JURASSIC WORLD ALIVE Game Review: Dream Dinos, Monetised Madness

Slapping dinosaurs on the Pokemon Go lunchbox.

I missed the Pokemon train. Despite being part of the Pokemon generation, I just never understood the appeal. Thus, when the mega-popular mobile game Pokemon Go came out, I was mystified. As a game concept, I got it - it’s a clever idea, getting people out of the house to go collect shit - but I had zero affinity for the pocket monsters for which the game was named.

Dinosaurs, though? Now we’re talking.

Enter Jurassic World Alive, developed by mobile game development stalwart Ludia. Alive is, in many ways, Pokemon Go but with the Jurassic Park license instead, and the studio is hoping (as is Universal) that people’s innate love of dinosaurs will drive them to search their neighbourhoods for new scaly or feathered friends. In Ludia’s ideal world, those dinosaurs will be so appealing that players will jump to spend money on loot boxes in order to collect more.

I’ll give Jurassic World Alive this: its central game loop is pretty appealing. Its main screen takes the form of a GPS-like map of your surroundings, populated by various dinosaurs on more or less every block (in quantities determined by their status as Common, Rare, Epic, Legendary, or Unique). Get within 150 metres of a dino, and you can launch a minigame in which you fire darts to collect DNA samples. (Why DNA samples are necessary when the dinosaurs are sitting right there to start with is a mystery.) Collect enough DNA, and you can clone your very own dinosaur; collect more of that dinosaur’s DNA, and you can level it up for hybridisation or battle.

Collecting dinosaurs in Jurassic World Alive is nothing short of a joy - at first. In the early game, you’ll constantly discover new creatures and new hybrid combinations. Ludia did a terrific job modeling and animating a wide array of creatures, including hybrids so silly (“Stegoceratops,” “Magnapyritor,” “Gigaspikosaur”) they look like realistically-rendered drawings out of a child’s journal. (Okay: my childhood journal.) The best and dumbest feature is an augmented-reality camera that lets you take pictures and video of your dinosaurs in your surrounding environment. Yes: you, too, can have your living room menaced by a Velociraptor.

Alive's other key gameplay pillar is battle, in which you send your best dinosaurs to fight somebody else’s best dinosaurs. Each dino has different stats - health, speed, attack, defense, critical chance - and abilities, which do things like buff your own stats, debuff your enemy’s, or give you free counterattacks. Once you get the hang of the battle system, it’s a lot of fun, with the bestiary offering up surprisingly deep rock-paper-scissors style gameplay. Even matchmaking is generally pretty smooth, though I experienced disconnections from time to time.

Inevitably, where Jurassic World Alive turns sour is the point when the otherwise-pleasant gameplay loops start to demand money. Though you can play the game entirely for free, it’s a slow grind, and you’ll find yourself unable to advance in battle against players who have plunked down the cash - they’ll just have stronger creatures than you, and no amount of clever play will get around that. The game sells you loot boxes full of darts (which let you get more shots at dinosaurs), DNA (which lets you create or level up dinosaurs), and coins (also required each time you level up). Those can be collected through ordinary exploration and battle, but not at a rate that can sustain steady progression.

Each time you level up, the game offers you special deals on its loot boxes, and while at first they give you a decent leg up, the prices skyrocket quickly into the "hundreds" range. I spent around $20 all-up and didn't feel too ripped off, but without spending more, I felt consciously held back - a feeling that's almost certainly intentional. Put it this way: I only managed to collect the Tyrannosaurus Rex, an Epic-level dino, at the end of my tether with the game, so slow was the crawl towards it. The moment I finally got my beautiful Rex, the game cheerfully asked if I wanted to rate it on the App Store. No, thanks.

To its credit, Ludia has been responsive with updates to Jurassic World Alive. I started playing in the game’s Early Access phase, and many features improved substantially in the two months I played it. Bugs and glitches also became less common over that period, and I have to assume Ludia will continue to iterate as it rolls out the game around the world.

So play Jurassic World Alive at your own risk. There’s a genuinely enjoyable game in there, especially for dinosaur fans (and aren’t we all dinosaur fans?). But inevitably, the levelling curve will become so steep that you’ll be unable to progress without spending money. People of substantial means might not think twice about dropping hundreds or thousands of dollars on a mobile game - and given the eye-watering stats of players atop the leaderboards, they clearly have. But for ordinary folks like you and me, there’s an expiry date on the appeal of the cynically commercial Jurassic World Alive.

But hey, Jurassic World Evolution exists, and it's great.