Terra Nova deserves a fresh start

Every now and then, I think to myself that it would be nice to see Terra Nova returned or rebooted. You might not remember, or even heard of, Terra Nova. It existed for a brief while in 2011. I remember quite a lot of buzz for the expensive production, time-traveling shenanigans in the plot, dinosaurs, and involvement of Steven Spielberg as executive producer and Stephen Lang in a role that was basically a more mysterious, less evil version of his character in Avatar. Despite that, it became a convoluted mess that was cancelled after a single season, after a total of 13 episodes.

The basic premise was cool: humanity now lives in a worsening environmental apocalypse of its own making, but a new hope arises when scientists discover a way to travel into an alternative past corresponding to the Cretaceous Period. As far as anyone knows, you can go back, but you’re stuck there. They’ve been able to verify that activity in this other time stream does not affect the present, so there are no A Sound of Thunder ramifications to worry about. Humanity has a second chance at a future by going to a past that preexisted us. There are a variety of ecological threats to worry about from the native flora and fauna, but there’s just as much tension in the conflict between the cult-like loyalists to Lang’s militaristic compound leader and the rebel cell that splintered off from the main group and disappeared into the jungles.

What great potential! (And one utilized elsewhere since as an RPG setting.) Unfortunately, the show tried to be something for everyone. While the above would have been more than enough for several seasons of television, elements of different genres were cobbled together to try to catch as many eyes as possible from the start. The central viewpoint characters are a family escaping from the future to live a life free from its population-control laws (mom and dad had a third child). The hot-head father becomes top lawman to the colony leader. The mother is a doctor much needed by the community. The three kids, ranging from teens to a plucky young child, have their own assorted adventures. Focus could shift episode to episode, and even within a single episode you might have teen relationship angst intermingled with a prehistoric murder investigation. The two-parter first episode jumps between the complicated politics of the future and the past, the awe-inspiring nature of the prehistoric world, and some bizarrely low-budget teen slasher horror (literally, the dromaeosaurs in the show are called “slashers”). Within this oh-so-short first season, we even have a former love interest to come between the mother and father (never mind that they love each other so much, they staged an elaborate escape into the past just to preserve their nuclear family). On top of this, the conflict between the colony and its rogue faction is played up for maximum mystery, creating a more convoluted and opaque interrelationship than necessary and setting up a bizarre situation in which the officially sanctioned colony represents more of an isolationist, eco-friendly group while the rebels are actually working for the corporate interests controlling access to the time stream.

I haven’t watched the show in years because I know its flaws too well. Jumbled plot and mismanaged tones aside, it manages to look like over-produced yet still unconvincing television. The dinosaurs in particular look like obvious digital inserts, easily topped by the computer graphics, animatronics, and puppets used to bring Jurassic Park to life 18 years before this show. The dialogue and some of the performances could be just as unbelievable. Even if you can sit through it, you’ll be disappointed with an ending that sets up even more mysteries and leaves plenty of loose ends to never be resolved.

But, again, that premise is incredible! I’d love to see a show that doubles down on the premise, that focuses on a colony eking out a frontier existence in a world it should never have been a part of. The combination of post-apocalyptic politicking, prehistoric creatures, and environmental themes provides storytelling favorably comparable to Xenozoic. And the parallel-time-stream-traveling offers a unique explanation for how humans and dinosaurs could coexist, outside of the cloning route of Jurassic Park or the techno-magic implications of Xenozoic or The Dinosaur Lords.

If I were given the choice to continue or reboot Terra Nova, I think I’d do a prequel-as-reboot by focusing on the second generation of colonists to arrive. The colony is barely established, so there’s plenty of work still to be done in getting things running smoothly, but we have an outsider’s perspective to follow among the new arrivals, an outsider who finds this functioning community so devoted to the mythic figure of a former military man who managed to survive by himself for months before anyone else arrived. I wouldn’t mind a family focus at the center, but no bloated backstory. And if you go the family route, I’d rather the family actually be bonded so that they want to support each other and we have people to clearly root for. Teens will be teens, but the level of unnecessary drama combined with bad dialogue made it difficult to care about the cast of characters. By having the story start in the early days of the colony, we don’t have any rebel cell or mystery corporate interests; the central drama would simply be dealing with this totally alien world. You could bring in tension as later arrivers gradually grow resentful of the iron fist of the compound leader. That in and of itself is enough of a reason for a faction to revolt, without shady corporate tactics involved. I think a more interesting divide would be between those who believe they have the right to continue this colony and others who come to believe that this is still unnecessarily exploitative, with humanity following a path that will eventually doom this world too; perhaps they want to destroy any presence of a colony at all, or perhaps they want a way to teleport everyone back to the future and to shut down the time stream for good. Terra Nova dabbled with the idea that maybe our protagonists were working for the bad guy, but it eventually backed away from this, doubling down on the idea that the rebels were dishonest and basically evil. I’d push the cast-aside idea further; it’s not that the leader is evil, but he enjoys the control he has, and he has a settler mentality, intent on exploiting this world even without a clear corporate beneficiary.

Sure, if you could get past the rebooted season, you could layer on additional plot points. You could tell adventure and exploration stories, war stories, time travel stories, stories of corporate greed. You could have plenty of interesting real and speculative prehistoric plants and animals. You could run in a variety of directions, even time jump to set up a society that is more entrenched, to follow different characters. Heck, you could evolve from a rough-and-tumble frontier to a sprawling metropolis at the center of linked communities, complete with Dinotopia-style human-dinosaur symbiosis. But if you try to do too much too early, you don’t have likeable characters, and you keep throwing on more elaborate and unnecessary mysteries, you’re going to tank any show. Terra Nova already proved that. I wish that the premise had another chance, though.

Review – Jurassic World: Evolution DLC

If I could say only one thing about the expansions for Jurassic World: Evolution, I would say, “Buy Return to Jurassic Park; it’s worth it.” That one expansion was a stand-out, balancing nostalgia with new features, building on the solid foundation of the base game, and focusing on story to a greater degree than any other campaign mode in the game.

Slowly gaining Dr. Grant’s trust and respect was definitely a high point.

There’s a lot more to say about Return to Jurassic Park, but I want to discuss the other expansions first. I’ve now had some experience with all the existing DLC for JWE, which includes three added campaigns (Secrets of Dr. Wu, Claire’s Sanctuary, and Return to Jurassic Park), four expansion packs of additional dinosaurs (the Deluxe Dinosaur Pack, the Cretaceous Dinosaur Pack, the Carnivore Dinosaur Pack, and the Herbivore Dinosaur Pack), and one purely cosmetic addition (the Raptor Squad Skin Collection). Nothing really disappointed me, although some were better than others.

There’s nothing remarkable in the dinosaur content packs, but I liked having even more dinosaur options to add to the park, even though there’s largely a focus on existing clades, such that, at least with some of the new additions, they’ll feel more like new skins rather than truly new animals. Frequent additions to my parks have included the Styracosaurus from Deluxe (a ceratopsian I love about as much as Triceratops, given its appearance in Crichton’s sequel novel and its charismatic and dangerous role in “Last Link in the Chain” of Xenozoic Tales, not to mention the genus’s metal-as-hell skulls), the colossal Dreadnoughtus from the Cretaceous pack, the Proceratosaurus from the Carnivore pack (a small carnivore whose comfort in packs and ability to coexist with larger predators makes a helpful addition to boost ratings, especially in a certain carnivore-only challenge!), and the wide-jawed and small-for-a-sauropod Nigersaurus from the Herbivore pack (she’s too goofy-looking not to love). Dinosaurs in these packs, the campaign expansions, and some of the free content updates further round out the prehistoric life from the Jurassic Park novels, movies, and games that had previously been missing from JWE, although any marine life is still absent entirely. All that said, I liked adding more dinosaurs to the park, but you’re not missing anything vital if you don’t get these content packs. Furthermore, none of the dinosaurs break the balance of building a park, as they are unlocked over the campaign by building up favor with the different park directors, same as many of the already existing features in the base game.

The only thing that feels truly frivolous is the Raptor Squad Skin Collection. It’s only a couple bucks by itself, or less if bought discounted, but it only provides Velociraptor skins so that your raptors can look like Blue, Delta, Echo, and Charlie from Jurassic World. Since I have the pack, I’ve used the skins frequently; it adds a little more variety, and those skins are more dynamic than many of the other options available in the base game. But it’s a purely cosmetic choice. I can take it or leave it.

That gets us back to those campaign expansions. Unlike Return to Jurassic Park, the first two expansions, Secrets of Dr. Wu and Claire’s Sanctuary, are overall enjoyable, though largely forgettable.

Secrets of Dr. Wu serves as something of a conclusion to the base game’s campaign. All the secrets, plotting, and inter-division politics that never really went anywhere in the base game provide the platform for what happens next: Dr. Wu enlists your character to help him further his research into genetic modifications, taking you to new locations on the islands, including a top-secret research site. At first, you’re still juggling the interests of the Security, Entertainment, and Science divisions along with Wu’s requests, but the chief geneticist’s interests eventually become paramount. Wu’s research initially produces access to some new dinosaurs in a new park dubbed Muerta East. When you’ve met his initial objectives, though, he requests that you join him at his private lab, the Tacaño Research Facility. Here, you’re blessedly free of competing division contracts, but the scope is also fairly narrow. You help cultivate a new line of hybrid dinosaurs, culminating in a break-out and dino-to-dino battle before settling into a bland grind to increase the ratings of dinosaurs for export in the final mission. The base campaign’s story now feels more “complete,” but it still never really goes anywhere, and you’re still involved in deeply unethical activities without any real consequences.

Jurassic World: Evolution and Secrets of Dr. Wu are functionally alternative sequels to Jurassic World. While Claire’s Sanctuary is another alternative sequel, it also acts as a happier timeline in which Lockwood’s promise of Sanctuary was real and Claire is successful in relocating several dinosaurs. No Gothic horror shenanigans, no final dino release onto the mainland. Its narrative is rather subdued as a result, and the main challenge is dealing with the use of an ever-increasing Hammond Foundation fee while making sure your Sanctuary can both house happy dinosaurs (with an interesting new Paleobotany element requiring you to have the correct mix of plant life for different dinosaur types) and draw in a profit from tourists. (Yes, that means that it’s not so much a nature preserve as it is yet another island zoo, and yes, that’s a tragic compromise, but the game spends little time on this theme.) The standout mission is before you start your Sanctuary, however. You lead a team to set up a small research outpost on Isla Nublar. The map chosen winds from a valley up onto the slopes of the volcanic Mount Sibo. It’s a truly massive map, and dinosaurs roam freely in their own social groups. It captures the adventure-safari spirit of The Lost World and the first act of Fallen Kingdom quite well. I enjoyed driving across the island, photographing and observing the dinosaurs and providing medications to treat a new disease. The mission is very story-focused, so I concentrated on the story objectives and the setting, free from contracts or the demands of tourists. It was a delight, and I would have loved a whole game about exploring and researching this prehistoric preserve while attempting to prepare for, or even undo, a predicted tragedy. Some of my fondest memories of this level are of dealing with an ornery stegosaur herd near my base camp, which often attacked my perimeter fencing and sowed chaos among the researchers on the ground. It was an interesting experience, trying to find a way to coexist with these animals. The final moments of the mission also stood out as tense and horrific, as I had to choose which dinosaurs we’d be able to transport off the island in time, and dinosaurs began dying off in the chaos of the volcano’s imminent eruption. Sacrifices must be made.

Finally, there’s Return to Jurassic Park, yet another alternative sequel but this time to the original film, picking up shortly after the evacuation of Hammond and the other survivors from Isla Nublar. In this alternate universe, Hammond has convinced Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm to return to Jurassic Park, to start over and try to do things right. Hammond walks a line between his friendly tycoon persona and the born-again naturalist of The Lost World, as he is eager to build a park that is safe yet profitable, with dinosaurs who are well-cared-for, although sometimes his contracts darkly indicate that he’s still a little bit short-sighted and too profit-motivated. Hammond is aided by a young version of Cabot Finch, the PR manager from the base game. This Finch proves himself to be loyal to Hammond, even though he’s still ambitious and self-serving. He is the only central character not from the films, and the story largely focuses on Hammond, Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm (while Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum returned to voice their roles, Richard Attenborough of course passed away a few years ago, and his voice actor delivers at best a decent imitation, at worst a whinier and more nasally knockoff).

Contracts became far more tolerable to me in Return; instead of competing against everyone, the divisions are headed by people possessing more or less mutual respect, all with the goal of presenting as-accurate-as-possible dinosaurs in humane enclosures with safe exhibits and facilities for park guests. You still have to complete contracts to raise your reputation with a division and to unlock more features, but you’re not risking reputation decreases or sabotage by focusing on one division’s contracts over the others (after all, petty infighting and anything intentionally done to risk the safety of the guests and dinosaurs would be intensely antithetical to these characters). Contracts are also in line with the ethical, reasonable personas you’re working with, so don’t expect contracts to have dinosaurs fight each other or to sell off certain dinosaurs. The contracts also have more interesting overlap in interests: Grant’s are focused on expeditions and the creation of more authentic dinosaurs; Sattler’s are focused on the wellbeing of the animals and observation of them in their natural habitats; Malcolm’s are very focused on security, and rather than independently increasing a separate division score for himself, completion of his contracts improves your reputation with Grant and Sattler; and Hammond’s and Finch’s are focused on expansion of the park, improvement of guest facilities, and profit growth.

The story is simple and derivative but entertaining. We first have to get the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar contained again. We then have to address what went wrong and work out a solution to the breeding problem (sadly, as far as I could tell, dinosaurs are not self-reproducing in the game even before the fix, and they’re still reliant on concealed feeders even in natural habitats). This involves a side trip to Isla Sorna, where we get the production facilities back online; in the campaign mode only, all your dinosaurs are shipped to Isla Nublar from Isla Sorna, creating a fun variation in how you stock the park with new attractions that unfortunately is not carried over into the Challenge modes. Finally, back on Isla Nublar, you work to grow the newly opened Jurassic Park, attempt to stop a bit of corporate espionage, and use your Tyrannosaurus to end yet another Velociraptor outbreak. The returning characters voice their concerns with attempting this reopening, but the game doesn’t try very hard to explain why they’d agree to come back to this site of death or why they believe in Hammond’s mission; if you can accept that Hammond intends to try again and has convinced the others that working with him from the beginning could keep dinosaurs and people safer, then you don’t need a deeper explanation. The story doesn’t really offer anything new, either; it just ties up loose ends (mostly loose ends that didn’t really need tying) and provides enough of a narrative structure to explain how exactly we’re all back at Jurassic Park. As a huge fan of the movies, I had more than enough to satisfy me.

In addition to the new story, we get a couple new creatures, as well: Compsognathus and Pteranodon, which have both had significant roles in the first two sequels. On top of that, many of the dinosaurs present in the Jurassic Park trilogy now have specific skins modeled after their appearances in these films. Once you unlock the new creatures and skins in the expansion, you can use them in any other mode; same goes for the Jurassic Park aesthetic and park economy.

I found the gameplay to be the best in this mode, and it’s not just nostalgia speaking. Certainly, nostalgia plays a role: park staff are dressed like their counterparts in the first film, the visitor center is more or less a duplicate of the original, visitors arrive to the island by helicopter, you have the classic cable fences and electric Explorers, the dinosaurs are movie-accurate, the guests are dressed like nineties tourists, and the additional park facilities feel like natural extensions of the design aesthetic of the first park. But management just feels simpler, more straightforward, more focused on providing lovely enclosures for the dinosaurs. For starters, the needed infrastructure is greatly streamlined: helipad to arrive at (placed by you, instead of the default monorail locations), visitor center that houses all the R&D departments as hub add-ons, geothermal power plant to provide electricity, only two types of visitor attractions (the car tour and a self-contained Pteranodon aviary), and only five types of visitor-needs buildings (restaurant, restroom, gift shop, emergency bunker, and hotel) that can all be clustered around a single attraction entrance point. It’s easy to chain along the ride through multiple enclosures (or around them, in the case of carnivore pens). Even the dinosaurs are simplified, in a way: while the expansion does add more animals to all game modes, any Jurassic Park-themed park has a reduced roster of era-appropriate dinosaurs. It’s a more focused experience, though there’s still plenty to manage properly to get your park to five stars (especially when playing in challenge modes).

My Challenge mode attempts tend to use the Jurassic Park setting. The combination of tight park-building gameplay and heavy doses of nostalgia makes this my preferred Jurassic World: Evolution experience. Over two years ago, I described the base game as flawed, fun, and slightly disappointing. Frontier Developments has added so much to it since, so it was already an improved experience, but Return to Jurassic Park has transformed the game into something truly special.

Isla Pena: More Teeth

I hadn’t played Jurassic World: Evolution much since I was last writing about it in July of this year. But I’m a sucker for this franchise, and it doesn’t take much of a promotion to draw me back in. This time around, it was simply the build-up to the release of the Switch version of the game–and no, I did not purchase the Switch version after I’d already bought all the content on PC; I have some restraint. I did, however, decide to get back to the Challenge mode a bit.

This Saturday, I loaded the Challenge mode save I’d last seriously pursued in July, before I dropped out and moved on to other things in my spare time. I found myself picking up the controls as though I’d never left the game, and I remembered some of the more advanced management tactics I had finally gotten a firm grasp on in almost as little time. My particular challenge was to get to five stars in medium difficulty on Isla Pena while releasing only carnivores. I therefore hoped to get two achievements for a single five-star run (beating any Challenge for one, beating Isla Pena on medium or higher with only carnivores for the other). Back in July, I’d named my save file for this unique challenge “MORE TEETH,” which I thought was sort of cute because, you know…

I didn’t manage to get to five stars within the level’s suggested par time, but I did get to five stars in just under four and a half hours total time, dealing with a variety of crises big and small that climaxed with a thrillingly destructive storm complete with twister and the resultant chaos of various carnivores rampaging across the island, and I secured the two achievements.

I had fun, as usual. I think this is a game I’ll keep finding reasons to come back to over the months–maybe even the years. I have no idea whether I’ll ever get the final four achievements on Steam, though, especially given that three require timed Challenge-mode completions. And I strongly doubt that I’ll ever unlock all the dinosaur skins that would require completing every island on the highest difficulty at least once. There’s still a lot left to check off in the game, then, but it’s rather repetitive in nature. Get to five stars on islands I’ve already played through, dealing with a slightly different contract assignment system and the extra costs of the steadily increasing Hammond Foundation fee, again and again and again.

The reason I have returned yet again to the game, then, has very little to do with completionism at this point. Instead, I genuinely end up having fun, sometimes for hours at a time. I still manage to experience moments of awe, curiosity, and excitement with this game. I picked the featured image for this post not because it was a moment of great excitement but because the moment of rolling through a jungle canopy in a ranger Jeep and coming out at the edge of a small pond, seeing my pack of Velociraptors settling down to sleep for the night on the other end, and snapping a picture with the ranger’s camera just felt special and peaceful and unique; the more I play the game, the more these little moments of simulated animal behavior and dynamic interactions with them at ground level are what really stand out to me, although I’ll never get over the explosive excitement of a park in the midst of a tropical storm. There’s always going to be something to continue to engage me with this game. Perhaps the only thing to draw me away for good would be a bigger, better sequel…

On a slightly different note, writing this post made me realize that I apparently never wrote anything about my experiences with all the DLC. It looks like I last seriously wrote about JW:E when playing through the base game again earlier this year with some of the new updates that had been made available over time. By the end of July, I’d played through everything. I should probably fix that oversight at some point, huh?

Review: Love and Monsters

I heard something favorable about this movie yesterday, watched the trailer, and opted to watch it with a purchase on Amazon Prime. It was worth it. I found out only after watching that it was released via video on demand on Friday, so this is a rare example where I’m actually writing about a topical piece of pop culture.

Love and Monsters is easy to talk about because while it’s a refreshingly funny and thrilling coming-of-age story focused on relationships and emotions, and it’s dealing with a post-apocalyptic world with its own lore to explain how cold-blooded animals rapidly mutated into horrific monsters, the narrative is simple. Joel (played by Dylan O’Brien) has lived with a small group of survivors in the seven years since these monsters erupted onto the world stage. He feels alone and out-of-place in his group, though he loves his found family, and after freezing in the face of a monster breach and realizing that he could soon die alone, he decides to go on a seven-day overland journey to reunite in person with his old high school girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), who he’s managed to reconnect with over the radio. He sets out, ill-prepared for what awaits him. Along the way, he meets fellow survivors that he bonds with, develops the skills and inner strength needed to make it in this dangerous new world, and learns the value he had within himself and his small community all along. It’s heartwarming, intimate, and optimistic, a tale of what normal humans can do, and it promises that even in the face of the apocalypse, we can adapt and overcome. In that way, it joins a small subgenre of optimistic disaster/monster movies, including Pacific Rim, Zombieland, and Monsters (a fairly generic title for Gareth Edwards’s 2010 kaiju invasion/relationship flick–and arguably the least relevant to this list, given the ambiguity of the opening/ending).

Love and Monsters is a straightforward tale, told well by director Michael Matthews and screenwriters Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson. There’s a lot of heart and humor in it, and Dylan O’Brien does a great job conveying a variety of emotions in a range of contexts, which is vitally important in a film built around him, especially when he is so often alone. His most constant company is a dog named Boy, who like every character in the movie is dealing with a traumatic loss; Boy refuses to go anywhere without a red dress, a memento of his missing and presumably deceased former caretaker. Boy steals every scene he’s in. He’s such a smart, good, loyal Boy. The relationship between Dylan and Boy becomes perhaps the central relationship, more so than Dylan’s relationship with his former colony or Aimee or his deceased parents, and rivaled only by his relatively brief traveling companions, an adoptive father-daughter team of hardened survivalists played by Michael Rooker and Ariana Greenblatt. Impressively, the film is not a love story played straight; Dylan finds his relationship to Aimee changed, just as he is changed by his journey. (It’s a nice touch that the big romantic gesture isn’t necessarily received as such or in the same spirit, while the unrequited love interest remains likeable, charismatic, and competent.)

Monster designs are creepy and creative too, with grotesque and giant versions of frogs, millipedes, ants, and so on. They don’t always have a great sense of grounding in a physical space, and sometimes they appear a bit plasticky, but overall they look good.

I don’t really have more to say. Love and Monsters is simply good fun, in thrilling packaging.

Review: Camp Cretaceous

The Jurassic Park movies have always sorta-kinda been family adventure films. Yes, there are many deaths, some graphically depicted, and there are plenty of frights, but they’re never particularly gory or horrifying films. There have always been some kids swathed in plot armor to accompany the protagonists. And kids naturally love and are fascinated by dinosaurs, even the theme-park monsters of the films, which once upon a time were overall rather accurate and remain strikingly realistic in action. I remember watching Jurassic Park around age 5 or 6, too young for the movie, absolutely enchanted by the glimpses of dinosaurs and thrilled by the adventure story and so scared of the kitchen scene I couldn’t even watch it the first time or two.

All that to say, it makes sense, from a certain point of view, to make a children’s show version of Jurassic Park. It certainly makes sense from a merchandising perspective, and I knew more about the toy line than the show’s premise up until a week or two before its release. But it also limits what the show can be about. If nothing else, the show must be more toned down, more tame, than any of the movies. Sure enough, a few anonymous or unlikable adults meet their ends more-or-less off-screen, and the kids (and even sympathetic adults) preserve the plot armor that always surrounds kids in these stories–at least until the final couple episodes, when the show genuinely manages to raise the stakes and suggest that the protagonists might not all make it through.

Camp Cretaceous is focused largely on tracking the developing relationships between the disparate kids who win a trip to the eponymous summer camp and then must somehow survive it. These kids initially come off as tired stereotypes: the dino nerd, the spoiled rich kid, the popular girl (upgraded to the current era as a social media influencer), the jock, the goofball extrovert, and the neurotic coward. The stereotypes are more or less played straight for the first couple episodes, but over the course of the show, all the characters gain nuance and depth, and they all reveal secret strengths and weaknesses. They are pushed past the breaking point as they attempt to survive, and they sometimes come close to fracturing but manage to stand together. By the end of the show, I liked all the characters.

I also really liked Bumpy, the sidekick Ankylosaurus infant who becomes a constant companion to the children as everything goes to hell. Bumpy has an adorable design. As much as Bumpy is designed to sell toys, she still had a big impact on me. I was constantly cheering on or worrying about Bumpy, even though I knew there was no way the show’s creators would ever let anything bad happen to her. Bumpy really steals the show.

The show’s premise remains pretty basic and in line with the first four Jurassic Park films: people go to an island with genetically engineered dinosaurs, bad things happen, and they must try to escape with their lives. In some ways, it’s a disappointing step back toward the formulaic just as Fallen Kingdom and Battle at Big Rock opened the franchise up to a much greater variety of storytelling possibilities. Still, the formula has worked well enough so far, and I had fun watching it. In truth, while the show has now been out for a couple weeks, I binged the eight twenty-something-minute episodes on its release night. The story might be conventional, but it’s a clever retelling of Jurassic World, with the characters reacting to similar events on Isla Nublar way across the island from the main park. There are some cameos from the film, mostly of the dinosaur variety, and we get to see more of the park. I’d go so far as to say that you shouldn’t watch Camp Cretaceous until you’ve watched (or rewatched) Jurassic World, as it’s rewarding to pick up on the copious nods to the film. There is a healthy dose of dramatic irony throughout that’s best appreciated with the foreknowledge of plot awareness.

This show manages to be awe-inspiring, exhilarating, often wickedly funny, and surprisingly character-focused (in the way that the best Jurassic Park films are). It’s not really doing anything new, but it returns to core concepts and tells a good story. And while the character and vehicle models are a bit basic, and some of the animation a little too frictionless, the dinosaurs look really good. It’s fun to watch, and for Jurassic Park fans at least, it’s worth it. Given how it ended, I’m looking forward to the eventual second season.

Review: Prey (2017)

Having now finished the main story with one of several endings for Prey, I can say that this was a great game experience. However, despite the opportunity for many additional runs through its story, to explore different powers or to pursue completionist ambitions or to make different moral choices, I do not think I will be back to the game any time soon, if ever. Once was enough, and it was a great treat.

One of the main reasons that I would not be interested in a replay is that the game forces you to replay a lot already, in the sense that you are constantly backtracking and re-exploring areas you’ve been to before. At many points in the game, levels you’ve cleared are restocked with enemies, too, which I suppose helps to alleviate the grind of wandering across a barren area just to try a previously locked door with a new keycard or ability, but it does start to feel a little tedious at times.

This complaint is really my only major one with the game. I loved the setting, the story, and many of the characters. Above all else, I definitely loved the action-RPG-lite FPS gameplay. I loved experimenting with different abilities, upgrading special powers as the situation warranted and scarce Neuromods allowed. I found I preferred human, rather than alien/ESP powers, with a focus on stealth, hacking and engineering my way around problems, always prepared to shoot my way out of a situation at the end. Limited resources meant that I couldn’t ever depend on going in guns blazing, and many later-game enemies would have clobbered me if I’d relied on that approach. In fact, the final third of the game changed the type of enemy primarily faced, moving from the psychokinetic, shape-shifting Typhon alien types to largely robotic opponents with high-powered lasers, requiring a tweak to how I devoted my resources. Some might find the constant scavenging and need to formulate new tools out of scraps at special stations to be tedious, but it kept the tension high throughout the game and made me reflective about how to use my resources–there were many times where I had few mineral resources and had to make a close call between generating extra 9mm bullets, some shells for my shotgun, or a medkit.

Most of the game time is spent navigating large but enclosed, multi-story levels that represent sections of a colossal space station. Every level has a different environmental story to tell, as the station gradually expanded from a Soviet operation to a joint US-Soviet research facility to a chief technological base for an extravagantly wealthy private company. There are stark research labs and elaborate crew quarters with bold pop art. There’s a bridge with computer stations and displays you’d expect to see in a NASA mission control room. Whiteboards and posters and notes and letters and books and children’s art fill out the corners of the station, as is the nature of these sorts of games, I suppose. I rather enjoyed accessing more and more of the diverse environments and uncovering secrets, especially related to the events that led to the release of the Typhon and the demise of so many of the crew of Talos I. Coupled with fantastic level design and set dressing, the sound design and score kept me in the moment, maintaining a sense of tension and dread even when I became more powerful and wasn’t so concerned about a sudden Mimic jump scare.

The above details should sound familiar, for they are definitely in the vein of a particular type of game, the System Shock-alike. Given that I happen to love these sorts of games, like BioShock and Deus Ex, it should come as no surprise that this scratched an itch for me. But it also clearly pulled from classic sci-fi movies like Alien/Aliens (the parasitic nature and unstoppable drive of the alien force and the retro-futuristic design) and Total Recall (the questions regarding what is real versus simulated and the permanence/plasticity of identity when remembered life experiences are removed from the equation or otherwise altered), as well as from the niche interests of paranormal enthusiasts with subjects like ESP and covered-up astronaut contact with alien life. All the more reason for me to like it.

The plot operates on a familiar framework but offers a lot more than what the basic narrative might at first suggest. (It should be noted that it is not connected to the original Prey in any way except for name, although I never played the older title, so it made no difference to me.) A silent, amnesiac protagonist has to fight off killer aliens while exploring the confines of their environment. In this case, the game opens with protagonist Morgan Yu finding out that their current existence is nothing more than a repeated simulation, and Morgan enters into freedom just as the outside world goes to hell. They’re onboard a nearly derelict space station, in the immediate aftermath of an infestation of alien creatures with a complex ecology and life cycle, collectively known as the Typhon. The basic Typhon is a Mimic (pulled straight from D&D), an inky black, dog-sized starfish of a creature that can easily morph into any other shape its size or smaller. Mimics, like xenomorph face-huggers, want nothing more than to shove an appendage down the throat of the nearest human to replicate–but rather than releasing a rapidly gestating embryo like the classic sci-fi predator, they steal away life force (and, we later learn, consciousness) to metabolize enough matter and energy to split into fully-formed quadruplets. (This idea of recycling, reusing, metabolizing, and transforming is a major theme in the game.) There are many other types of Typhons, including the myriad forms of Phantoms, which are birthed from the corpses of humans killed by other means. Much of the game involves attempting to stop the spread of the infestation, which in turn involves learning quite a bit more about the history of the space station, its inhabitants, and the Typhon that had been contained within it.

The complexity of the space station and the Typhon, and the alternative history of the larger world, make for a very interesting background narrative that kept my attention throughout. However, the actual beats of the story are fairly conventional. You start off very under-powered, and even the little Mimics, who will eventually become at best a nuisance, are terrifying threats. The horror of the initial events of the story gives way to mystery regarding the alien threat, and that transition in tone comes with an increase in powers. You meet more and more powerful enemies over the game, but you gain in power at a roughly equivalent rate. You explore sections of the space station and unlock secrets. You (optionally) help other survivors and decide whether to blow the station up to completely wipe out the infestation, incapacitate all the Typhon so that the research can start again, or simply bail out whenever in an escape pod. The end stages of the game send in a “rescue” team actually meant to wipe everyone out, an overused plot point in action games and movies.

The game remained challenging, but never unfair. I played on Normal difficulty without any of the optional game modes like limited oxygen or the accumulation of trauma, so I imagine the higher levels of difficulty could be especially brutal. Either way, the game allows for saving at any point, and so I saved early and often. This encouraged experimentation in exploration and combat, since I knew I could quickly load back to a save moments before if something went south.

Your silent protagonist, Morgan Yu (who can be male or female, the first choice you make), is a brilliant engineer and scientist, but they start out with irreversible amnesia, and a variety of prerecorded videos and AIs and contemporary human compatriots all attempt to persuade Morgan about who he or she really is. The silence of this protagonist feels more a deliberate choice than a matter of convenience; you are Yu (yeah, the name emphasizes that, huh?), and you are defining who that is, from a blank slate. The silence means that intention is always through player expression; as the game goes on, there are moments where it is clear that the people around Morgan struggle to understand who he was and who he is now. The unknowable nature of intention behind action is an underlying theme as much as is the nature of identity or consciousness.

The side stories of perished and surviving crew were often more intriguing than the game’s primary objectives. I became quite fond of characters like Dr. Dayo Igwe, the brilliant neuroscientist with the tragic past who is ostracized by his colleagues because of his parapsychological interests; Chief Sarah Elazar, the tough-as-nails security director and war veteran with a strong ethical core and protective spirit; Mikhaila Ilyushin, the head engineer who hid her degenerative condition to get a top spot on Talos I to try to uncover the truth about her father; or Danielle Sho, the IT administrator who put aside her past rivalry with Morgan to aide them in ending the Typhon threat, even as she waited out her own death. That last character arc is rather problematic, honestly. I really liked Sho a lot, and learning about her tensions with Morgan and her romantic relationship with researcher and tabletop game master Abigail Foy was one of the most engaging backstories I explored. I was rooting for Sho and Foy, so [BIG SPOILERS] I was incredibly frustrated to discover that Foy had been killed, not by Typhon, but by a deranged serial killer, and Sho was doomed to die, stuck outside of the station and out of oxygen, helping Yu in her final moments and asking them to avenge Foy’s death. I mean, yeah, I hunted down that psychotic killer–even if you didn’t uncover or care about Sho and Foy’s relationship, he tries to kill you and taunts you through the remainder of the game–but I could have done without yet another example of burying your gays. (On that subject, I recognize that a lot of people die or are already dead in the game, and it has a wide range of people from various backgrounds, but to so conspicuously have a lesbian relationship documented in the backstory and to have it so that you can only witness their tragic deaths, when you can help most other survivors make it out, seems like a clear enough example of the trope).

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Smaller character moments mattered too. I liked learning about the crew members engaged in assassin games with their manufactured foam dart crossbows, and when I discovered one crew member from that gang was still alive, I went out of my way to ensure her survival. I was deeply saddened to find one after another of the tabletop gaming group (playing a board game that is a clear, goofy reference to Arkane Studios’ original release, Arx Fatalis) were dead. There was a lot of tragedy. There was some levity. There were a lot of uncovered intimate and banal moments that made everyone seem so real. It was never unexpected but often disheartening to discover a deceased crew member you’d come to know through their digital correspondence and leftover artifacts from life. It was so gratifying to be able to help someone make it to safety.

I mentioned the tabletop game, but there are a lot of cute little references tucked away in Prey. While not an allusion to a specific source (as far as I can tell), one of my favorite texts were the excerpts from the abysmally bad Starbender books, which are clear parodies of mid-twentieth-century pulp space opera stories. Little things like this made the game feel more grounded, even as they further cemented the developer team’s love for the genre in which they were working.

There’s one last thing I want to discuss: the ending. The game came out in 2017, and enough time has passed that anyone who’s retained some interest in it but hasn’t yet played it has probably had the ending spoiled. I had by the time I got around to the game. I don’t think it changed how I played it. On the one hand, it made me better appreciate some elements of the game, but on the other hand, I sort of regretted coming into the surprise twist with prior knowledge. That said, if you haven’t played and want to come to the game fresh, I’d encourage you to stop reading this now.

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Prey offers two separate endings to the game, each with multiple outcomes. The first ending concerns how you resolve the Typhon infestation on the station: fleeing from it (which apparently ends the game early, if you follow the escape pod route), destroying it, or disabling it to continue the research. I went the route of destroying the station and all the Typhon aboard it; I found the research to be unethical, especially regarding its human test subjects, many of whom were political prisoners, and I wanted to ensure that the Typhon couldn’t get to Earth. Even picking the destruction option has some branching paths. Do you just let everyone die? Do you find a way to get the survivors off the station? Do you make it off yourself, and how? I was glad to join my fellow survivors on the shuttle back to Earth, the explosion of Talos I erupting in our wake. Morgan finally speaks in the present, not just in a recording, ominously remarking, “I keep having this dream.” Then the credits rolled.

And after the credits, Morgan awakens in a containment chamber, monitored by his brother Alex and four Operators, the robotic assistants prevalent throughout the game. It turns out that “Morgan” is in fact a Typhon–apparently a Phantom, infused with elements of Morgan’s genetic code and consciousness. This Morgan-Phantom was in a simulation, a reconstruction of the final hours of Talos I. The Operators possess the personalities of Igwe, Alazar, Ilyushin, and Sho. They pass judgment on the choices you made in the game. In my ending, they noted the empathy Morgan had displayed, coupled with an apparently retributive drive. As I’d passed their test, Morgan’s brother offers the Phantom an option: now that this Morgan understands and empathizes with humans, they can work together to stop the Typhon, which have now spread over much of the Earth. The final choice: kill them all or join with them. I joined, and the Phantom extended its hand in cooperation, somehow adjusting its shadowy appearance to take on a human look.

I really liked the two endings, and I liked that both were affected by player choice throughout the game and at the end. I liked the reveal about the true nature of Morgan. It emphasized the inherent limits of a video game in its ability to simulate reality. It explained the occasional weird glitch. It clarified how suddenly certain plot-relevant items would appear on a desk after I’d taken a particular step. It put in context the bizarre and brief dream sequences that interjected key moments of the game. It twisted expectations; the whole time, you thought you were defining who Morgan really was, when in reality you were never Morgan at all. And so Morgan breaks free from one simulation only to find that they were in another all along.

This final, post-credits ending also offers many intriguing questions. What actually happened on Talos I? Presumably the Typhon invasion of Earth started with the breach depicted in the game. What went wrong? Did Morgan fail to activate the nullwave device or to blow up the station? Did Typhon get aboard the shuttle? Perhaps some of the Typhon made it out on another shuttle? (There was a side quest where a shuttle, out of contact with Talos I, was approaching Earth, having departed only 30 minutes before everyone became aware of the outbreak and before they knew how to scan for Mimics; I blew it up, but maybe the “real” Morgan didn’t.) Did Morgan stay aboard the station? Did they evacuate? Is Morgan alive now, or did they die? Did anyone other than Alex survive? I can know for certain that at least part of the simulation did not match reality (and also highlighted how it was a simulation). I saved Alex, locking him unconscious in his safe room. He appeared later on the bridge of the station, intent on stopping me from blowing it up, and was killed by January, the Operator who had been pushing me to destroy the station. I blew up January in retribution and commenced the reactor overload. But at the very least, Alex must never have been on the bridge. Morgan must have killed January earlier. Or perhaps Morgan helped Alex to use the nullwave device, and there was a later infestation outbreak. Or perhaps everything happened more or less as I played it, but Alex was never on the bridge. He must have gotten off somehow, perhaps in his executive escape pod. What happened to Igwe, Alazar, Ilyushin, and Sho? If things happened as depicted, then at the very least Sho is dead. There was no way to save her, regardless of player choice. Their Operators at the end seemed somewhat surprised that I found a way to save everyone, so maybe that’s not the most likely outcome for the real Morgan. Did Igwe, Alazar, and Ilyushin perish as well? An Operator can be programmed with the voice and personality of a real person, and at that point, that person certainly wouldn’t need to be alive. Perhaps, though, some or all of them are alive, using Operators so that Alex alone was risking himself in the presence of the Phantom. Of course, while these are questions that are very interesting to me, the use of the Operators also meant that the same assets could be used in this final scene, regardless of whether Morgan saved the others. Still, it’s a fun way to challenge the idea that there is or even can be a single, concrete version of events. All pathways are possible, and none may be real even within the game world.

I don’t know if you can have an effective sequel to a game that offers so many endings and such an open-ended interpretation of the final state of the world. I guess The Elder Scrolls continues to rise to that challenge, but normally by offering games in different parts of the world and sometimes with convoluted explanations for how every ending did and did not happen simultaneously, a level of mysticism appropriate for a fantasy setting but not for a more grounded sci-fi story. I think I’d be disappointed if a sequel boxed in a “canon” interpretation. But I could see other games set within the lore of this game, perhaps set during a past or contemporary outbreak, or perhaps set on an overrun Earth, following a member of a resistance group. I suppose that Arkane Studios did explore a contemporary adventure within this setting in its rogue-like Prey: Mooncrash DLC. Maybe I’ll give that a try, but I’m not typically a big fan of rogue-likes; then again, the inherent uncertainty of the reality of events, as reinforced by the basic story structure of the expansion and the nature of the game type, is intriguing and fits well with the themes of the base game. Regardless, I want more because I had such a blast with this game, its setting, story, characters, and themes. What a great experience–I’d highly recommend it, if you can tolerate a game that starts with an initial survival horror vibe.

Final thought: I really, really enjoy an endgame stats summary. Thanks for that, Arkane Studios. And, you know, for everything else about this game.

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So much for those technopaths

Update from the last post already. Well, that fight ended up being a bit anticlimactic. The technopaths had wandered far enough apart that they weren’t both drawn to me when I launched my attack on one. I used a telekinetic blast to disorient it and do a little damage, then hit it with the GLOO gun to freeze it up and bring it down to my level. But it was floating so high, it just shattered to bits on impact. I mopped up its operator escort and moved to the second technopath. That second was so high that I could just calmly wait for it to creep down to me after I hit it with a telekinetic blast. Then I knocked out its operator with the GLOO gun before turning the weapon on the slowly descending technopath and repeating my stunt. I just needed to knock out the operator for good after that, and then the fight was over.

But then of course I had to get medications for a friend and then I explored the exterior of the station and then I reentered an airlock to pursue a side quest and then I got in a fight with a couple poltergeists and then…I finally said time to call it a night! This game is so fun.

Technopath Twosome

My free time has been a bit scattershot in its uses, and I haven’t had quite as much of it lately as usual, so here’s another week with a meandering post. I’m still primarily reading Phenomena and still primarily playing Prey, but I didn’t engage with either much the past week. I watched more TV and movies in my downtime; that’s included making a good run through much of the first season of The Umbrella Academy, which I’d petered out on only a couple episodes in when it first released, and watching the adorable and funny Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, although while I adored it, I think you have to have a baseline fondness of Will Ferrell’s typical comic characters and plots.

While my time with Prey was reduced this past week, with no play at all on any weeknights or most of the weekend, I still remain thoroughly engaged with it. I made it a point to load up my last save last night, just to make sure I didn’t lose track of what I was doing and how to play with so much distance from it, and even with a week of the game going untouched, it felt like I’d never left it at all. I meant to be in for 10 or 15 minutes and stayed in for a little over an hour. I only stopped as my usual bed time drew near because I’d reset the reactor of the space station and just watched two technopaths drop into the reactor room outside of my shielded control room and promptly hijack my arrangement of turrets. Foiled by my attempt to prepare! I’m eager to see how I’ll get out of this–whether I’ll be able to sneak away, or if it’ll have to turn into a resource-draining brawl.

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I love how the gameplay in Prey evolved from a white-knuckle survival horror experience to a game of open-level experimentation, alternating between combat, stealth, exploration, and special abilities. It definitely owes a lot to games like Bioshock in structure, but it’s hard not to keep coming back to film; the game’s first few hours play out more like Alien, but by the later game, even while the difficulty and variety of challenges continue to ramp up, it’s more like Aliens–which was no walk in the park for its characters either, but definitely more of an action-adventure experience. But there are plenty of other sci-fi ideas packed in. Just as one example, its core wrangling with identity and memory, and the uncertainty about what is really happening, all feel rather Total Recall.

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The video games, films, and literature pulled from are from a wide array of sources. It might be fun to revisit some of these references and influences when I’ve finished the game.

For now, I guess I have to figure out how to deal with those technopaths!