Zoo Tycoon: Dinosaur Digs is an expansion pack for last winter’s Zoo Tycoon. It lets you try on the shoes of John Hammond to see if you can create your own version of Jurassic Park, but without the inevitable lawsuits and without people getting eaten (or at least without the lawsuits). And with over 20 new creatures to play with, plus a host of new attractions and eye candy, Dinosaur Digs is fun enough to play even if things do go badly. It also contains just about everything you’d expect from an expansion pack.
The best thing about Dinosaur Digs is all the new stuff it includes. The are 16 dinosaurs, including fan favorites like the tyrannosaurus rex and the velociraptor, plus four ice age creatures like the wooly mammoth and the saber-toothed cat. The dinosaurs all look pretty good and are drawn to scale, and the game contains a few paragraphs of information about each (including how to pronounce their names), and so Dinosaur Digs, like Zoo Tycoon before it, tries to be educational as well as entertaining.
Unfortunately, the dinosaurs are also a little boring. They don’t get toys to play with, and so, other than the occasional bellow by a predator letting you know just how much it enjoys being in a cage, the dinosaurs pretty much just wander around in their cages, not doing much of anything. In fact, the most entertaining animation in the expansion pack is for the tyrannosaurus rex when it escapes its cage and eats people (swoop, toss, gulp). But of course that’s an animation you don’t want to see if you want to win the scenario you’re playing. It takes a long time for a zoo to recover from a rex going into buffet lunch mode.
Other additions in the expansion pack include new attractions, like playground equipment and dinosaur versions of some (but oddly not all) food stalls, plus a whole host of eye candy. The eye candy in particular is very impressive, and it includes everything from arches to volcanoes to dinosaur skeletons. There are also six scenarios included on the Dinosaur Digs CD, but these scenarios, like their Zoo Tycoon counterparts, aren’t especially exciting and aren’t especially different from freeform games. But at least the new scenarios don’t kill you trying to keep guests happy. They’re more about building zoos and keeping the dinosaurs happy.
Dinosaur Digs also includes some improvements on the Zoo Tycoon engine. The interface now has buttons for toggling on and off foliage, guests, and buildings (you could toggle the foliage before, but only through a hotkey), and there are now information panels for how profitable your attractions are and for the topics you’ve researched. The improvements, especially the toggling ones, are nice enough, but some of the things I was hoping for, like a more detailed account of why guests are happy or exhibits are popular, will apparently have to wait for Zoo Tycoon 2, if they’re ever included.
So, with all that being said, is Dinosaur Digs any fun to play? Yes and no. Even with the numerous additions in the expansion pack, gameplay remains the same because the additions are largely cosmetic. You now have scientists caring for dinosaurs instead of zookeepers caring for regular animals, but all that really means is that the creatures and exhibits are bigger than they were before. Activities like creating exhibits, caring for animals, and generally running the zoo all remain the same.
If Dinosaur Digs was just Zoo Tycoon with a new paint job, then it might be enjoyable enough for fans of Zoo Tycoon, or for people who really like dinosaurs, but Dinosaur Digs also has a couple of balance issues that limit its fun. For starters, it seems to be much more difficult now to keep guests happy, and I’m conjecturing it’s because there isn’t any adjustment being made for zoos having half as many creatures and exhibits than before, and so guests aren’t getting the variety they want. (It’s also more difficult for guests to see their favorite animal now, simply because there are more possible animals.)
Also, fences are really annoying in Dinosaur Digs. For some reason, after an exhibit has been in operation for about a year, its fences suddenly start to break down, and one or two fail every month. This might actually be identical to what happens in Zoo Tycoon, but in Zoo Tycoon the animals didn’t consequently head right through the broken fence and start eating your guests. In fact, I never had an animal escape (by accident) in Zoo Tycoon, but dinosaurs escaped all the time in Dinosaur Digs unless I paid painstakingly close attention to the exhibit information panel and micro-managed my maintenance workers. Of course, I eventually learned how to get around the fence problem (by building moats or depressing exhibits) but the fences still fail way too often, and they’re a pain even if all you have to do is send your maintenance workers to fix them.
Overall, Dinosaur Digs is a mixed bag. Developer Blue Fang Games put a lot of effort into the expansion pack, and they filled it with a lot of nice additions, but the dinosaurs are basically just really big animals, and their inclusion doesn’t change by much how you play the game. So if you liked Zoo Tycoon but finally got bored with its selection of animals, then Dinosaur Digs might be just what the scientist ordered. Otherwise, wait for the Marine Mania expansion pack to come out, since it will include Dinosaur Digs on the CD, or wait for Dino Island to come out, and hope that it’s a better game.