We Have a T-Rex
For as cool as dinosaurs are, you’d think they would show up more in video games. The prehistoric beasts have made a fair amount of sporadic appearances over the years, though outside Dino Crisis, Turok, and the occasional part in Tomb Raider (no, Yoshi doesn’t really count), these creatures have more often than not been relegated to appearances more along the lines of Primal Rage and other games of a similar caliber. What’s even more surprising is that it’s been largely the same with films, aside from, say, Ray Harryhausen, now-obscure b-movies, and Godzilla-related fare.
The notable exception is, of course, Jurassic Park (and its sequels, which I’ll only mention for their high box office sales). Much like any franchise title, JP never fared well in video game form, with the typical licensed movie tie-in related issues plaguing the games from the time of the first film’s release onward. Now Isla Nublar is getting a new lease on life, however, with Telltale’s take on Crichton and Spielberg’s classic.
The pairing may not make a whole lot of sense at first, since Telltale has traditionally been known for their classic point-and-click style as well as series that lend themselves to a less serious tone, Sam & Max, Monkey Island, and Strong Bad among them. But with their recent addition of creating a would-be sequel to Back to the Future—not to mention the company’s plans to broaden their tonal scope with The Walking Dead and Vertigo’s Fables, among other new, more mature projects—it seems that Jurassic Park marks another step towards Telltale re-defining themselves. And given the adventure-style roots in the classic film, using an adventure game design to explore a new chapter in John Hammond’s ill-fated dino theme park makes a lot of sense.
That being said, Jurassic Park isn’t a traditional point-and-click, and it’s certainly not an action game. It’s actually something of a hybrid (at least if you take “action game” to mean something in the vein of Heavy Rain’s design), and the demo I played at a recent press event showed off both sides of JP’s mechanical equation, albeit in small doses. The game takes place over the course of the original film’s story arc, but instead of following Dr. Grant, Dr. Malcolm, and the rest of the cast, Telltale’s JP introduces a new set of characters dealing with their own problems as Isla Nublar goes to hell in a handbasket.
The demo opens with Dr. Gerry Harding, the park’s chief veterinarian, transporting his daughter Jess and an injured woman towards the island’s visitor center when they come across a baby triceratops in the middle of the road. The dino is contentedly munching on a large branch—naturally, this being an adventure game, you need to figure out how to get it back into its pen. Unlike either a traditional point-and-click or Heavy Rain, though, you don’t walk Harding through his environment. Instead, the camera is dropped behind the stationary doctor and you’re given the ability to pan across his field of vision with various contextual interactions available. Here’s where Quantic Dream’s influence is first notable: Harding can, say, observe the security light on top of the fence (noting that the power must be malfunctioning), talk to the baby triceratops, try to take the branch away from it, or push the animal. Each action is mapped to a particular button on the 360 controller (note: Telltale hasn’t actually announced which consoles JP will come to, but it’s a pretty safe bet that both 360 and PS3 will be in the mix).
When it becomes obvious that nothing Harding can do in front of the jeep will be effective, it’s time to go to the nearby maintenance shed, which is locked with a code. Switching locations is controlled by bringing up a menu via a shoulder button, at which point the player can choose where they want to go. (For the demo, the locations were limited to near the triceratops in front of the jeep, the maintenance shed, and inside the jeep, where the POV switched to Harding’s daughter.) Now, in a traditional point-and-click, you would probably have to figure out the combination yourself, but here Harding was able to just ask Jess if she could find the black book containing the access code in the jeep. Interactions like this are handled in similar ways to other Telltale games like Sam & Max, with a Mass Effect-style conversation wheel that I suspect will become more important as the game goes on. When Harding goes into the maintenance shed, the only thing to do is reset the security system in order to secure the gate once the baby triceratops has been lured in, accomplished by holding down a shoulder button and using the analog stick to make a turning motion. Jurassic Park’s gameplay, then, gives off the impression of being slightly more linear in the first half of its demo than a traditional, more exploration-based point-and-click. It has the same feel of trial and error insofar as you have to attempt various things before finding or figuring out the proper combination of actions in order to spook the baby triceratops back into its pen.
However, once the animal safely made its return back to its family, things head south in a hurry. The jeep’s horn, used to make the baby dino retreat, gets stuck, causing Momma Tri to ram it with Jess and the unknown woman still inside, smashing through the gate and pinning Harding underneath in the process. From here on out the game become a series of Heavy Rain-style action sequences. To keep from being killed, you’re forced to rip out the wiring in the jeep’s interior as Jess (a combination of tapping face button commands); as a T-Rex approaches, presumably right after ravaging the jeep where Grant and Hammond’s grandkids are elsewhere on the island, Harding has to crawl out from under the downed fence to keep from being trampled (alternating shoulder buttons); finally both Jess and Harding must run, jump, and evade as the triceratops and tyrannosaurus clash, the first of what I assume will be many scaling dinosaur encounters. And yes, if you screw up, you can die—I saw Harding crushed underneath the weight of the T-Rex’s massive foot, and it wasn’t pretty (if only, however, because of the power of imagination). If the demo is anything to go by, it seems like Jurassic Park’s action sequences will be fairly QT-heavy.
What remains to be seen is how linear the game is. While traditional point-and-clicks allow for a great deal of exploration, JP seemed straightforward, with no real deviation from the correct path. While I suspect this just may be a case of the demo being too short, I hope that, even with extra interactions and optional dialogue between characters thrown in, the island opens up a little more as the story progresses. (Knowing Telltale, I feel this is probably a given.)
Another interesting tidbit is how the game’s storyline will evidently pick up on unresolved issues from the film, such as what happened to Nedry’s can of dinosaur embryos, which has the potential to be very interesting.
So far it seems like Telltale is off to a promising start with their continuation of Jurassic Park. The game’s realistic aesthetic marks a new, more mature milestone in the company’s overall presentational direction, and the developers are promising a gameplay experience that’s based on emotion and survival. The design seems pretty solid, although I am still a little wary of a heavy reliance on quicktime events to get you through the action. Whether or not the game can live up to the original film is still unknown, but any serious, bigger budget game with velociraptors in it has the potential to be great, at least in my book. Jurassic Park hits PC in April, with console versions presumably in short order.