Alternate-alternate histories for Jurassic World Evolution 2’s Chaos Theory

At this point, I’ve completed Jurassic World Evolution 2‘s Campaign and Chaos Theory missions, and I’ve tested the waters with Challenge mode, completing the first challenge on easy. The handful of Challenge levels suggest that it’s actually reasonable to try to complete them all on Jurassic difficulty–and it might even be fun. At just over 50 hours of game time, this has proven to be a robust game with enough content to make the price tag worthwhile, and there’s still more to do.

Nodosaurus in nature.

On top of that, compared to the original, the dinosaurs are better-looking and have more realistic behaviors, guests are more varied in interests, and park-building is a deeper and more customizable experience. (Really, the only gameplay elements I wish were different are the still relatively short lifespans of most of the dinosaurs and the lack of breeding in the wild–the latter means you’ll never have an authentic dinosaur preserve, and it’s also a glaring absence given the importance of breeding in Planet Zoo and the significance of breeding and natural survival in the books and films.)

Dilophosaurus death leap.

All that said, there’s something that still feels “light” about the whole experience. If I had to identify a single factor, it would be that there’s very little connective tissue between levels. As I discussed in my original review, the campaign is incredibly short, easily completed in about five hours, with little development in plot or the handful of characters you’re interacting with. Then each Chaos Theory level is its own isolated experience: build Jurassic Park, build Jurassic Park San Diego, capture dinosaurs from Site B for Jurassic World, build Jurassic World, tear down Jurassic World and help the dinosaurs go free. Each is in its own separate alternate universe, so your successful Jurassic Park has no bearing on San Diego or Jurassic World. And there’s very little to explain just how the timelines changed, beyond just your involvement–for instance, why exactly is Ian Malcolm on board with San Diego and why is there no Peter Ludlow in sight? This disconnect between the movie timeline and the isolated alternate universe tales was maybe strongest felt in the Jurassic World level: the Indominus rex is created, and so long as you did a decent job designing a secure pen and catering to its environmental needs, it’s never really a threat to the park as a whole (meanwhile, my “Rexy” died of old age and was replaced just before the Indominus was released). But every level embodied some level of detachment–for instance, in the Jurassic Park III level, the mission runs as a plausible prequel to Jurassic World, as you collect dinosaurs for the new park and witness the death of the Spinosaurus at the hands of a raptor pack, but it decidedly cannot be part of the official continuity because the Spinosaurus still has the ringing phone signature and the Dino-Soar sail can still be found caught in a canopy. The “alternate universe” nature of the level almost seems to be that all the Kirby party survivors died, or were rescued without mention earlier than in the movie.

The end of the Spinosaurus in Chaos Theory.

It’s true that these levels certainly taught me again and again that it was difficult to make an excellent dinosaur park–I had to restart a lot from a hopelessly bankrupt state in the first mission, I never got San Diego to five stars (unnecessary to complete the mission), and I had to fire scientists and hunker down in a slow recovery when I overinvested in synthesizing the Indominus and a replacement Tyrannosaur just as Rexy passed away. But these problems are not the big problems of the movies. It’s true that John Hammond and Simon Masrani had some more mundane management problems, like Hammond’s no-shows and a sick Triceratops or Masrani’s lost and sick visitors, overly rambunctious Pachycephalosaurus, and perpetual need to rekindle visitor interest, but these weren’t the issues that sunk their parks. Hammond claimed to spare no expense but relied too heavily on automation and low-bid contractors who didn’t share his vision. Ludlow never had any vision of his own and rushed into things without fully understanding the risks he was taking. Masrani let Wu take the genetics into even more questionable places without caring to understand the science and allowed the creation of fantastic hybrids with too little oversight. And these three men were all betrayed, not just by park whims, but by deliberate human actions. Hammond was betrayed by Nedry. Ludlow was betrayed by Hammond (and his eco-saboteur). Masrani was betrayed, not deliberately, but by the at first rushed and later panicked actions of the Indominus guards and park staff.

Things going sideways in Chaos Theory.

In short, the problems that they failed to overcome were not ones of simple management, and with Ian Malcolm’s chaos theory messaging, the suggestion is that regardless of what they had done, the control they were attempting over such complex and unpredictable systems would inevitably lead to failure at some point. Therefore, to really feel like you were stepping into their shoes, it would have made more sense to have experiences catered around reacting to unique crisis points. It’s easy to avoid overworking your staff and thus avoid sabotage, so what if the game put more pressure on you to push a little too far? What if you had to design a Jurassic Park that was actually closer in design to Hammond’s vision, with park tours aligned with the map of the park from the film? What if you had ample money, with regular new income from investors, but your problem was not dwindling income streams but rather a deadline? Hammond’s investors were wary and ready to shut down the park close to opening, so you could have had two competing priorities: efficiency versus security. You could be racing to open the park with a test run of the park tour attended by scientific consultants by a certain deadline (with all planned exhibits and attractions in place) without having more than x number of fatalities. Then you’d really be living Hammond’s vision, where the issue wasn’t simply a matter of draining money before opening but dealing with competing demands from investors and employees. I also would have had a set limit of scientists that you have to work with at the start of the game–have to keep the park secret, after all! No extra staff centers to increase scientist count. And you could even have set staff specifically for this level–the “scientists” could be Wu (genetics), Harding (welfare), Nedry (logistics, and with the Entitled Salary trait, of course), and Muldoon (generalist?), for instance. Just because Nedry betrayed Hammond in the film doesn’t mean he’d be the bad actor here, if you happened to keep him more rested.

Jurassic Park Chaos Theory

This process of reconstituting the levels to be better tailored to their respective films could be extended to the full Chaos Theory mode.

The Lost World is challenging because, outside of the promise of San Diego (which is clearly signaled to be a bad idea), there isn’t a clear “park” to deal with here. But Frontier had two Chaos Theory levels that avoided dealing with park-building, and perhaps they should have applied this to The Lost World. I think I would have split this into two levels, with an overarching story: first on Isla Sorna, and then outside San Diego. The big thing is that Frontier never clearly explains why Malcolm has come around on San Diego–it seems like InGen maybe listened to him in this timeline and thus didn’t do the snatch-and-grab, but they still decided to monetize the Isla Sorna dinosaurs anyway. I would make the turning point into a whole level, in which you play as Malcolm’s research/sabotage team. In this alternate timeline, Hammond makes the full team aware immediately of InGen’s plans, and Malcolm agrees to go with Harding, Carr, and Van Owen to get documentation of the dinosaurs to bring to the world to derail their plans. Van Owen makes his sabotage play before departure, the InGen hunter team’s expedition is resultantly delayed, and your team gets to the island with time to spare and a clear deadline once more: you have to get enough observation and footage in within the time provided, or else the InGen team gets to the island. (And if that team gets to the island, you get a losing cinematic in which things play out largely the same–sabotage of the hunter camp, destruction of the research team camp, mass death, and a Tyrannosaurus loose in San Diego.) The mission could be very simple, locking you in to a ranger Jeep (something the game experiments with on some levels already) and having you drive across the island, scanning the dinosaurs and photographing particular behaviors within some species before the hunters arrive, then driving to the old InGen compound to broadcast out your findings. That would launch the second, interconnected level: InGen’s mission was shut down, the dinosaur preserve was established, humans were amazed by the dinosaurs, and there was no big chaotic event like the San Diego attack. Years pass, and InGen executives persuade Malcolm to come on as a consultant once more as Jurassic Park San Diego is set to launch. Rather than importing dinosaurs from Isla Sorna, which again is an untouchable preserve, InGen has restarted its genetics program under Dr. Wu. Wu and Malcolm become opposing narrative factions–Malcolm encourages moderation and a focus on natural preservation and herbivorous species, while Wu pushes the envelope, gradually recreating carnivores for the park that could peak with the return of the Tyrannosaurus. Much like in the existing version of Jurassic Park San Diego in the game, the challenges could be more oriented around the unique environment, the gradual acquisition of more land, and the mundane problems of park management, rather than the unique risks of the prior scenarios. There could be a big final challenge of corporate sabotage–by BioSyn, of course–resulting in the release of the carnivores and a frantic effort to protect the guests, secure the paddocks, and recapture the dinosaurs before fatalities get high enough or dinosaurs get far enough away to shut the park down for good.

The Lost World Chaos Theory

I rather liked what Frontier did for Jurassic Park III, having the level serve as a canon-adjacent backstory for the creation of Jurassic World. But a couple of the nods to the third film–the hang glider and the ringtone–just add confusion as to the when/where/how. Plus, Jurassic World always had dinosaurs from both Isla Sorna and Isla Nublar, so it’s not a definitive story to show the importation of dinosaurs from Site B. I think you can give an alternate timeline to III that acts as both an alternate prequel to that movie and to Jurassic World by changing the focus to InGen’s unauthorized cloning and release of animals on Isla Sorna shortly after Masrani Global’s purchase of InGen. As the Dinosaur Protection Group materials made clear, these new animals included Ankylosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Corythosaurus, and Spinosaurus. This mission could have seen you working with Dr. Wu yet again, this time without a sympathetic foil–the closest, perhaps, being the misguided and naïve Masrani himself. You could set up a small research facility on Isla Sorna, ensure that it is secure from dinosaur incursions, send teams to dig sites to specifically target the creation of these four species, and then create habitats for them that met their needs. Perhaps this climaxes with a unique disease that you have to identify and treat (pulling some inspiration from DX in The Lost World novel, perhaps) that is further complicated by an unusually bad storm. If you get through this with the dinosaurs contained, Masrani decides to export them to Jurassic World right away, rather than allow them to be abandoned, and the mission ends.

Jurassic Park III Chaos Theory

Next up is Jurassic World, and I think that’s another one that’s fairly well-served by its current incarnation. I would have liked a more curated experience of building this park, though–as I suggested with Jurassic Park, it would be nice to be guided in building a park that more closely matched its on-screen counterpart. This could also have a little more guided mission structure, starting with the capture of the Isla Nublar dinosaurs, then the importation of the Isla Sorna dinosaurs, the creation of the Mosasaurus, and the creation of the Indominus. Since Jurassic World collapsed because of the Indominus’s tricks, I think the mission should climax with a scripted sequence in which the gate is opened by a fleeing guard checking on it, resulting in the Indominus getting loose in the park and removing its tracker (so you couldn’t see it on the overhead map or check its status–you’d need a visual confirmation of its location). You could be more aggressive in taking it down quickly, and you’d have the added benefit of using a capture helicopter from the start, so you’d probably be able to contain the threat much more easily than your film counterparts–once more, the goal would be avoiding excessive guest fatalities and restoring order.

Jurassic World Chaos Theory

The last Chaos Theory mission, for Fallen Kingdom, works just fine as is: in this timeline, the volcano is not about to erupt, so Claire is able to clear away the old park and let the dinosaurs loose. I think I would tweak this one only a little, to allow for the development of a more permanent dinosaur preserve without the commercial focus of the preexisting park.

Fallen Kingdom Chaos Theory

I also would have liked more Chaos Theory missions–and I think easy additions would have been updated versions of Return to Jurassic Park, Secrets of Dr. Wu, and Claire’s Sanctuary, offering up alternative sequels/events to Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, and Fallen Kingdom, respectively.

Return to Jurassic Park

I certainly threw out a lot of ideas above, but I recognize that these aren’t the only ways to have offered more expanded alternate stories, and they’re almost certainly not the best ways. I nonetheless think they’d offer more narrative experiences that better suited the stories they’re adapting. I had hoped that Chaos Theory would play more like the original game’s Return to Jurassic Park or Claire’s Sanctuary, which offered some of the better narrative-focused campaigns in the game. Instead, the final implementation feels more “inspired by” the movies rather than directly responding to them. What does exist is not bad. I wouldn’t have already played for over 50 hours if I didn’t like what I was doing. But the overall experience feels detached, narratively light and fluffy, just a series of out-of-context anecdotes oriented around building up or tearing down park after park after park. While the levels are varied, it feels a step back from where the team had been going with the original game’s DLC content. Despite this criticism, at the end of the day, I suppose this is all a testament to the quality of the game, that at 50 hours in, with several Challenge levels left to go, my biggest disappointment is that there is not even more.

The dream of resurrected dinosaurs flourishing on Site B.

Review: Jurassic World Evolution 2

I’ve played a little over 20 hours of Jurassic World Evolution 2. That’s seen the completion of the campaign, the Jurassic Park Chaos Theory mission, three-fifths of The Lost World Chaos Theory mission, and 19 of 44 Steam achievements. That also means that I haven’t touched three of the Chaos Theory missions or any of the Challenge or Sandbox modes. My time with the game has not been brief, but it still feels a tad premature to offer a definitive review–certainly, it can’t be a final impression.

That all said, I’m liking what I’ve experienced so far, and it appears that Frontier have improved upon basically every issue I had with the original game–without entirely resolving those issues. There are more prehistoric creatures, including an array of pterosaurs and marine reptiles, and they look more lovely than ever, with more unique and lifelike behaviors; on the other hand, I’ve watched a Triceratops starve to death, locked in a perpetual state of panic, as its companions grazed peacefully around it. “Too stupid to eat” hardly seems an authentic experience. Much of the busywork has been streamlined; on the other hand, now, instead of manually restocking animal feeders, I’m manually restocking food and fuel for ranger and medical stations. There are more things to do and more unique choices to make; on the other hand, you’re still pulled out of the flow a bit too often by storms, disease, and injuries. And there are some dynamic animations with social behaviors or release of new animals that don’t quite work right at times.

There are some things that are simply better, without exception. You no longer have to constantly placate the frustratingly feuding divisions of the original game; now, you just have to manage your team of scientists, avoiding overwork that can lead to the risk of sabotage. There are more plausible pathways to a five-star park, and there are many areas of research that you can choose to focus on, making even the narrative-focused modes I’ve been playing feel refreshingly open-ended at times. I can’t confirm it yet, but I suspect that the open-endedness should make Challenge modes far more replayable now.

After as much time as I put into the first game, and with the great fondness I felt for it despite its flaws, I followed this sequel pretty closely since its announcement. That means that my experience with the game has been heavily influenced by expectations, for good and bad. The developers often emphasized a more interesting campaign experience with a greater focus on character relationships, but that’s not really here at all, and the campaign itself can be completed in about five hours, so that was a bit of a letdown. What was there was good, focused on ensuring the safety of dinosaurs, people, and other wildlife by setting up nature preserves across America. There just wasn’t very much of it. I get the impression that the developers have more planned, for three reasons: (1) they released DLC with more dinosaurs to reflect Fallen Kingdom content in the original game; (2) the original game had several narrative-focused, alternate-universe stories that were released as later expansions, including one that built on the plot of the base game; and (3) the story that exists so far in the sequel hints at secret goings-on that Claire and Owen don’t yet have insight into. I wonder how much of this will get fleshed out, how much will go unfulfilled, and how much might actually connect to Dominion. If The Secrets of Dr. Wu are any clue, though, I would expect that the story won’t ever end up being that meaty here. The great expansions in the original game, Claire’s Sanctuary and Return to Jurassic Park, were alternative histories of sorts and offered more compelling stories; the same is the case here, as the sequel really shines in its much deeper Chaos Theory modes. I expected to be a bit bored with the San Diego mission because we could see so much of it in promotional advance-play videos, but actually playing it, I’ve had a tremendous time. Its skeletal architecture built out around that iconic amphitheater establishes a clearly defined basic infrastructure but still allows you to build the park out as you wish, especially as you buy more land and expand the area you have to operate in. I love the park I’ve built so far. It was startling to discover how much fun this mission was because the Jurassic Park mission was more of a slog for me. Since the main campaign was focused on nature preserves, Jurassic Park was my first real introduction to the refined park management in this game, and while this sequel benefits from systems that are deeper and more complex, that also means that things aren’t as simple and straightforward as before; some things were more opaque, and I made some bad choices and ran into a lot of bad luck. While I got to five stars eventually, the experience made clear to me that, without the ability to reload, I would have fared no better than John Hammond in opening that island attraction. But by the time I got to San Diego, I understood systems better. It’s funny that the “introductory” experience does provide adequate training, but more through trial and error than a basic guided tutorial.

I think that after maybe a patch or two, at least some of the minor issues I still have with Jurassic World Evolution 2 will be resolved. Even if those fixes never came, this game is already an incredible experience for a Jurassic Park fan and a considerable improvement over the original. Reviews emphasizing the iterative nature of the sequel are not wrong, but I have found my time in the game refreshingly different from the original nonetheless. My main concern is, will this game be able to keep holding my interest when the Chaos Theory missions are done? Will I stick around for the Challenges? Will I reach a point where I’ve exhausted them and have run out of things I want to do? And how many hours in will it take for me to reach that point? I hope that we will see more expansions, as with the original game, to broaden the campaign further and add more features that might add more hours of gameplay. But until I spend more time with the game as it exists now, it’s hard to say how long the base game will continue to engage me.

For now, I’m having a good time. It’s a good dinosaur park management sim, and more robust than the original even if not as deep and customizable as Planet Zoo (another Frontier title). If that’s your thing, or if you’re a fan of Jurassic Park, then you’ll probably like it too.

Two management styles: Planet Zoo and Jurassic World Evolution

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 making the 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.


Bonus cute baby animal content:

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.