JW: Evolution appears to offer a finished story…for a price

I haven’t touched Jurassic World: Evolution in a while. I might not have even seen the newest game announcement if I hadn’t decided to look into its status following my Evolution of Claire review. So I was definitely surprised to see the news about the newest planned paid and unpaid updates to the game. You can read more about that, and see a trailer for the paid content, on Variety.

On one hand, I’m still impressed with the improvements offered by each round of unpaid updates. The new dinosaurs and the challenge modes of past updates were great expansions. Adding day/night cycles, better dinosaur feeders, expanded dinosaur behaviors, and new contract types are all great additions, as well.

On the other hand, my excitement’s tempered by two clear points. One, a lot of the unpaid update features represent improvements over a fun but flawed game–in other words, a lot of these features would have been good to have at launch. Two, the unpaid content pales in comparison to the paid content. And I’m rather annoyed at the prospect of paying any amount of money to actually see the conclusion of the story arc that was heavily developed and hinted at before being dropped entirely in the core game. (I griped about the story’s anticlimax in my original game review). This isn’t a sequel–this is merely a conclusion to the unfinished story, and they expect people to pay for that! That said, paying to be able to make zany dinosaur hybrids is tempting to me. (Yet again, the lack of ability to make custom, hybridized animals in the original release was a point I noted in my review.)

It’s great to see the team at Frontier continuing to expand and improve upon the game. But it’s also annoying to recognize so many of these improvements as features that would have made sense at launch. Adding them improves the experience, sure. But their absence made the game lesser than from the start. This isn’t a case of a complete game getting new add-ons. It feels very much so like the full experience is being doled out piecemeal, months after its official release. Is that an unfair criticism? I don’t know, maybe. So much of this is perception. I greatly enjoyed Evolution, and the new content does entice me to consider another return. This isn’t a great problem, but I guess news that should be sweet has an unfortunate sour note.

Review – Jurassic World: The Evolution of Claire

The Evolution of Claire (Jurassic World)The Evolution of Claire by Random House

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Evolution of Claire is fairly small in scope, intimate even, especially for a title set in the Jurassic Park–excuse me, Jurassic World–franchise. Author Tess Sharpe details a nineteen-year-old Claire Dearing’s summer internship on Isla Nublar for the Masrani Corporation, in the final months before the new park would open. While there are many misadventures and some moments of wonder as the interns interact with dinosaurs in the park, the central focus of the novel is Claire’s budding romance with another intern. A B plot is a series of mysterious happenings around the facilities that seem somehow connected with a fabled class of Phantom Interns from the year before. The central culprit behind those happenings is a spoiled, mysogynist intern who is so obviously villainous and yet so obviously not the true antagonist that he’s basically Red Herring from A Pup Named Scooby Doo.

So it’s a YA novel with dinosaurs. It was a fun read. There were issues with continuity that sometimes annoyed me. I would have enjoyed more about the creation of the dinosaurs (Sharpe seems aware that mosquitoes alone would be insufficient for this resurrection miracle, yet never references potential alternative DNA sources–even Crichton’s original book, and the recent game Jurassic World: Evolution, at least refer to bone fragments and other potential alternative sources). Isla Sorna is mentioned, and it’s suggested that most if not all of the animals were to be moved to Isla Nublar (after several had been thinned out by poaching), but this plot thread still feels nebulous. The interns freely hop between radically different assignments, like security, genetics lab work, and vet work, though most of them are not qualified. The interns themselves seem rather young for such a selective and intensive program, having only completed a semester of undergrad, although maybe that’s commonplace among the hyper-competitive. There were some good dinosaur moments, but I wanted more dinosaurs in general; Brachiosaurus and Triceratops got spotlights, Tyrannosaurus had its moment, and there was a big showdown in the climax with an angry Velociraptor, but other genera had fleeting glimpses or name drops if they appeared at all. With so many dinosaurs to choose from, so many dinosaurs we know were at the park, it’s disappointing that the author settled on the highlights of the original film. And while Claire is no specialist and therefore doesn’t necessarily know how to interpret what is happening, there’s a general lack of detail that is disappointing in contrast to the rather specific world-building found in the Crichton books and Spielberg films (the latter show that depth does not need to bog down the story with exposition). So there are things that I would have preferred to be different, but nothing that ruined the reading experience.

There’s a good deal of melodrama, particularly in the last third of the book, but there’s also a lot of authentic depiction of trauma and grief in those moments as well. I’m not sure that I would have made the decision to have yet more death at this park before it even opened if I were making narrative choices here, yet it does do a lot to provide a clear character arc for Claire that extends through both of the films in which she appears. Over the course of the book, we see her go from an ambitious, bright-eyed optimist who is truly amazed by the creatures she encounters to a hard-edged, jaded young woman who sees protecting people from those same creatures as a driving purpose. It’s more complex than that; I was truly impressed with the character development, which really helped explain who Claire was and made clear why she would make the decisions that she did in Fallen Kingdom. Most surprisingly, the book does a lot to renovate Dr. Wu’s appearance; he’s driven, but his ambitions are motivated at least in part by his coping strategies for the loss of close coworkers at the first park. It’s a more effective portrait than the mad scientist of the Jurassic World films.

All in all, this isn’t a bad book by any means. It’s light and enjoyable. It’s not really what I would want out of a book in this franchise. But it does character development better than Crichton ever did. With expectations accordingly set, the average Jurassic World fan should be able to appreciate the experience.

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Team Star Fox

The hype around Starlink: Battle for Atlas has put me in a bit of a Star Fox mood. I’m somewhat surprised to find on checking now that I’ve apparently only mentioned the Star Fox franchise on here twice before–both times in passing. Not that there have been very many relevant opportunities as of late!

I’m pretty sure that Starlink will be my next game purchase. It looks fun, and what little I’ve read has consistently supported the idea that the Star Fox team is well-used in the Switch version.

I don’t actually remember how I first encountered Star Fox. I never owned any of the games as a child, though I suppose that Fox McCloud did feature heavily in even the original Super Smash Bros. But I do remember somehow playing it, then rediscovering it in my adolescence at the game room of my church’s youth group after services. I bonded with a socially awkward kid there who loved the game; we’d often engage in virtual dogfights together. Since college, I’ve slowly collected many of the Star Fox titles, though not all. I’ve never played the original SNES game. I’m not a hardcore fan. But there’s a lot of nostalgia and genuine affection invested in the franchise for me. When people my age think back fondly on the N64 era, they might focus especially on Ocarina of Time, but my special nostalgic title is Star Fox 64 (though it’s in constant competition in my thoughts alongside Super Smash Bros., Super Mario 64Star Wars Episode I RacerDiddy Kong Racing, and the multiplayer in Conker’s Bad Fur Day).

It’s not just nostalgia, though! It’s a fun game franchise! The arcade-style dog-fighting was the perfect Nintendo take on aerial combat. The characters popped with personality, and the presence of Fox, Slippy, Peppy, and Falco in each new release is almost as comforting as the familiar gameplay. Plus, the plot and setting and style pull hard from Star Wars and Top Gun and a whole slew of animated films featuring anthropomorphized animals. It’s weird and cool–and I can’t help but notice similarities in basic premise and style between Star Fox and Beyond Good & Evil, another game I love, even though the actual gameplay is markedly different. Okay, actually, it may not be all that different when Star Fox Adventures, the Zelda-like action-adventure title, is taken into account. No, that’s not a game that I want swept under the rug; I loved it, inserting the characters into a radically different situation, playing with the universe a little more, taking Fox away from his greatest strength (and adding dinosaurs).

I’d like to see future games do more things like Star Fox Adventures. Not Adventures exactly; a Star Fox game is space-combat-focused and should remain as such. But slight iterations on previous gameplay, rehashing the same plot over and over, are getting stale. In contrast, I liked the experimentation with additional gameplay features in Assault, and the fact that it wasn’t just another copy of the original game’s plot, though it was probably still a little too familiar and safe. It still focused on arcade-style starfighter combat, but it at least wasn’t just the same game with prettier graphics yet again.

At this point, I’d like a new story, but I wouldn’t mind a recap of the original game if it gave more depth to that tired narrative, especially if that relatively short game experience represented only the first act of a new effort. Star Fox 2 seemed especially innovative in form and progression of story, and with its release finally happening on the SNES Classic, I wonder if we could see that developed into a current-gen remake. Meanwhile, the franchise obviously affords the opportunity to deepen characters and lore, even if the games rarely take advantage of this; the opening cinematic to the critically panned and fan-derided (and personally ignored) Star Fox Zero suggested those possibilities, and in fan project circles, there’s the hilarious and endearing A Fox in Space.

In fact, Star Fox has an unfulfilled promise of depth that causes a rare itch in me, the urge to actually write fan fiction. I rarely write fiction at all anymore, and fan fic is really low down on the priority list for me, but if I were to write it, my attentions would be divided between Star FoxStar WarsThe Elder Scrolls, and Jurassic Park. All of those franchises offer areas of lore, or off-screen events, or underused characters, or just blank spaces for wild extrapolations that I’d like to see explored more.

But the bottom line is that I’d just really like to see more Star Fox.

Review: Dinosaur Summer

Dinosaur SummerDinosaur Summer by Greg Bear

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I won’t claim that Greg Bear’s Dinosaur Summer is necessarily the best book that I’ve read over the past year, but it is decidedly my favorite.

Dinosaur Summer starts with the premise that the events of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World more or less happened. The world discovered still-living non-avian dinosaurs, which understandably caused something of a disruption. Circuses full of these prehistoric survivors are popularized as more and more adventurers swarm the Venezuelan tepuis; movies like King Kong never really catch on when people have access to the real thing. Eventually, though, public interest dwindles, and most of the dinosaur circuses fail, the owners never really understanding the beasts in their care, who die off and sometimes eat the audience. The Venezuelan government closes off the colossal tepui on which the dinosaurs may be found, for a variety of complex political reasons that we learn more about over the course of the novel. Eventually, dinosaurs largely fade from the popular consciousness, and only one dinosaur circus remains.

This is where we start the book: June of 1947, as the last dinosaur circus prepares for its final show. We’re introduced to this world through the eyes of Peter Belzoni, a high school student with a love for words and a lack of confidence in all things. He’s unsure of himself. He’s inclined to think that he might become a writer, following in his father’s footsteps, though he doesn’t have his dad’s easy ability to string together the written word. But his father, Anthony, is reckless and irresponsible; he was a geologist, but following traumatic combat experience during World War II, he became prone to anger, his marriage fell apart, and he drags his son across the country to pick up scattered jobs as a freelance photographer and journalist. Peter’s mother is overly cautious and reserved; she retreated to her own mother’s home, leaving Peter to his father, only occasionally keeping in contact.

Anthony picks up a job to follow the last dinosaur circus from its final show to a return to the campgrounds in Florida. Peter is to come along to write up his own perspective. Or at least, that’s what Anthony tells Peter. The mission ultimately becomes one of returning the dinosaurs to their Venezuelan home, and that’s where the real adventure begins.

This is a real treat to read. It’s a dinosaur story. It’s a classic adventure story. It’s a Bildungsroman. It’s loaded with memorable characters, most with clearly defined motivations, goals, hopes, and fears that transcend and intersect with the mission at hand. It builds on the lovely adventure of The Lost World, updating its dinosaurs to fit with current scientific depictions (seriously, this was published in 1998 yet still reads as cutting-edge compared to even contemporary paleo-stories) even while demonstrating speculative evolutionary developments to craft interesting new creatures, portraying those dinosaurs with personalities as varied and sometimes endearing as the humans themselves, creating an ecosystem that can be more plausibly explained, removing some of the more racist elements (i.e., the depiction of natives) and trimming the weirdness of the proposed primitive men in the original, and inserting a postcolonial narrative that treats indigenous people seriously and as full humans. It also has a lot of fun alternative history; for instance and most significantly, Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, never able to succeed in a world that prefers the real thing over stop-motion, are documentarian protagonists on the expedition.

It’s also a really well-written book. It’s compelling reading, packed with vivid descriptions of characters and creatures and settings. Foreshadowing is used to great effect throughout the book, and there’s a mounting pace that accelerates as the adventure gets deeper and deeper.

I love this book. It’s an instant favorite.

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Some of the Shows

This is a shorter post, and the last of all the things. I don’t have any movies to discuss, and my recent TV history has been relatively light.

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I’ve been following along with the Clone Wars rewatch on StarWars.com in intermittent bursts. Behind again, on pace again, behind again. It is a fun way to rewatch, and the pace isn’t too slow, but as I inevitably get behind, it’s also not impossible to catch up on easily enough when I have the time.

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My wife and I have also been making a dedicated effort to watch Adventure Time from start to finish. I got into Adventure Time fairly late–during a prolonged period of hospitalizations, I would pass the time with daytime television and quickly discovered Adventure Time and Steven Universe to be quirky, clever, and heartfelt. We watched the first season or two on Netflix a couple years back, but that’s all Netflix had. We got Hulu in the past year, and we’ve only recently decided to focus on watching these shows from start to finish. We started with Adventure Time (now mid-season 4), and we plan to go to Steven Universe once we finish. Just a random, related recommendation: Bee and PuppyCat. Another cute, quirky animated show full of heart and weird sci-fantasy. It was fun to see screenings of this series at Gen Con in the past, and that leads me to believe that it must have a fairly sizable following, but I don’t hear this show pop up in conversations often enough. It deserves more attention.

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Lastly, I’ve started The Dragon Prince, the new Netflix animated series helmed by Aaron Ehasz (co-executive producer, head writer, and director on Avatar: The Last Airbender). This is a show that I’ll want to write a full review for after finishing the nine episodes of season one. But I can already say that the dialogue, voice acting, plot, and humor are great, and I like the artwork (especially colors and character models), but the animation is very bothersome. Everything seems to be running at a reduced frame rate, and it’s irksome to watch characters twitching across each scene, always moving too fast but animating too slow. Hopefully that will improve some–if not by the end of this season, then with later seasons.

And with that, I’ve completed my report on all the things, for now.

All the Games

After a couple fits and starts, I finished Broken Age. This could warrant a full review, but everything I would want to say can be summarized as follows: excellent characterization, lovely plot that finishes a bit too abruptly, lots of cute little jokes, absolutely beautiful, BUT the gameplay is often frustrating in the worst traditions of adventure games. Two of those points bear emphasizing. One: the art is absolutely gorgeous! A series of screenshots are below, to hopefully support that claim. Two: the gameplay can be so infuriating!

So much of the time is wandering around the map, collecting random items from the environment, from dialogue choices, and from puzzles, then figuring out where the items might ultimately come into play. There’s a lot of backtracking and trading of random crap for other random crap. Sometimes it seems logical, or even obvious; sometimes, the use of an item for a given situation can seem clever. But most of the time, it just seemed arbitrary. The world and the characters were so quirky, lovely, and charming; the plot had some fun twists and pivots and re-connections; but the impact of those elements was lessened as I trudged back and forth in the most point-and-clickiest way possible. You ever find yourself faced with a frustratingly opaque game challenge requiring a specific solution, while you want to scream another, more apparent option? That’s so much of this game for me. Especially when there are so many characters to talk with, it was frustrating to see that being able to propose obvious solutions or to ask obvious questions was just stripped out. In short, the game felt…artificially difficult (or at least its second half did). In the last act, I frequently consulted a guide, increasingly impatient with the bizarro limitations put into place. If you played a lot of classic point-and-click adventure games, though, you might have a more positive experience.

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Besides Broken Age, I also played a couple of weird little indie projects that released to a lot of acclaim but basically passed me by until now.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch is zany and fun, with a surprisingly heartfelt and endearing story under the wacky Saturday-morning-cartoon premise. It’s a fairly short but worthwhile experience.

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Then there’s The Stanley Parable. This was fun, but I lost interest fairly quickly without exploring most of the branching paths and endings. I spent most of my short time with it forcing endings through disobedience. The narration was charming, but I thought the game a bit too clever for its own good (and really, exploring “choice” in a video game and in life has been done more subtly elsewhere, hasn’t it?).

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I also jumped back into Hotline Miami a little bit recently. This game’s just perfect at setting a mood. The jarring, twitchy controls. The bizarre cuts between levels. The splashy blood. The bright colors. The pounding music. The game honestly makes me feel a little ill and a little disassociated after a while, like I’m getting into the head of a psychopath–or as close as I’d want to be, anyway. Gamification of the violence drives home that disturbing feeling, too. It’s a surreal experience, and the gameplay and music provide a powerfully addictive combination. I’ve played the story once or twice, and I’ve also played individual levels on occasion. But I don’t think it’s a game that I could ever 100%–I’d have to spend too much time getting really good at really disturbing shit.

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Moving out of indie games, I’ve returned to Jurassic World: Evolution, as well. A recent update included a new challenge mode. So far, I’ve fiddled around with the easy mode, taking my time, having fun, then realizing in a panic that while I would probably eventually get to 5 stars, I was definitely not going to meet the par time. This could prove to be a quite challenging mode, especially working all the way up to Jurassic difficulty while meeting the par times, and it may or may not be enough to keep me in the game for a while (if only to try to return my status to 100% completion).

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Finally, I’ve been playing ever more of Star Wars: Battlefront II. The 2005 edition, of course. It’s just so fun and easy to hop into even if I don’t have a lot of time to play.

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And that’s all for games. The final post, on television, will follow tomorrow.

All the Books

I’ve finally allowed myself to learn to love audiobooks. They’re great for providing something for me to focus on when otherwise doing a fairly mindless or boring task. But since my multitasking ability sucks, I’ll only listen to things that I’m okay with missing something in. Listening is just not the best way for me to absorb a story (and I’ll never accept that it’s comparable to reading; they’re just apples to oranges–oral storytelling is great, but it is different than written storytelling, and this is real estate in the general vicinity of a hill I’m willing to die on).

Truly, the credit for my newfound acceptance goes to the Indianapolis Public Library’s collections and the accessibility of the Overdrive and Hoopla websites and apps. I’ve already made it through a couple books despite the recentness of this change of heart.

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The first audiobook I experimented with was William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope, by Ian Doescher. I enjoyed the stageplay feel, with a few different voice actors narrating the book. The sound effects were great. I was tickled by the human pronunciations of R2-D2’s whistles, and his internal monologues were a weird diversion. Nonetheless, the novelty wore off quickly enough for me. It’s hard to suggest that this has much merit on its own, after all–it’s entirely about the gimmick of combining Star Wars and Shakespeare. The saturation in pop culture and melodramatic nature of the two draw comparisons, and Doescher obviously put a lot of effort into emulating Shakespeare’s style, but it’s basically what it says on the tin, good for a bit of amusement and nothing more. Still, the production value of the audiobook was so good that I could listen to another in this series.

Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan was second on my list. My first observation: it has too many subtitles. The audiobook brought life to the story, and it really showcased how good Drew Karpyshyn is at describing action. The narrator’s decisions regarding voices were somewhat disappointing. Revan sounded like bored Batman, even though he was written in the book as a sort of funny guy who was quick to quip and often contemplative. The Sith Lord Scourge sounded like angry Batman. And the female characters–Meetra and Bastila, for instance–typically sounded like man-doing-a-high-pitched-voice (which is, after all, what was happening), so I think the emotional resonance of their characters suffered.

Despite enjoying the action sequences, I don’t like what this book did to Revan and the Jedi Exile. For one thing, it shouldn’t have defined who they were. The KOTOR games were stories set in the distant past, a fable even in the context of the old EU canon. There was no need to have a “canon” series of events–these games thrived on player choice and the consequences of those choices.

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But even accepting a “canon” version of events, it’s icky to have a story where the Jedi Exile acts like a subservient cheerleader of Revan and ultimately dies for him, becoming a Force ghost to keep him alive. Also, these are characters players have a lot of connection to–their tragic ends here are a let-down and seem to exist only to raise the stakes of The Old Republic and make that game seem EVEN BIGGER, LOUDER, AND BETTER THAN THE ORIGINAL (reminds me of the decision to kill off Newt and Hicks in Alien 3). Finally, the game seems to retcon things a little bit, once more in the service of making The Old Republic more important. For instance, and most significantly, the Sith Emperor’s Force-devouring evil is presented as this colossal threat that would even shift Sith to become Jedi allies–but isn’t that reflective of exactly who Darth Nihilus was and what he was up to in KOTOR II?

I liked the similarly over-subtitled Star Wars: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance (by Sean Williams) when I read it years ago, but in retrospect, I cannot be sure if I was just more into the “edgy” take on Star Wars being offered by the writers of The Old Republic game and media push than I would be now.

The one Star Wars story of the bunch that I really enjoyed was something I read rather than listened to: an ebook version of Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy: A Graphic Novel (yet another work with too many subtitles). The artwork is clean, colorful, and emotive. Best of all, it’s a masterclass in efficient editing. Each of the films is stripped down into a much tighter, action-packed core. Extraneous fight scenes (and the infamous podrace) are cut down considerably or even (as in the case of the starship fight over Geonosis between Obi-Wan and Jango) cut completely. Some quirky bits of dialogue and some genuinely good character moments get left on the cutting room floor, but almost everything felt improved by the omission. Some things I wish they’d been willing to cut even further. They opened late and ended early on a lot of moments, and yet midi-chlorians remain in, and Anakin’s admission that he killed even women and children in the Tusken Raider village stays as well. Still, given the source material that the graphic novel is operating from, this is probably the best format that I’ve seen the prequels in so far. The weird thing is that this collection seems to have been made with a crew big enough for a small film–it’s difficult to attribute to only a few individuals.

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I also read an ebook version of Dark Horse’s Age of Reptiles Omnibus: Volume I by Ricardo Delgado. The art was gorgeous and dynamic. So much was packed into each panel, and there was such a strong flow from panel to panel. Motion was clearly conveyed. There was a buzzing energy that propels you onward. This comic series appears to have a well-deserved reputation for its entirely visual storytelling. Motivation and emotion are clearly conveyed through dinosaur body language and action. There is no dialogue (obviously–they’re dinosaurs), and there are no descriptive sound effects. All storytelling happens through the art alone. My major criticism would be that the stories are a little too focused on nature red in tooth and claw, but we do see other aspects of the dinosaurs’ lives. The Journey was the most satisfying story (the image here comes from it), epic and yet also somewhat mundane, a slice-of-life story nonetheless replete with death and violence.

That’s it for the books. Next: all the video games.