Feathers and Parks!

I didn’t really intend another Jurassic Park-related post so soon, but some cool stuff has been revealed in the last week and I’m excited over it!

First up, we saw via Colin Trevorrow on Twitter that feathered dinosaurs are finally appearing in a Jurassic Park film! Literally decades overdue, but I’ll take it.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Then, we got the news I’m actually most excited about: the announcement of Jurassic World Evolution 2! New biomes, more dinosaurs, and it looks like pterosaurs and the mosasaur will be included right out the gate! And that Chaos Theory mode reminds me of some of the Operation Genesis missions and has me itching for more information.

I can’t wait until I know more about what the Evolution sequel will be like. And yeah, it’ll be cool when Dominion finally comes out next year. And I have to imagine more Camp Cretaceous is just on the horizon as well. It’s a pretty great time to be a fan of this franchise…

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

Jurassic World: Evolution is a flawed game, but it’s also an excellent addition to the Jurassic Park franchise and a lovely companion to both the original novel and the new Jurassic World films.

20180628190549_1.jpg

The concept is simple enough: it’s a park management sim, like Zoo Tycoon or Roller Coaster Tycoon (Evolution was in fact developed by Frontier Developments, which released Planet Coaster in 2016). A park management sim with dinosaurs is not exactly a new idea: Zoo Tycoon had Dinosaur Digs in 2002 and Zoo Tycoon 2 had Extinct Animals in 2007, while the Jurassic Park franchise has already had Jurassic Park III: Park Builder (GBA, 2001), Operation Genesis (Xbox, PS2, PC, 2003), and the mobile titles Jurassic Park Builder (2012) and Jurassic World: The Game (2015). Most of those were not very good–the mobile games are tedious time-wasters, and while I’ve never played the GBA park builder, its reviews were not positive. But Operation Genesis proved the obvious, that a film franchise about building a dinosaur park that falls to chaos would be a good fit for a game about managing the dinosaur park in the face of system failures.

20180626001808_1.jpg

I previously wrote about how Evolution looks like a spiritual successor to Operation Genesis. Having now played Evolution for more than sixty hours, I feel completely validated in that impression. The overall game involves developing dinosaur parks across six islands; there’s an overarching campaign tied loosely together with missions across Las Cinco Muertes, with advancement from island to island dependent upon reaching an adequate park rating across the archipelago, and Isla Nublar also appears as a sandbox park with unlimited cash at your disposal and all buildings, upgrades, and dinosaurs available that you have unlocked across the other islands.

20180701050609_1.jpg

Management of the parks involves producing operations facilities (ranger units to feed and medicate the dinosaurs,  Asset Containment Units or ACUs to tranquilize and transport them, storm towers to predict and protect against storm damage, and a variety of support buildings like expedition centers to launch new digs and fossil centers to use the results of those digs to unlock new dinosaurs and research centers to unlock new upgrades), guest facilities (some used to satisfy guests, some used to provide adequate guest capacity, and some to keep guests safe), enclosures (including fencing, guest viewing structures, and feeders), and power infrastructure (to keep all the above humming along). Successful park management will quickly become micromanagement; while you can choose between manually handling the day-to-day tasks of the rangers and ACU teams or simply delegating the tasks to them, you will never have the ability to unlock any sort of automatic designation of assignments, so that even ensuring the regular restocking of feeders must be directly assigned by you. A ranger will drive by a sick dinosaur or empty feeder and take no action without your direct input. And there were the occasional path-finding issues (though not too frequent) that added a little extra inconvenience.

20180630233847_1.jpg

The micromanagement might seem tedious, and it can be, but it adds to the sense of chaos when things start to fall apart–and they will. Tropical storms, sabotage, dinosaur disease epidemics, and escape attempts blossom into a thousand concerns all at once, and even more red alerts flash at the top of your screen as feeders run out or dinosaurs get loose in the midst of it all. Small problems and large problems alike can seem overwhelming, and sometimes you’ll be racing about, switching between manual control and delegation, as you attempt to triage the situation and respond to appropriately prioritized tasks. This game succeeds in not just being a park management sim, but in accurately portraying the loss of control amid inevitable chaos that the Jurassic Park franchise is all about! That element is masterful, though reflective of a minority of the time spent in the game.

Because failure is inevitable, the game is actually rather forgiving. It is certainly challenging, but it’s not really difficult. While you have the option to reset a park if things get too out of control, I never had to use the tool. Still, in the midst of a spiraling set of problems, the game can be tense–basically always in a fun way. Big problems call for big problem-solving and quick thinking! Outside of the moments of crisis, though, success is largely a matter of time and responsiveness. Keep the animals healthy and the guests at least somewhat satisfied, and your park rating (and profits) will rise. Even if cash is tight, having a single dinosaur and a fast food joint can be enough to get an early-stage park on the path to success.

20180617110847_1

There are a lot of deep statistics that are never explained anywhere in the game, but you only have to get a cursory understanding of any process to make it work. I still don’t fully understand how staffing, item quality, and price affects guest satisfaction with a particular store, and other than knowing that sales price should at least be higher than my own cost, I never did bother to figure it out. I didn’t need to. After I grew frustrated with one park always hovering around 4.5 stars because my continued success would draw down guest satisfaction as demand would continuously outstrip supply, I discovered via a forum tip that you could just close your park down briefly–then everyone would be excited with the reopening and the overcrowding would be gone, solving the problem for a while. Again, the game can be challenging, but it’s typically open to being exploited–and since it’s all about the bottom line with profits and divisional reputation, the game sort of encourages that exploitative mentality.

Even the unlocking of database entries, that wild goose chase of achievement hunting, was largely accomplished by accident, with me just stumbling across new entries without any effort or intent. By the end, after lucking into everything else, I was able to determine (thanks to the alphabetical ordering) that I was only missing two characters, Paul Kirby and Simon Masrani. I couldn’t figure out what to do, though I suspected that Paul might have something to do with the Ceratosaurus or Spinosaurus, while Masrani might have something to do with pteranodons (not in the game) or the Indominus. I looked that up–turned out that it involved letting guests get eaten by certain types of dinosaurs! So the biggest challenge was simply letting myself fail more than I had so far (though I’d be lying if I denied having many, many, many dinosaur escapes and resultant guest deaths).

20180625005037_1.jpg

Perhaps my favorite part of the game was just driving around in the ranger vehicle. Doing this results in a lot of random fun, like catching air over a slight rise or fishtailing around a tight turn or sending guests fleeing from my path (the game causes them to always dodge, so I grew more reckless as I stopped worrying about vehicular manslaughter). Even the everyday tasks can be fun: every attempt to medicate a dinosaur is an accuracy contest against surprisingly quick moving targets. There’s a lot to enjoy in the little things. And the dinosaurs are just absolutely beautiful. There was obviously a lot of investment in the dinosaur appearances, animations, sounds, and behaviors (they often act like convincing animals in enclosures). There are so many of them, too! Literally dozens of species, and even more after the free Jurassic World: Evolution update and if you pay the little extra for the Deluxe DLC (the total reaches 48 dinosaur species with all the above).

I hope there will be more content releases. Notably absent at this point is the Compsognathus from the films. But it would also be cool to have the additional dinosaurs from the books that didn’t make the final cut, including Euoplocephalus, Hypsilophodon, Microceratus, Othnielia, and Procompsognathus. Most of the dinosaurs from this group match the compys from the films in being small to mid-size, so maybe there was a sizing issue. Or maybe we’ll see some later on. The Euplocephalus, however, was somewhat bizarre to exclude, given that ankylosaurs including Ankylosaurus, Crichtonsaurus, Nodosaurus, and Polacanthus made it (though I do appreciate the nod with Crichtonsaurus to the late Michael Crichton, who after all is the reason Jurassic Park exists). The cearadactyls from the first book, and the pteranodons and dimorphodons and mososaur from the films, are completely absent. Especially given how significant the pteranodons and mosasaur have been to the Jurassic World films, I wouldn’t be surprised if we get flying and marine reptile updates later on.

20180624050109_1

I also hope that future updates might allow for the possibility that the dinosaurs will start breeding. On Isla Sorna, a fun surprise is that you start the park with a tightly guarded guest center area that opens up into vast rugged forests populated by herds of Stegosaurus and a Spinosaurus. The Spinosaurus preys on the stegosaurs, and the stegosaurs live off the foliage (actually concealed feed dispensers). But as soon as this park is accessed, I knew that their survival was numbered. The game does not currently allow for breeding, and so these animals would all eventually die out. It would be cool to truly be able to set up a “kind of biological preserve.” (Though the lack of breeding drives home the irony of the InGen Science Division’s efforts to set up working ecosystems on Isla Sorna in the game–none of them are sustainable without a heavy human hand). Similarly, it would be nice if the herbivores could live off the local plant life instead of relying exclusively on feeders.

jurassic world bug fixes.png
A list of some patches from the Fallen Kingdom update. I personally love “Fixed helicopters falling out of the sky on loading,” “Helicopters now try their best to avoid monorails,” and “Dinosaurs try to avoid fighting underwater.”

 

There’s a camera mode, where you can make extra cash snapping pictures of the dinosaurs. I was disappointed to realize rather late on that the photos you take aren’t automatically saved (or if they are, I haven’t found where they’re saved to yet, and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious way to review them in-game). I did use the camera tool even after this realization to set up shots that would be worth screen-capping, images that were up-close to the animals, but I found that it could be just about as good to take screen-captures even outside of the photo mode. Aerial shots of big dinosaur herds were sometimes more impressive, and I could easily capture scenic views of the island landscapes (even the islands themselves are gorgeous). The graphically weak elements are the buildings, which simply look mundane and maybe a tad cartoonish, and the guests, who look like plastic mini-figures. But my eyes were on the dinosaurs most of the time.

At first I was terrified to go into carnivore enclosures–they’ll roar and charge at you. But the dinosaurs can’t hurt you, and you can’t hurt them. The worst is that they’ll knock your car around a bit, which is fun in its own way. So once I discovered that, carnivores became some of my favorite photo subjects–especially the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex.

20180628182202_1

The first time a Tyrannosaurus bounded out of containment and into the enclosure was magic. And I never got tired of hearing its roar echoing across whatever park I put it on. There were other moments that were special, like with the first dinosaur you release into the park ever, or when my childhood favorite Triceratops was introduced, but the tyrannosaur was the most remarkable. Film-accurate, indeed.

20180621222121_1.jpg

There is a plot, but it doesn’t amount to anything. There’s a lot of suspicion and mistrust between the different divisions. The PR executive who oversees you is suspicious of your intentions and worried that you’ll outshine him. You carry out missions with the Science, Entertainment, and Security divisions to curry favor with them. The Science Division is focused on research and developing new animals, blinding them to other concerns. The Entertainment Division wants to make money and get guests into the park, and they’ll do risky and dumb things to make that money. The Security Division is willing to bleed money from the park to ensure that security protocols are sufficient, but they’re also in bed with Dr. Wu’s research into hybridization and militarization of the dinosaurs, resulting in some Bad Things happening. In addition to the missions, you’ll also get more randomized contracts. The division heads get voice overs, helping develop their personalities. We also have Jeff Goldblum back as Ian Malcolm, Bryce Dallace Howard as Claire Dearing, BD Wong as Henry Wu, and (for some reason) a guy who kind of sounds like Chris Pratt as Owen Grady. While Wu makes sense, it’s hard to understand why Dr. Malcolm, Claire, or Owen would be involved with the park again. You just have to accept that they have their reasons (which are never articulated but seem to be based around mistrust in InGen and the hope that their involvement can moderate the company). It’s obviously set in an alternate universe that appears to split off after the events of Jurassic World; there’s no doubt of that after the events detailed in Fallen Kingdom.

20180628192914_1.jpg

Over the course of the game, you’ll get some offers that are frankly unethical, like pitting dinosaurs against each other. At first, I refused. But as some missions (required for full game completion and technology unlocks) required some of that behavior, my moral guidelines loosened and I began to indulge in some frankly Evil Corporate Bullshit. Dr. Malcolm and Claire seemed to become increasingly distressed with my decision-making, and Wu and the PR exec became more envious and distrustful. And all the while, there was obviously secret research being conducted behind the scenes. But it never really built anywhere, even in the “memos” (actually transcripts would be more accurate) that you unlock as you (at least briefly) max out reputation with each division on an island. I think that video game stories can be really powerful when they lead a player to make decisions that are part of that story-telling, that feed into the narrative’s themes. This game does that. But there’s not really any payoff. Malcolm talks a lot about chaos, and Claire and Owen worry about the condition of the animals, and Wu does his Bond villain thing, but there’s no conclusion! We just end with a series of successful parks, all the corporate mistrust and secret dealings still simmering in the background and not fully revealed. The credits roll a couple of times–I believe it was once with completion of all missions and once with five-star ratings across all islands. Then you just hop back in and get back to work, grinding out whatever few achievements you may have left and building up your parks’ reputations. For most of the game, I thought that Evolution might miraculously be the best sequel in the franchise, a worthy successor to the original film and an interesting sibling to Jurassic World with its corporate and personal greed, militarization of technology, and rampant discussion and demonstration of chaos theory in action. But since the story goes nowhere, and there are no real consequences for the player’s, well, playing along (other than massive success), it’s ultimately disappointing.

20180620001146_1.jpg

I was also somewhat disappointed with the modification options for the dinosaurs. Over the course of the game, you assign fossil digs to collect genetic material that can further refine the genetic code for the dinosaurs. Separate research projects can provide new color patterns or improvements like extended lifespan, disease resistance, better defense, or increased attack power. While we get the Indominus and the Indoraptor hybrids, there’s no real way to make new custom animals outside of the slight genetic tweaking from the research projects. Still, while customization is limited, I loved the cosmetic changes available, especially with the Rainforest and Vivid palettes that brought bright blues and purples to my “assets.” Some of these changes seemed to accommodate the different appearances of the dinosaurs over different films.

Unfortunately, the search for a purer genetic code for the dinosaurs and the existence of cosmetic alterations makes me even more disappointed that the dinosaurs retain such an outdated appearance. I recognize that an established franchise doesn’t want to remake its dinosaurs, especially where there is still speculation about appearance, but its Velociraptor and Dilophosaurus, for instance, have always been inaccurate, and Jurassic World made explicit Dr. Wu’s contentions from the first book that none of the animals in Jurassic Park were accurate. Where a game specifically provides for “improving” the genetic code of the animals, why couldn’t we get to the point that a Velociraptor is small and feathered? Or that the Dilophosaurus is larger and frill-less?

20180621220925_1.jpg

The worst part for me was the inclusion of Deinonychus, yet another dromaeosaur, and instead of feathering it, giving it a couple of leathery ridges along head and tail! The game’s database entry for Deinonychus even references its link to research that would ultimately connect birds with dinosaurs.

20180621220650_1.jpg

But more generally, why not allow for dinosaurs with slightly updated appearances to better reflect current paleontological ideas? These dinosaurs could be unlocks at 100% genome completion, and there’d be no requirement that anyone produce these more accurate dinosaurs over their historic depictions. We could even have this decrease a dinosaur’s rating, with guests expecting to see the massive and leathery Velociraptor, for instance.

20180617151328_1.jpg

Not that this complaint stopped me from enjoying the hell out of the game. It’s one of the few games I’ve ever completed 100%, with all unlocks and all missions completed and ratings maxed and every achievement reached. It’s also probably the biggest game that I’ve ever done this with.

jwe 100.png

Sadly, I’m probably at the point where I’m done with the game, at least for now. I might hop in occasionally to snap some dinosaur pictures or to review the surprisingly vast database of Jurassic Park lore contained within. If there’s new content out, I expect to be back for that. But there’s nothing compelling me to just manage a fully established chain of parks. It’s mundane, the challenge is removed, and now it’s just a matter of deploying the appropriate team to fulfill the appropriate task. There’s nothing to keep me going, and there’s no reason to replay.

20180623222807_1

Still, this was a game that was worth its cost. I had a lot of fun and will have some good memories. If you love Jurassic Park and can at least tolerate management simulator games, I would highly recommend this title.

Building Jurassic Park

There have been a lot of Jurassic Park games. Most of them are bad. Another game is coming out, and I think it has promise. That’s Jurassic World: Evolution, which should be released shortly before the newest film in the franchise.

I’m interested and suspect that it will be good largely because it seems to be a spiritual successor to Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis. That 2003 park management simulator is fairly conventional in many ways, but it did attempt to address both the wonder of bringing dinosaurs back and the difficulty of maintaining control over these forces of nature. At the time, the naturalistic behavior of the animals, not to mention their graphical presentation, was rather impressive.

Quite a lot of fun in the game could be spent touring around on safari rides, snapping pictures of your dinosaurs. A specific game mode, “Site B,” allowed players to simply create dinosaurs and let them wander an island untouched by man. This sort of naturalist mode was great fun to toy around in.

But the main focus of the game was on building parks, of course. There were the typical conventions of the park building simulation genre: build more exhibits to keep guests coming, build more amenities and attractions to keep them satisfied while they’re there and to get them to pay out more money, keep up on maintenance, and advance R&D for even better attractions. But the dinosaurs brought chaos. Diseases could spread among dinosaurs. Unhappy or naturally aggressive dinosaurs could try to break out of their enclosures. And dinosaurs on the loose could eat other dinosaurs–or the guests. You had to be prepared to lock down your park in a hurry, and to send your park rangers into the air to pacify your escaped animals. And despite your best efforts, you could still see destruction ensue in the wake of a natural disaster.

I admit that even at its most chaotic, Operation Genesis was still easy to tame and largely in line with the controlled chaos of other park sims. But it still felt appropriately Jurassic Park, even if the lesson learned at the end of the day was not that we mere humans could never truly control nature, but rather that best management practices can beat even the most chaotic forces back into line.

Maybe more fun than the park-building were the missions. You might have to drive through an established park to take pictures, or perhaps you’d be thrust into the role of a ranger to tranq angry dinosaurs, or even to evacuate from a park thrown into chaos. Not all of these missions had the smoothest design, but they were fun experiments that threw ideas at the wall as to what made Jurassic Park special (the photo missions are about wonder, the ranger missions are little action-adventure disaster films, and so on).

I played the game on Xbox, and its control scheme worked shockingly well for a console release, something I wouldn’t have expected for a management sim. At some point over the years, I sold or lost or gave away the title, and I rather regret that decision. It’s long since been out of print, and physical copies available online are selling for close to a hundred dollars, more than I’d be willing to pay for a nostalgia trip with an outdated game that I’ve already played the hell out of. Somehow, despite the renewed interest in the franchise with the Jurassic World films, it’s never seen a digital release (I occasionally search for it on Steam and GOG). I don’t know if there’s a licensing or IP issue, or just a perceived lack of demand, but it seems like this title should be totally set for some sort of revised re-release.

From what I’ve read about Jurassic World Evolution, it seems like the current-gen take on the Operation Genesis formula. It’s unclear to me what makes this a truly unique game, or why it wouldn’t be under the Operation Genesis brand (the game may never have taken off with fans or critics, but there’s definitely a still-existent fan base for the title). Frankly, the more details that are released, the more it sounds exactly like a remake of Operation Genesis, including the R&D of dinosaurs, presence of natural disasters and disease, the put-down of animal escapes, and money-making through a photo mode (read this interview to see examples of these features and a good discussion of the development of the game’s themes and features and its use of “soft canon”).

I do have a small additional complaint. It appears that this game will release on PC and consoles, but the console release does not include the Nintendo Switch. I suppose that PC will be the way I play when I do, inevitably, play it. But the built-in and easy-to-use photo/video features on the Switch controller, the integrated social media component in the Switch Home environment, and the possibility of tablet play are all elements that suggest that this title would be great on the Switch. It’s possible that the game is too demanding for this little console, but I haven’t seen anything so visually stunning or demanding yet that would suggest that to be the case (nor do I see yet why the Switch couldn’t have a slightly less beefy port if that were the case). Maybe a Switch release will come later…

Either way, I’ll be looking forward to this game. Even if it’s just Operation Genesis 2 under another name, that’s more than enough for me.