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.
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.