Review: Encanto

In contrast to last week’s movie review, I’m writing with open admiration for Encanto. I feel we’ve truly been blessed with some incredible animated movies and television over the past decade or so because I feel like my opinion is so frequently that the most recent animated movie or show I’ve watched is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and Encanto fits that trend.

The voice cast is great, led by Stephanie Beatriz as protagonist Mirabel, the only blood member of the Madrigal family not bestowed a magical Gift. (And oh hey there, John Leguizamo as Uncle Bruno!) The music, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is tremendous, ranging genres and emotions while at times managing to convey the way people in families talk in shockingly accurate ways. I couldn’t get over the fun and gossipy familiarity of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” and centerpiece song “Dos Oruguitas” just destroyed me.

I liked the colorful depiction of Colombian culture as well, but I’m not Colombian and claim no special knowledge of the country or its people, so I’ll defer on further commentary there. If nothing else, the Madrigal family itself and the community they are a part of are welcomingly diverse.

The story is such a heartfelt depiction of generational trauma and the metaphorical process of breaking out of unhealthy familial roles and healing. This felt like such a genuine depiction of a simultaneously personal yet universally relatable experience that feels rare in Disney movies (though not unusual for Pixar, under the umbrella of Disney but having nothing to do with this film). The magic system is maybe a bit undercooked, and why/how powers actually emerged, disappeared, or returned is never really explained, but given that it’s working heavily as metaphor for the underlying emotional and relationship troubles of the family, it doesn’t really matter.

This was a really good Disney movie.

Quick Thoughts on The Matrix Resurrections

I am sure The Matrix Resurrections has already fed thousands of reviews, think-pieces, and clickbait articles already. I saw it, and the sci-fi film is in line with the topics I cover on my blog, so it seemed relevant to address it here. But I don’t really have much to say.

It was fine. It was an overall enjoyable sci-fi love story with cool fight sequences and a retreaded heroic journey. It was fun to see Keanu Reeves as Neo and Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity again. It was interesting to see Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jonathan Groff doing their own versions of Morpheus and Agent Smith. (Jonathan Groff is so good in everything he does, and I somehow never recognize him at the time, which is probably a credit to his performances.) There were other new roles, and returning roles, and references to characters from the other movies. These were all mostly entertaining and/or interesting, as well. None of this movie felt vital or fresh or new, though.

The movie even argued against itself. Thomas Anderson is saddened that he has to make a new Matrix video game, that the studio was going to make one with or without him. Despite his creative involvement, he isn’t sure about what to do with the new game. Plenty of people who grew up with his games tell him what the game should be about. A consensus is never reached. Lana Wachowski is hardly subtle here.

In general, there was nothing subtle about anything in the movie. I don’t think the Wachowskis know how to be subtle. They can be cryptic, but not subtle. That’s fine; they offer big ideas coupled with gripping action sequences. But they’re most fun when setting up a new concept (even when adapting a property or riffing on a genre), like the original The Matrix or Speed Racer or Jupiter Ascending.

I have seen the full Matrix trilogy. I’ve watched those movies maybe twice, once around when they came out and once as a young adult. I’ve enjoyed them. I recognize The Matrix as groundbreaking. But none of them got deep under my skin, like they did for some people, like especially the original did for many people. I don’t remember the details well enough to have a deep appreciation for all the callbacks made in Resurrections. That’s fine. It didn’t ruin my experience.

But Resurrections did not need to exist, and it has not justified its existence or the continuation of the franchise. Maybe die-hard fans will disagree. That’s fine too. I think I’d get more out of just watching the original again. This franchise can go on and on beyond Resurrections if it wants, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t need to, and I won’t care at all if it does.

My Five Favorite Games in 2021

My tradition continues: below are my five favorite games that I played in 2021.

1. Red Dead Redemption 2

I only started playing RDR2 in the latter half of December. I’d heard great things for a long time. I expected to find it enjoyable, probably better than the first Redemption. I’ve in fact been absolutely blown away by this game. It’s an incredible balance of Western simulator and heartfelt narrative vehicle, and I can’t get over how well that balance is maintained. Rockstar games typically favor the simulation side, creating big open worlds with tons of activities and locales, densely packed with AI inhabitants, awaiting you to create your own stories through the dynamic interactions with that world as you sow chaos or simply walk through it. Those games are often paired with stories about Big Ideas and memorable (and occasionally even complex) characters, but the story and gameplay often undermine each other. I’ve written about this before. But RDR2‘s open world and story don’t feel in contrast; they feed off each other. Your choices matter. Small choices create ripple effects, in and out of missions. How you act in the larger world determines to some degree how Arthur acts in missions and how the story plays out.

A lot of this is the richer Honor system pulled in from RDR, but not everything is simply tied to morality mechanics. The constant presence of characters who matter to the narrative helps, as well. You spend a lot of time at camp, and there are rewards and incentives for doing so. You get to know the camp members, who are well-written and well-acted; all but one or two of the most despicable have redeemable characteristics, and there are characters I found easy to relate to and care for. There’s a real sense of community, and that helps guide my actions as protagonist Arthur Morgan. But there’s always enough nuance in Arthur’s demeanor to justify a more honorable or more dastardly version of the character, and all versions feel within a reasonable range for this character as he is depicted.

There are also optional systems that provide additional depth to the stoic and gruff (though far-from-silent) protagonist; for instance, Arthur updates a journal to sketch places he’s visited, animals he’s studied and hunted, and interesting personalities he’s encountered, while providing his perspective on events in the game and his own (partially player-guided) actions. That journal feature is omnipresent, and when there’s an update, a notice briefly appears, but one never need spend time in the journal. I love to view it whenever it’s updated, though, as it adds much greater richness to the game’s story, providing a window into the inner life of a protagonist who isn’t always particularly inclined to tell people how he’s really feeling. Arthur’s defined personality traits but broad range of reactions has allowed me to find my own version of the character, one who tends to help those in need, who looks after women and children, who can be a bit too trusting, but who is also quick with a gun, willing to rob and loot, willing to turn a profit especially if it helps his outlaw community, and not out for blood but never afraid to get into a fight or even to kill if it serves his goals. He’s an interesting gray character–genuinely interesting, and not just the erratic set of disjointed choices that might normally define a “chaotic neutral” type of character.

The simulation side has engaged me far more than RDR, GTA IV, or GTA V, as well. I enjoy fishing and hunting. I enjoy seeking out a great buck, slowly stalking it, attempting to cleanly and mercifully kill it, and then collecting its carcass for a ride back through mountains, valleys, forests, plains, and rivers to share it with the outlaw camp’s quartermaster/cook for the benefit of the community. I enjoy simply riding my horse down wide roads and up narrow, winding paths. God, do I love the horses. There’s a button prompt to comfort/praise/reassure your horse, and I abuse the hell out of it. We’re closely bonded. And you can praise (or scold) cats and dogs, so I of course praise them when I can. You can pat dogs, so I do that often too. I suppose you could shoot them, but why would you? There are plenty of rewards in being a good person and treating the world like a real place, and I imagine there are rewards for those who want to play a far more violently aggressive personality as well, though I seldom see them.

There are also systems to punish wildly out-of-character behavior. There are harsh penalties to crime sprees. It’s inevitable–simply following the game’s story will get you involved in at least some criminal behavior, and my Arthur isn’t a saint. But the Wanted system combined with the lingering Bounty system and resultant posses of bounty hunters and lawmen that will follow you in territories where you’ve wreaked havoc provide for additional experiences to test your skills but also remind you that you shouldn’t push things too far, that the game’s “society” has clear rules and will demand you adhere to them or face dire consequences, locked out of most of civilization and on the run.

There are a lot of fascinating random events and strangers to run into. One time, I saw a fight to the death between territorial bucks. I’ve helped escaped prisoners and women captured by marauders. I’ve been ambushed by rival gangs. I’ve gotten swept up pursuing an impressive pronghorn buck or elk, or a legendary beast whose territory I innocently wandered into, ignoring for a while whatever my immediate goal had been. I’ve been invited to search for dinosaur fossils (an awesome acknowledgment of the rapid expansion of paleontological fieldwork and the wild characters involved from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). I’ve collected some treasure for a quest and stopped by a nearby abandoned cabin late at night, only to find skeletal remains everywhere and a message from a cult, with a sudden green glow and eerie thrumming to throw me off even further, my brain sounding alarm signals of fear before I realize I’m being buzzed by a UFO overhead just as it takes off. It’s a wild game.

There’s so much to do, and so many of the situations in the main narrative and the random encounters can be shaped by your personal input. While this could easily reward replay of the story, the game is just so damn big, the choices so many and varied, that I imagine I’ll see the completion of the game as the completion of the story for My Arthur; no replay would be needed. (Plus, if I still want more when I’m done, there’s Red Dead Online.) I’ve played for just over thirty hours and appear to be just under a third of the way through the story, so there’s more than enough game in the single-player mode alone.

There is so much to RDR2, but the nature of the game, its story about a struggling community and the efforts to find safety and purpose on a fading frontier, allow for such a wide-open story. Unlike the first game, I don’t get a feeling of bloat (which is really crazy when I complained about completing RDR in 46.5 hours, compared to my 31.4 hours for less than a third of the story in the sequel). There are certainly excessive systems, but the game wants you to live in it, and the story is about living in this community. There is no burning rush for revenge, as in the original. Instead, it feels like a story in which you’re simply trying to hold out as long as you can with the ones you love and the ones who rely on you, even as the noose slowly tightens around you and your found family. (Oh, also unlike the first game, RDR2 has so far provided a quite diverse cast of characters, from some of the central figures to the many background parts, and they’re provided much greater nuance and, at least for the main characters, individuality and complexity than in any other Rockstar game. I’m really impressed by this development.)

Finally, the customization options for accessibility and UI appearance are quite welcome. I like keeping a minimalist overlay presentation, inviting greater immersion into the game. The one feature I often keep up is some version of a navigation system in the lower left corner of the screen. If I’m moving through familiar territory or not particularly concerned about direction, I turn it off. If I’m heading toward a goal, I keep a simple compass on so I know that I’m at least not riding south when I need to be going west. If I’m in a territory where I’m wanted, or if I’m on a mission, I tend to turn on the normal or expanded versions of the minimap with its associated markers and route guides. All of this can be done without even pausing the game, pressing a couple of button prompts the same as you would to rotate between your weapon options. It’s impressive.

Then again, this whole game is impressive.

2. Jurassic World Evolution 2

This shouldn’t be a surprise. I loved what Jurassic World Evolution evolved into with its DLC. I was eagerly awaiting the sequel. It has not disappointed. I’m sure I’ll be returning to challenges and sandbox modes for quite a while yet. And I’m hoping for some further story developments post-Dominion!

3. Book of Travels

Another title that shouldn’t be a surprise on this list. This is a game that focuses on the things I like most about roleplaying. I haven’t given it the attention it deserves, but the time I’ve spent in it has been delightful.

4. Halo: The Master Chief Collection

I got into the co-op with a friend toward the end of this year. I also started playing solo playlists of missions. Maybe I’ll get into the multiplayer? Then again, I imagine most people have moved over to Halo Infinite. Either way, it’s been a fun and nostalgic time.

5. Star Wars: Squadrons

This was a go-to toward the start of the year, but my friends and I slowly burned out of this. We’ve idly talked about getting back into it. It really brought the sense of cinematic Star Wars space battles to life and personally invested you in it as a starfighter pilot caught up in the middle of it all. Multiplayer matches were chaotic and intense. We had one really strong player (not me–I was maybe the worst), but matchmaking unfortunately veered toward unbalanced rounds against incredibly skilled players or players who clearly didn’t know what they were doing at all, so we oscillated between fantastic victories and crushing defeats. I never got very far into the story, and the limited multiplayer maps could feel repetitive. But all that said, it was a way to socialize with friends during some of the worst of the pandemic while experiencing authentic Star Wars.

Review: Camp Cretaceous Season 4

The fourth season of Camp Cretaceous is the best one yet. The animation has continued to improve, and some of the action sequences, including an early one this season set in open waters (that also serves as an homage to Jaws), surpass anything that’s come before on the show and rival some of the scenes from the film. I really care about the characters, too; the campers have been through a lot, have had time to reveal their personalities to each other and the audience, have had time to grow, to develop, to be thoroughly traumatized. This season offers some big payoff on all that development, and every character has at least one interesting issue that guides their motivations and choices throughout every episode. It’s amazing that the show continues to maintain the diverse ensemble cast that it does, expanded further with some adult characters this season, without neglecting any individual characters’ stories.

The removal from Isla Nublar to a whole new island run by the villainous Mantah Corp. allows for a certain level of unpredictability to this season, even while the timeline still hasn’t caught up with the films. It’s a little whackier sci-fi, and the apparent motivation behind the bad guys to simply battle these expensive dinosaurs for the benefit of the rich felt a little flimsy to me, but there’s enough action and emotional character moments that I seldom had a reason to linger on the logistics of the operation too much. The setting also sets up a much larger world even pre-Fallen Kingdom that calls into question some of the absolute statements made in the Jurassic World films (while the larger world might not know, at least some of the Isla Sorna dinosaurs did not end up dead or departed to Jurassic World but were abducted to this new island; plus, Blue was the last of her pack but not the last Velociraptor out there). I think I can detect some plotlines that will end up continuing into Dominion, but frankly I’m uncertain, and I think after the movie comes out I’ll look back on this season (and perhaps the earlier seasons) with surprise about how things were set up.

This season also offers more dinosaurs to empathize with and simply see as animals, which was not at all what I expected. Even the Tyrannosaurus is given a surprisingly gentle moment with one of the human characters. This is a lovely change from the erratic behavior of the dinosaurs in reaction to the monstrous hybrid threat of the last season–and for that matter, we even have some cute baby dinosaur hybrids now that show that being a “hybrid” by itself doesn’t make an animal villainous.

I had a fun time binging this season’s 11 episodes. While still a fairly short season, this is the longest one for the series yet. And there just has to be another season coming with the cliffhanger ending offered! I can’t wait.

Alternate-alternate histories for Jurassic World Evolution 2’s Chaos Theory

At this point, I’ve completed Jurassic World Evolution 2‘s Campaign and Chaos Theory missions, and I’ve tested the waters with Challenge mode, completing the first challenge on easy. The handful of Challenge levels suggest that it’s actually reasonable to try to complete them all on Jurassic difficulty–and it might even be fun. At just over 50 hours of game time, this has proven to be a robust game with enough content to make the price tag worthwhile, and there’s still more to do.

Nodosaurus in nature.

On top of that, compared to the original, the dinosaurs are better-looking and have more realistic behaviors, guests are more varied in interests, and park-building is a deeper and more customizable experience. (Really, the only gameplay elements I wish were different are the still relatively short lifespans of most of the dinosaurs and the lack of breeding in the wild–the latter means you’ll never have an authentic dinosaur preserve, and it’s also a glaring absence given the importance of breeding in Planet Zoo and the significance of breeding and natural survival in the books and films.)

Dilophosaurus death leap.

All that said, there’s something that still feels “light” about the whole experience. If I had to identify a single factor, it would be that there’s very little connective tissue between levels. As I discussed in my original review, the campaign is incredibly short, easily completed in about five hours, with little development in plot or the handful of characters you’re interacting with. Then each Chaos Theory level is its own isolated experience: build Jurassic Park, build Jurassic Park San Diego, capture dinosaurs from Site B for Jurassic World, build Jurassic World, tear down Jurassic World and help the dinosaurs go free. Each is in its own separate alternate universe, so your successful Jurassic Park has no bearing on San Diego or Jurassic World. And there’s very little to explain just how the timelines changed, beyond just your involvement–for instance, why exactly is Ian Malcolm on board with San Diego and why is there no Peter Ludlow in sight? This disconnect between the movie timeline and the isolated alternate universe tales was maybe strongest felt in the Jurassic World level: the Indominus rex is created, and so long as you did a decent job designing a secure pen and catering to its environmental needs, it’s never really a threat to the park as a whole (meanwhile, my “Rexy” died of old age and was replaced just before the Indominus was released). But every level embodied some level of detachment–for instance, in the Jurassic Park III level, the mission runs as a plausible prequel to Jurassic World, as you collect dinosaurs for the new park and witness the death of the Spinosaurus at the hands of a raptor pack, but it decidedly cannot be part of the official continuity because the Spinosaurus still has the ringing phone signature and the Dino-Soar sail can still be found caught in a canopy. The “alternate universe” nature of the level almost seems to be that all the Kirby party survivors died, or were rescued without mention earlier than in the movie.

The end of the Spinosaurus in Chaos Theory.

It’s true that these levels certainly taught me again and again that it was difficult to make an excellent dinosaur park–I had to restart a lot from a hopelessly bankrupt state in the first mission, I never got San Diego to five stars (unnecessary to complete the mission), and I had to fire scientists and hunker down in a slow recovery when I overinvested in synthesizing the Indominus and a replacement Tyrannosaur just as Rexy passed away. But these problems are not the big problems of the movies. It’s true that John Hammond and Simon Masrani had some more mundane management problems, like Hammond’s no-shows and a sick Triceratops or Masrani’s lost and sick visitors, overly rambunctious Pachycephalosaurus, and perpetual need to rekindle visitor interest, but these weren’t the issues that sunk their parks. Hammond claimed to spare no expense but relied too heavily on automation and low-bid contractors who didn’t share his vision. Ludlow never had any vision of his own and rushed into things without fully understanding the risks he was taking. Masrani let Wu take the genetics into even more questionable places without caring to understand the science and allowed the creation of fantastic hybrids with too little oversight. And these three men were all betrayed, not just by park whims, but by deliberate human actions. Hammond was betrayed by Nedry. Ludlow was betrayed by Hammond (and his eco-saboteur). Masrani was betrayed, not deliberately, but by the at first rushed and later panicked actions of the Indominus guards and park staff.

Things going sideways in Chaos Theory.

In short, the problems that they failed to overcome were not ones of simple management, and with Ian Malcolm’s chaos theory messaging, the suggestion is that regardless of what they had done, the control they were attempting over such complex and unpredictable systems would inevitably lead to failure at some point. Therefore, to really feel like you were stepping into their shoes, it would have made more sense to have experiences catered around reacting to unique crisis points. It’s easy to avoid overworking your staff and thus avoid sabotage, so what if the game put more pressure on you to push a little too far? What if you had to design a Jurassic Park that was actually closer in design to Hammond’s vision, with park tours aligned with the map of the park from the film? What if you had ample money, with regular new income from investors, but your problem was not dwindling income streams but rather a deadline? Hammond’s investors were wary and ready to shut down the park close to opening, so you could have had two competing priorities: efficiency versus security. You could be racing to open the park with a test run of the park tour attended by scientific consultants by a certain deadline (with all planned exhibits and attractions in place) without having more than x number of fatalities. Then you’d really be living Hammond’s vision, where the issue wasn’t simply a matter of draining money before opening but dealing with competing demands from investors and employees. I also would have had a set limit of scientists that you have to work with at the start of the game–have to keep the park secret, after all! No extra staff centers to increase scientist count. And you could even have set staff specifically for this level–the “scientists” could be Wu (genetics), Harding (welfare), Nedry (logistics, and with the Entitled Salary trait, of course), and Muldoon (generalist?), for instance. Just because Nedry betrayed Hammond in the film doesn’t mean he’d be the bad actor here, if you happened to keep him more rested.

Jurassic Park Chaos Theory

This process of reconstituting the levels to be better tailored to their respective films could be extended to the full Chaos Theory mode.

The Lost World is challenging because, outside of the promise of San Diego (which is clearly signaled to be a bad idea), there isn’t a clear “park” to deal with here. But Frontier had two Chaos Theory levels that avoided dealing with park-building, and perhaps they should have applied this to The Lost World. I think I would have split this into two levels, with an overarching story: first on Isla Sorna, and then outside San Diego. The big thing is that Frontier never clearly explains why Malcolm has come around on San Diego–it seems like InGen maybe listened to him in this timeline and thus didn’t do the snatch-and-grab, but they still decided to monetize the Isla Sorna dinosaurs anyway. I would make the turning point into a whole level, in which you play as Malcolm’s research/sabotage team. In this alternate timeline, Hammond makes the full team aware immediately of InGen’s plans, and Malcolm agrees to go with Harding, Carr, and Van Owen to get documentation of the dinosaurs to bring to the world to derail their plans. Van Owen makes his sabotage play before departure, the InGen hunter team’s expedition is resultantly delayed, and your team gets to the island with time to spare and a clear deadline once more: you have to get enough observation and footage in within the time provided, or else the InGen team gets to the island. (And if that team gets to the island, you get a losing cinematic in which things play out largely the same–sabotage of the hunter camp, destruction of the research team camp, mass death, and a Tyrannosaurus loose in San Diego.) The mission could be very simple, locking you in to a ranger Jeep (something the game experiments with on some levels already) and having you drive across the island, scanning the dinosaurs and photographing particular behaviors within some species before the hunters arrive, then driving to the old InGen compound to broadcast out your findings. That would launch the second, interconnected level: InGen’s mission was shut down, the dinosaur preserve was established, humans were amazed by the dinosaurs, and there was no big chaotic event like the San Diego attack. Years pass, and InGen executives persuade Malcolm to come on as a consultant once more as Jurassic Park San Diego is set to launch. Rather than importing dinosaurs from Isla Sorna, which again is an untouchable preserve, InGen has restarted its genetics program under Dr. Wu. Wu and Malcolm become opposing narrative factions–Malcolm encourages moderation and a focus on natural preservation and herbivorous species, while Wu pushes the envelope, gradually recreating carnivores for the park that could peak with the return of the Tyrannosaurus. Much like in the existing version of Jurassic Park San Diego in the game, the challenges could be more oriented around the unique environment, the gradual acquisition of more land, and the mundane problems of park management, rather than the unique risks of the prior scenarios. There could be a big final challenge of corporate sabotage–by BioSyn, of course–resulting in the release of the carnivores and a frantic effort to protect the guests, secure the paddocks, and recapture the dinosaurs before fatalities get high enough or dinosaurs get far enough away to shut the park down for good.

The Lost World Chaos Theory

I rather liked what Frontier did for Jurassic Park III, having the level serve as a canon-adjacent backstory for the creation of Jurassic World. But a couple of the nods to the third film–the hang glider and the ringtone–just add confusion as to the when/where/how. Plus, Jurassic World always had dinosaurs from both Isla Sorna and Isla Nublar, so it’s not a definitive story to show the importation of dinosaurs from Site B. I think you can give an alternate timeline to III that acts as both an alternate prequel to that movie and to Jurassic World by changing the focus to InGen’s unauthorized cloning and release of animals on Isla Sorna shortly after Masrani Global’s purchase of InGen. As the Dinosaur Protection Group materials made clear, these new animals included Ankylosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Corythosaurus, and Spinosaurus. This mission could have seen you working with Dr. Wu yet again, this time without a sympathetic foil–the closest, perhaps, being the misguided and na├»ve Masrani himself. You could set up a small research facility on Isla Sorna, ensure that it is secure from dinosaur incursions, send teams to dig sites to specifically target the creation of these four species, and then create habitats for them that met their needs. Perhaps this climaxes with a unique disease that you have to identify and treat (pulling some inspiration from DX in The Lost World novel, perhaps) that is further complicated by an unusually bad storm. If you get through this with the dinosaurs contained, Masrani decides to export them to Jurassic World right away, rather than allow them to be abandoned, and the mission ends.

Jurassic Park III Chaos Theory

Next up is Jurassic World, and I think that’s another one that’s fairly well-served by its current incarnation. I would have liked a more curated experience of building this park, though–as I suggested with Jurassic Park, it would be nice to be guided in building a park that more closely matched its on-screen counterpart. This could also have a little more guided mission structure, starting with the capture of the Isla Nublar dinosaurs, then the importation of the Isla Sorna dinosaurs, the creation of the Mosasaurus, and the creation of the Indominus. Since Jurassic World collapsed because of the Indominus’s tricks, I think the mission should climax with a scripted sequence in which the gate is opened by a fleeing guard checking on it, resulting in the Indominus getting loose in the park and removing its tracker (so you couldn’t see it on the overhead map or check its status–you’d need a visual confirmation of its location). You could be more aggressive in taking it down quickly, and you’d have the added benefit of using a capture helicopter from the start, so you’d probably be able to contain the threat much more easily than your film counterparts–once more, the goal would be avoiding excessive guest fatalities and restoring order.

Jurassic World Chaos Theory

The last Chaos Theory mission, for Fallen Kingdom, works just fine as is: in this timeline, the volcano is not about to erupt, so Claire is able to clear away the old park and let the dinosaurs loose. I think I would tweak this one only a little, to allow for the development of a more permanent dinosaur preserve without the commercial focus of the preexisting park.

Fallen Kingdom Chaos Theory

I also would have liked more Chaos Theory missions–and I think easy additions would have been updated versions of Return to Jurassic Park, Secrets of Dr. Wu, and Claire’s Sanctuary, offering up alternative sequels/events to Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, and Fallen Kingdom, respectively.

Return to Jurassic Park

I certainly threw out a lot of ideas above, but I recognize that these aren’t the only ways to have offered more expanded alternate stories, and they’re almost certainly not the best ways. I nonetheless think they’d offer more narrative experiences that better suited the stories they’re adapting. I had hoped that Chaos Theory would play more like the original game’s Return to Jurassic Park or Claire’s Sanctuary, which offered some of the better narrative-focused campaigns in the game. Instead, the final implementation feels more “inspired by” the movies rather than directly responding to them. What does exist is not bad. I wouldn’t have already played for over 50 hours if I didn’t like what I was doing. But the overall experience feels detached, narratively light and fluffy, just a series of out-of-context anecdotes oriented around building up or tearing down park after park after park. While the levels are varied, it feels a step back from where the team had been going with the original game’s DLC content. Despite this criticism, at the end of the day, I suppose this is all a testament to the quality of the game, that at 50 hours in, with several Challenge levels left to go, my biggest disappointment is that there is not even more.

The dream of resurrected dinosaurs flourishing on Site B.

Review: Dragon Teeth

Michael Crichton’s most recent posthumously published novel, Dragon Teeth, released in 2017, tracks a fictitious young man coming of age on a journey into the American West, where he interacts with quite real people and observes fictionalized versions of real events from the era. It’s ostensibly about the Bone Wars, the dynamite rivalry between paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, and that is certainly part of the story, but it’s also an Old West tale where Deadwood features prominently, something I didn’t expect but that makes sense given the setting and the twists and turns of the novel’s plot. Unlike Crichton’s signature techno-thrillers, it’s more a historical adventure like one of his early novels, The Great Train Robbery (which I have not read), and that makes quite a bit of sense, as the Dragon Teeth manuscript (or at least the basic idea behind the story) was apparently started in 1974, a year before the publication of The Great Train Robbery. It also reminds me a bit of Pirate Latitudes (which I have read), his first posthumously published work and a similarly fun historical adventure, starring pirates instead of cowboys.

While Dragon Teeth was fun and breezy to read, it also covers interesting subject matter and manages to provide a fairly complex and frank take on the expansion west by American citizens into indigenous lands, albeit through the perspective of the wealthy American protagonist. As per usual, the book feels well-researched and demonstrates that Crichton took liberties with historical characters and events, changing and reorganizing as he saw fit to tell the story he wanted without feeling overly bound by how things exactly happened. Outside of that, I don’t find that I have much to say about the story, positively or negatively. It’s not the deepest Crichton novel, but its pulp adventure craft shines.

Review: Jurassic World Evolution 2

I’ve played a little over 20 hours of Jurassic World Evolution 2. That’s seen the completion of the campaign, the Jurassic Park Chaos Theory mission, three-fifths of The Lost World Chaos Theory mission, and 19 of 44 Steam achievements. That also means that I haven’t touched three of the Chaos Theory missions or any of the Challenge or Sandbox modes. My time with the game has not been brief, but it still feels a tad premature to offer a definitive review–certainly, it can’t be a final impression.

That all said, I’m liking what I’ve experienced so far, and it appears that Frontier have improved upon basically every issue I had with the original game–without entirely resolving those issues. There are more prehistoric creatures, including an array of pterosaurs and marine reptiles, and they look more lovely than ever, with more unique and lifelike behaviors; on the other hand, I’ve watched a Triceratops starve to death, locked in a perpetual state of panic, as its companions grazed peacefully around it. “Too stupid to eat” hardly seems an authentic experience. Much of the busywork has been streamlined; on the other hand, now, instead of manually restocking animal feeders, I’m manually restocking food and fuel for ranger and medical stations. There are more things to do and more unique choices to make; on the other hand, you’re still pulled out of the flow a bit too often by storms, disease, and injuries. And there are some dynamic animations with social behaviors or release of new animals that don’t quite work right at times.

There are some things that are simply better, without exception. You no longer have to constantly placate the frustratingly feuding divisions of the original game; now, you just have to manage your team of scientists, avoiding overwork that can lead to the risk of sabotage. There are more plausible pathways to a five-star park, and there are many areas of research that you can choose to focus on, making even the narrative-focused modes I’ve been playing feel refreshingly open-ended at times. I can’t confirm it yet, but I suspect that the open-endedness should make Challenge modes far more replayable now.

After as much time as I put into the first game, and with the great fondness I felt for it despite its flaws, I followed this sequel pretty closely since its announcement. That means that my experience with the game has been heavily influenced by expectations, for good and bad. The developers often emphasized a more interesting campaign experience with a greater focus on character relationships, but that’s not really here at all, and the campaign itself can be completed in about five hours, so that was a bit of a letdown. What was there was good, focused on ensuring the safety of dinosaurs, people, and other wildlife by setting up nature preserves across America. There just wasn’t very much of it. I get the impression that the developers have more planned, for three reasons: (1) they released DLC with more dinosaurs to reflect Fallen Kingdom content in the original game; (2) the original game had several narrative-focused, alternate-universe stories that were released as later expansions, including one that built on the plot of the base game; and (3) the story that exists so far in the sequel hints at secret goings-on that Claire and Owen don’t yet have insight into. I wonder how much of this will get fleshed out, how much will go unfulfilled, and how much might actually connect to Dominion. If The Secrets of Dr. Wu are any clue, though, I would expect that the story won’t ever end up being that meaty here. The great expansions in the original game, Claire’s Sanctuary and Return to Jurassic Park, were alternative histories of sorts and offered more compelling stories; the same is the case here, as the sequel really shines in its much deeper Chaos Theory modes. I expected to be a bit bored with the San Diego mission because we could see so much of it in promotional advance-play videos, but actually playing it, I’ve had a tremendous time. Its skeletal architecture built out around that iconic amphitheater establishes a clearly defined basic infrastructure but still allows you to build the park out as you wish, especially as you buy more land and expand the area you have to operate in. I love the park I’ve built so far. It was startling to discover how much fun this mission was because the Jurassic Park mission was more of a slog for me. Since the main campaign was focused on nature preserves, Jurassic Park was my first real introduction to the refined park management in this game, and while this sequel benefits from systems that are deeper and more complex, that also means that things aren’t as simple and straightforward as before; some things were more opaque, and I made some bad choices and ran into a lot of bad luck. While I got to five stars eventually, the experience made clear to me that, without the ability to reload, I would have fared no better than John Hammond in opening that island attraction. But by the time I got to San Diego, I understood systems better. It’s funny that the “introductory” experience does provide adequate training, but more through trial and error than a basic guided tutorial.

I think that after maybe a patch or two, at least some of the minor issues I still have with Jurassic World Evolution 2 will be resolved. Even if those fixes never came, this game is already an incredible experience for a Jurassic Park fan and a considerable improvement over the original. Reviews emphasizing the iterative nature of the sequel are not wrong, but I have found my time in the game refreshingly different from the original nonetheless. My main concern is, will this game be able to keep holding my interest when the Chaos Theory missions are done? Will I stick around for the Challenges? Will I reach a point where I’ve exhausted them and have run out of things I want to do? And how many hours in will it take for me to reach that point? I hope that we will see more expansions, as with the original game, to broaden the campaign further and add more features that might add more hours of gameplay. But until I spend more time with the game as it exists now, it’s hard to say how long the base game will continue to engage me.

For now, I’m having a good time. It’s a good dinosaur park management sim, and more robust than the original even if not as deep and customizable as Planet Zoo (another Frontier title). If that’s your thing, or if you’re a fan of Jurassic Park, then you’ll probably like it too.

Review: Dune (2021)

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is incredible. The cast, the scope and ambition, the cinematography, the special effects and costume design and sets, the sound design, the score, the faithfulness to the book with a few small tweaks to update it and make it feel fresh…all elements excelled.

The visual aesthetics and moody musical themes were special highlights to me, really driving home the differences in the different factions and worlds. I felt the baroque, ostentatious, pseudo-fascist styles of the great houses pulled more than a little (in a good way) from other big-budget sci-fi films of the past twenty years like The Chronicles of Riddick, the Lynchian Dune, The Fifth Element, the Star Wars prequels’ Coruscant scenes, and maybe even Jupiter Ascending. All that said, it has its own unique visual flare; for instance, the arriving and departing spaceships had a surreal alienness to them, seemingly unknowable, like something out of a first contact film like Arrival rather than a space opera. The rumbling sounds and brooding music highlighted everything pitch perfectly.

And the film is damn-near-perfectly cast, with a lot of incredible star talent. Timothee Chalamet is a striking Paul Atreides, coming across as angsty and thoughtful and sensitive and a little disconnected from the human condition already. His best pouty moments of youthful petulance make me yearn for some way to see him play the role of Anakin Skywalker someday–he’d knock it out of the park. Rebecca Ferguson brings a lot more emotion and sympathy to Jessica than any other adaptation, while remaining capable and confident; her nature as a Bene Gesserit yet also a loving and devoted mother and wife is wrung for every ounce of tortured conflict here. Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, and Josh Brolin essentially define the roles of Duke Leto Atreides, Duncan Idaho, and Gurney Halleck, respectively, for me now. Even lesser roles that could have been forgotten, like Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir or Chang Chen as Dr. Yueh, provided more humanity than I would have expected. On the other end of the spectrum, Dave Bautista portrays Rabban as an almost evil mirror version of his Marvel performances as Drax (to great effect, given the brutish stupidity of the character), Stellan Skarsgard is unrecognizable and terrifying as Baron Harkonnen, and Charlotte Rampling is sinisterly conniving and mysterious as the Reverend Mother. It’s such a large cast, of course, and I could continue to go on and on, but that’s enough. We don’t see enough of the Fremen yet for me to say much about those performances–so far Zendaya seems great as Chani, while Javier Bardem seems a little off and more than a little goofy as Stilgar, but time will tell with the sequel.

This is the best big-budget sci-fi film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the best Dune adaptation I think anyone could hope for. It’s good, and it should definitely be seen in theaters. (I watched it in 2D IMAX at my favored cinema, the Indiana State Museum.) I recognize, though, that it may not be for everyone.

I am not a huge Dune fan. I’ve only read the first book–though I believe I’ve read it at least a couple times–and grew up with the David Lynch movie and watched the Sci Fi Channel miniseries in high school or college. I’m not disinterested, but I’ve never read further in the series. I have great fondness for the narrow exposure to this space opera that I do have. So I’m not perhaps a Dune faithful and could not nitpick every small detail, but I followed along expecting plot points, I was pleasantly surprised by recasting Liet-Kynes as a woman (whereas I recalled the male character in the book and its previous adaptations), and I even predicted where the first half of a two-part film adaptation would have to end. I think a bigger fan will love this movie too and will probably get even more out of it. I wonder if someone not so fond of or familiar with the source material might find the whole affair a bit ponderous, self-absorbed, and confusing, though. Then again, maybe they’ll get it, too.

If you like sci-fi, space operas, big-idea films, epic fantasy, or Dune itself, you should treat yourself–if you haven’t already–and go watch this soon.