I recently picked up Planet Zoo, and I’m enjoying it. It’s a great spiritual successor to the Zoo Tycoon series, and it has an incredibly in-depth level of customization that I’ve barely scratched the surface of (working through the campaign, relying heavily on the prefab stuff at present). It’s also got absolutely beautiful vistas and lovely depictions of lifelike animals, plus a good combination of animal and visitor AIs with a robust in-game economy.
Since childhood, I’ve always been fond of zoological park sims in particular. That includes Frontier Developments’ Planet Zoo and Jurassic World: Evolution, but I can trace the fascination back to Blue Tongue Entertainment’s Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis; the original Zoo Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon 2 from Blue Fang Games, including their expansion packs, which of course added dinosaurs; and the game that started it all, the 1993 Manley & Associates educational game title, DinoPark Tycoon. I’ve always loved zoos and animals, and dinosaurs in particular, so it’s no surprise that I’d continue to be drawn to these games, even though the broader genre of management sims hasn’t kept me as engaged.
Something I’ve been thinking about with Planet Zoo is how it contrasts with the themes and goals of Jurassic World: Evolution. Given that they’re both games by Frontier Developments, released just a year apart from each other, I find the contrast rather interesting, and I think it reflects conscious choices on the part of the developer to characterize both games quite distinctly.
Jurassic World: Evolution, released in 2018, has a profit-focused, exploitative character to it. You play as a nameless corporate executive brought in to run the Jurassic World parks while balancing the needs of the Science, Security, and Entertainment divisions. All of these divisions are fundamentally guided by corporate greed, and to keep them pacified you need to do things like increase the quality and availability of guest services; raise park revenues; research, modify, and release new dinosaurs; and even engage in rather ethically dubious pursuits that include pitting dinosaurs against each other to attract more guests or even to sell off dinosaurs to who-knows-what other corporations to make a little extra profit. All of the divisions have a darker side. Science is perfectly willing to exploit the animals and endanger lives in the pursuit of more knowledge. Security is interested in weaponizing the dinosaurs for other parties. And Entertainment wants more than anything else to ensure that guest satisfaction, and the resultant stream of dollars, stays high, regardless of what that means for the welfare of the dinosaurs. The Secrets of Dr. Wu DLC expands on this dark side, as you get further caught up in the twisted experimentations of the megalomaniacal Dr. Wu. Claire’s Sanctuary initially pushes back on this, as dinosaurs are saved from certain re-extinction on Isla Nublar, but the “Sanctuary” quickly becomes another money-making machine for the Hammond Foundation and Ingen, with guest revenues fueling profit quotas from the corporate backers. Only Return to Jurassic Park truly bucks the trend by returning to the immediate aftermath of Jurassic Park in an alternate timeline in which Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm commit to makingthe park a safe way for guests to observe real dinosaurs; their priorities are genuine guest safety and a greater understanding of these restored creatures. Even so, Hammond and his assistant are there to push you to keep making the park bigger, better, and more fabulous to drive profits.
Planet Zoo, released in 2019, can’t ditch the profit motivation essential to management sims, but that wouldn’t make sense to do away with it entirely–after all, without funds, you can’t care for the animals or retain the staff needed to keep the park running. But the emphasis is different, instead focused on conservation and education, themes emphasized as soon as the initial tutorial missions in the campaign. In this game’s narrative, you actually design a friendly avatar for yourself, and you’re introduced to a couple of warm, caring people who manage these parks because they want to help preserve Earth’s biodiversity by spearheading breeding initiatives for endangered and threatened species and by raising public awareness. Rather than selling animals, you can release animals into the wild to gain “conservation credits,” which can sometimes be used to obtain new animals for the zoo in lieu of cash. And you can’t just send off undesirable animals to benefit. The animals to be released are those born in the zoo; they must have reached maturity; and their value for release is determined by factors like their health, age, and conservation status of the species. Poor animal welfare, or allowing inbreeding of animals, results in negative consequences for your park. An inspector reviews your zoo at regular intervals, ensuring that the animals have a good quality of life, the campus is cleanly, and guests are actually being educated about the animals. Profit margins and guest accommodations don’t factor into that rating (although, of course, to keep the park going, you need happy guests to buy tickets and merch and donate extra money so that you can pay the staff to care for the animals to provide the education and conservation benefits that your zoo can offer).
At the end of the day, you’re still doing many of the same things in Planet Zoo as in Jurassic World: Evolution, plotting out exhibits and guest facilities and staff buildings, monitoring income and expense trends, and ensuring a gradually improving quality rating, but the narrative and mechanic differences are part of the reason why these two game experiences ultimately feel so very different.
Just finished the Captured by Mind Flayers quest in Baldur’s Gate II. That was hell. So many tries to get through that. The room right before you get to the area that leads to the Master Brain was the worst. Just a lot of Illithids. A lot. The worst. I had to step away from the game a little bit, but I found if I’m persistent, and take a week or so off if I get too frustrated, I’m eventually able to get through anywhere in these games. After that fight, the penultimate fight against a small room of mind flayers and the final Master Brain fight were far easier in comparison.
BG II is really fun when it’s focused on plot, characters, NPC dialogue interactions, puzzles, and so on. But the combat can range from a laughable breeze to INCREDIBLY FRUSTRATING AND HARD, and it’s hard to predict what each encounter might yield.
Oh well. Old games were like that. Anyway, just wanted to share. I’m glad to put that hellhole behind me.
I finished Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. I’ve tried to play the first Baldur’s Gate before, but never got very far; it’s the only game in the series I’d ever tried. Beating the campaign feels like an accomplishment. And especially once my party was around level 5, the game did start being generally more fun, the truly challenging battles more memorable instead of just another in a long slog of painful party wipes and reloads.
I knocked out the Tales of the Sword Coast content along the way; while nothing in that was vital, I thought that it represented a general improvement in storytelling, with a concentrated hub town serving as a springboard for a variety of diverse quests, from a variety of events related to delving into a truly nasty dungeon, to sailing for a fabled shipwreck on a distant island only to find yourself in the middle of lycanthrope tribal warfare, to putting down a cult dedicated to a powerful demonic enemy. (There were probably more Ancient and Terrible Evils in the quests of Tales than in the entire base game–it did start to feel a little crowded). Two very different elements represented my favorite components of the expansion. Probably my single favorite was uncovering the layers of mystery and deceit associated with the shipwreck and islanders; having the option to befriend a local islander and a long-lost mage and having them both help me in the final moments felt surprisingly organic for a game whose mechanics typically grind away all too visibly. Second favorite was dealing with some of the puzzles in the lower levels of Durlag’s Tower, which really helped develop the setting and the tortured mindset of the dungeon’s creator and long-dead lord. The dungeon wasn’t just dangerous and torturous; it was created by a man who had suffered great losses, and his psyche left a permanent impact on its design and implementation. Both of these examples of favorite moments highlight where characterization and environmental storytelling won out over heavy lore dumps and hackneyed, conventional plotting; the latter, unfortunately, constituted the majority of Baldur’s Gate. (While I liked some of the lore I picked up from the game’s items, I object to the idea of lore descriptions for items. How are the characters gleaning this detailed information just from inspecting it? Meanwhile, the in-game history books, mostly short chapters of larger histories, suggest there’s almost too much lore for the relatively straightforward story being told in the game itself. But that point probably has more to do with the Forgotten Realms setting in general.)
I don’t really want to focus on the bad, though. It’s an old game, and I don’t want to just pick away at it. Still, it must be said: the plot largely serves as a vehicle for advancing your character in power and exploring new map segments. It’s (mostly) serviceable, but ultimately mundane and uninspired. That said, even the base game had its moments. I liked exploring the city of Baldur’s Gate itself and learning more about its mercantilist government topped by oligarchs. I liked learning more about how the disparate pieces of the story fit together into Sarevok’s master plan–which was more interesting than any boring old stuff about a Great and Terrible Destiny for the player character. I think my favorite moment in the base game was when you encounter the doppelgangers who take on the aspects of Elminster and Gorion in the dungeons below Candlekeep. Before that, the doppelgangers are very transparent, often clearly searching for a weakness if not outright hostile even before they reveal their true forms. But these two, for a moment, had me wondering what was real. Could Gorion have survived? What “Elminster” and “Gorion” said sounded sensible. I hadn’t confronted doppelgangers putting so much energy into convincing me of their worn identities, and their answers were plausible. What if I had fallen under the sway of a powerful illusion? Forcing me to pick dialogue responses there really made me consider my decisions and how I reacted. I had to remind myself that everything I’d seen before indicated that these two were fake. And of course, they were. But the game made me doubt myself, and I was anxious and uncomfortable with the prospect of choosing to fight them, even though I felt it was necessary. Seeing them revert to doppelgangers to start that fight was a huge relief a little too soon, so it’s possible that the game could have pushed harder. Imagine if they’d stayed in their forms and used spells you’d expect a mage to have up until the moment of their deaths! But it was still a very good moment where the emotional stakes were raised, however briefly.
As soon as you defeat Sarevok at the end, there’s a closing cinematic, the credits roll, and then, in the particular version I have, you’re immediately launched into the opening cinematic of the 2016 Beamdog expansion, Siege of Dragonspear. That opening cinematic does a good job of establishing the setting and the new antagonist. Then you’re dumped into a new dungeon, where a quick game-engine cutscene shows that you’ve pursued the final holdout of Sarevok’s followers to a decrepit tomb. Already, there’s a little more dialogue, and the characters of my party feel familiar and comfortable together. The relationships largely built up in my head with little textual support feel reinforced by that opening. What I mean to say is, the story was already more interesting to me, the characters more alive, in just the opening 5 minutes. Kudos to the writers–of course, they’d had almost two decades to let the first game permeate, and they could take into account the elements of the second game and developments in game storytelling over time. Still, I’m impressed. I’ve sunk many hours into Siege of Dragonspear since when I originally started this post, and the improvements to characterization, pacing, and storytelling have remained sharp. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s a colossal leap forward when compared with the original game.
While I’m still struggling to pick up a regular reading habit again, I have found a very comfortable gaming routine. I try to spend some time in Ring Fit Adventure every day. I aim for 8 PM every night, but in reality this ends up being one of the last things I do before I get ready for bed most evenings. Then, my weekends get split between two games. A good chunk of at least one day is spent playing a single-player RPG; currently, that’s involved the Baldur’s Gate franchise, but I have a lot of other unplayed options lined up. Then I’ll spend a couple hours with some friends playing Star Wars: Squadrons on the other day of the weekend. It’s a satisfying cycle.
I’ve barely touched the single-player mode in Squadrons. If I ever get around to finishing the campaign, I’ll probably write a short review. But I’m there for the multiplayer, which is so very unlike me. We’re usually flying with a near-full squadron of friends at this point. The dream will be all five slots filled with friends. It’ll be a while before we’re doing more than battles against AI opponents, though. I made two important changes to how I play: I’ve switched from mouse/keyboard to a 360 controller, and I’ve finally figured out how to effectively use targeting and call-outs. Really basic. I would never claim to be a natural at these sorts of games! But now it feels like Star Wars, with really fun dogfighting, working together with a buddy to take on the enemy squadron, coordinating our strikes and retreats for resupply, swooping in to try to pull enemies off our companions or to draw attention away in anticipation of a bombing run. I’m sure I’d be absolutely shredded against a human opponent, of course! But it’s great fun and something to look forward to every week.
So I’m finding fitness, socialization, and immersive storytelling all in gaming. Now to find ways to implement more reading into my days!
I finally missed a day in Ring Fit Adventure last night. Work’s taken up a lot of my time and mental capacity lately, and I was exhausted by the time I got home. The tendency to get home after dark, which is so easy to do in the winter, doesn’t help with that. My wife and I ordered delivery from our favorite Chinese restaurant and finished off a familiar movie we’d started the night before, and I fell asleep shortly after the end, reclined in an armchair. When I awoke a bit later, I felt too exhausted to even attempt the game, so I went to bed, feeling a bit guilty about skipping.
But I hopped back into the adventure again today, and I was greeted with the same cheery welcome as ever, with an oft-repeated bit of advice reminding me that breaks are important. It was random that I happened to get that advice today, but it felt nice. The guilt dissipated quickly, I had a good workout, and I moved on with my day. No negative vibes from it at all, just a continued positivity. Just what I needed to rebuild my motivation moving forward.
Continuing the theme from the past couple years, I’m listing my top five favorite games that I enjoyed the most while playing over the past year. As is now tradition, they weren’t necessarily released in 2020; that’s just when I played them.
1. Ring Fit Adventure
Last week’s post should make it clear how much I love this game and how special it is to me. It’s made fitness fun for me. Enough said for this post. I’m so grateful for this game.
2. Jurassic World Evolution: Return to Jurassic Park
I’ve written a fair amount about Jurassic World: Evolution, even before it came out. Steam tells me I’ve put 200 hours into the game. I have unlocked 69 of 73 achievements and finished all story content. I’ve been playing intermittently since the game came out. But I did not include it on my favorite games lists for 2018 or 2019. Partly that’s because I played a lot of great games in those years, but partly it’s because the game felt incomplete and a bit rough around the edges. With a couple years of polishing and enhancements in the form of several free updates and paid DLC packs, the game is in a much better place. Furthermore, the nostalgia of running a park with the aesthetics of the original movie and a slicker, more streamlined economy without some of the more ethically dubious contracts of the base game make the Return to Jurassic Park expansion the singularly best version of Jurassic World: Evolution available. (Its story mode, while not incredible, is also the strongest in the game.) Encountering this new mode finally gave me the ammunition to add this to a year’s best list.
This creepy, compelling sci-fi story grows from survival horror to power fantasy all while presenting a smoldering plot guided by mysterious figures with competing motivations aboard a derelict and alien-infested space station. Moral choice, manipulable environments, a crafting system that requires you to make tough decisions with limited resources, and a varied and robust skill system make for unique gameplay experiences. And as required for a game of this type, the environmental storytelling as you explore the station and uncover its secrets is top-notch.
4. Dishonored 2
This is the peak of the Dishonored series for me. I enjoyed sneaking and fighting my way through the levels, and I loved the intimate characterization of its cast. As I said in my review, its plot was largely a repeat of the original game’s, heightened by an emphasis on legacy at least when playing as Emily. But that just gives it the opportunity to be bigger and better, the Terminator 2 to Terminator. And just like Prey, Dishonored 2 is another example of Arkane Studios’ excellent environmental storytelling.
5. Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition
I didn’t write about this one for the blog before now. Baldur’s Gate came out way back in 1998, and the Enhanced Edition was released in 2012. So even this newer version is still getting up there. Baldur’s Gate was such a formative experience for roleplaying gamers of my age; more broadly, it was hugely influential and came to form much of the basis of the Bioware style and of what people expected from CRPGs moving forward; even those who had never played it, like me, heard plenty about it. I had a disc at some point with several old Black Isle Studios CRPGS on it, and I gave Baldur’s Gate a try then. I didn’t get far. The Enhanced Edition, courtesy of Beamdog and Overhaul Games, provides several modern conveniences and lower difficulty settings, but my first encounter with it a year or so ago didn’t go so well, either. I decided to give the game another try out of the blue, and while the initial hours were still frustrating, it clicked with me enough for me to persevere until I got my party to a high enough level to where the game was actually fun and challenging instead of punishingly difficult. The story is basic, nested in tired tropes even when it originally came out, and the excessive and convoluted lore in this game feels so detached from the actual world-building, but there are a lot of distinctive, quirky characters (to be expected of a Bioware game) and several fascinating side quests that range from weird to funny to strikingly poignant. I might be playing more out of momentum than anything else, but I do generally enjoy myself, and it’s seen a lot of hours logged in the past month or so. I’d been wandering the city of Baldur’s Gate more recently, wrapping myself in the city’s intrigues, but the last play session led me off to a voluntary detour to Ulgoth’s Beard, and now I’m making my way down through the torturous labyrinths of Durlag’s Tower as I attempt to complete content from Tales of the Sword Coast. I’m having enough of a good time that I’m considering more isometric CRPGs for 2021, perhaps building up to another attempt at Divinity: Original Sin II, which I’d given up on near the start of 2020. Heck, maybe my newfound patience for old-school RPG mechanics (and their associated difficulty) might finally lead me to take another crack at Arena…maybe! For getting me excited about isometric CRPGs, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition deserves to make this list. It didn’t hurt that I lacked strong alternative contenders this year…
It came on me so suddenly that I didn’t realize it until the weekend in which I would accomplish it: I was going to beat Ring Fit Adventure. Last night, I knocked out three mini-boss fights, just so I’d be prepared to devote today to defeating Dragaux one last time. And that’s what I did this afternoon, in a roughly 25-minute activity session devoted to the final level alone.
After growing accustomed to some repetitive gameplay and level design over the last several worlds, I was shocked to experience how refreshing this final level felt. There were interesting combinations of platforming challenges, as the game tested the variety of skills built up over the course of playing through the adventure; I zip-lined, stair-climbed, flew, paddled, sprang, and jogged my way to the final stadium battle. And that final boss battle was appropriately challenging, a proper synthesis of every fight with Dragaux before, reflecting how far the dragon and I had come. He used every tactic present before (blessedly free of any supporting enemies), which included hurling boulders and barrels, using a debuffing glare and a super-powered attack requiring Mega Ab Guard, and holding one of each main attack color’s special challenge attacks–that last set brutally delivered in quick succession here, one after another. Then, of course, defeating him the first time, knocking out a few full bars of health, only led to a Final Form battle against a Darkness-consumed version of Dragaux, requiring several more rounds to finally KO the dragon and free him of his curse.
The game ended in its charmingly cute, chatty, and blunt way. Dragaux released the Four Masters and was in turn released of the Darkness. Reformed, he was penitent and ashamed, but Ring convinced him that he should work with the Four Masters in opening training stadiums across the land. The end, for now. It’s a nice setup to the new adventure, a new game plus mode that promises more powerful enemies and more training gear to collect as I journey back through the land. I look forward to having Dragaux as a friendly rival and trainer, rather than an enemy, as I find him rather charismatic in his dorky way.
I’m a long way away from my ultimate weight goal, mainly at this point because my dietary changes have been more gradual than my activity changes. But I have lost weight, and more importantly for now, the last few months have seen me grow in strength and endurance; I feel good, and I have more energy. And I can see the results when I look in the mirror. It’s been a wonderful fitness journey, and I plan to continue it. Amazingly, I haven’t missed a day since I started, and that’s a wild achievement in and of itself. Fitness is now built into the fabric of my life, and I look forward to exercise every day with this game. Even back in August, I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever be this excited to get a workout in on a daily basis.
Ring Fit Adventure is not a perfect game. Its level design is great but not diverse enough, so levels become quickly repetitive even with mix-ups to atmospheric effects and enemies encountered. Monster design is fantastic and imaginative, combining classic RPG monsters with exercise equipment to create fresh, new, and often very cute opponents, but even so, the limited variety makes these feel somewhat stale after a while. The story is fine, but it’s elevated by cute and campy dialogue rather than a particularly compelling plot. For that matter, NPC assets are quite limited, so you see the same faces again and again when chatting up townsfolk in town for bits of info or side quests (in turn, overly formulaic and dependent on tired tropes like the classic fetch quest). Still, while other components may be less than excellent, the core of the game, the platforming and combat, remained stellar and engaging throughout. All these features come together strongly to provide a compelling gameplay experience, part platformer and part RPG but really something quite different and new. It’s a fitness game that offers both good fitness and a good game. I just can’t get enough of it, and while I look forward to the new adventure content and the jogging and custom exercise programs once I run out of story eventually, I certainly hope they consider making this into an ongoing franchise.
Yes, Ring Fit Adventure is not a perfect game, but it’s a perfect fit (pun intended) for me, offering a cute and colorful world, charming characters, and an addictive balance of (physical) challenge and advancement. And it gifted me a way to truly enjoy exercise, like never before, without skimping on actually providing a real work-out. This game might be my favorite of the decade for what it’s given me.
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.
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.