ll be playing this one for quite some time. I don’t know if the game will ever allow for this, but I’m hoping to reach a point where I have such a deep bench of creatures, I can start to field “silly” squads. I’d love see how a team of just flying reptiles or nothing but Ankylosauruses and their kin would each fair.
Plus now that I’ve introduced it to my kid, I’m not sure I’d have the option of quitting anyway. The silly augmented reality mode where you can pose with the dinosaurs you’ve captured has alone given us plenty of entertainment.
If you’re ok with the rigged-slot-machine aspect of these games and are looking for a game with a little more tactical meat than Pokémon Go, Jurassic World Alive is what you’re looking for.
Shoot, this might also mean that I’ll finally watch the Jurassic World movie.