Zoo Tycoon 2 was developed by Blue Fang of Chicago and published by Microsoft Game Studios. It is the sequel to the very popular Zoo Tycoon. Since I haven't played the original, this review is based on the stand-alone characteristics of the game, not a comparison to the original.
There isn't a story to this type of game. The campaign has different scenarios, but there is no real story. This is not a bad thing, since the genre of the game does not lend itself to a narrative.
Zoo Tycoon is a top-down-view Simulation game. For those unfamiliar with the genre, the idea is to make the characters, objects, and situations as real as possible. For example, in order to have a gorilla exhibit, you have to first build some sort of structure such as a fence. Once the fence is built, you have to provide the correct atmosphere or Biome such a temporal rainforest. Then you have to provide food bowl. Oh and you should probably assign a zookeeper to replenish the food bowls, wash the animal, and clean up their poop. And of course all of this costs money. To gain money, your visitors have to pay admission, buy souvenirs, buy your food, and give donations. In order to compel them to do that, you have to have the right number of bathrooms, fun things to do, happy and well-maintained animals, correctly-priced restaurants etc. The idea is to build a virtual zoo complete with economics, sanitation crew and customer service.
The first thing that should be noted is the tutorial. Handled very well, the game gives you a base zoo and shows you the basic of moving objects, handling the camera, buying animals, creating Biomes, etc. The tutorial is very clear that the instructions it gives are just the tip of the iceberg. But it is enough. While there are hundreds of objects and animals, the game becomes very clear very quickly. This is not to say that it's easy. But it has hit upon the Holy Grail of any good game: Easy to pick up and play, difficult to master.
There are several ways to tackle Zoo Tycoon 2. The first is the campaign. This is a set of challenges that make you do some interesting things. Scenarios are introduced and you must fashion your zoon in such a way that it meets the criteria set out in the challenge. Example: A rich European has a plot of land that he wants to make into a zoo. But the zoo can only house African animals. Your job is to create a working zoo that meets those criteria. Other examples are to take a dilapidated zoo and make it a three star zoo. All of these campaign scenarios have to do with environmentalism and conservation, but are never preachy.
In addition, you can go into challenge mode which lets you choose the map and amount of cash you want to start off with as well as the size of plot of land. As your zoo becomes more famous, new objects and animals are opened up for use. There are no goals other than to create the best thriving zoo you possible can. This is the beauty of the sim game - You are not required to do anything you don't want to do, yet the challenge and excitement of the game are endless. This is the heart of the game and it is amazingly fun. And I'm not a huge fan of real zoos.
Finally, Zoo Tycoon features a free form mode. This is just like challenge mode, except you have unlimited cash and all objects and animals are available for use. This is true sandbox mode as there are no rules other than what you make. This type of gameplay is so addictive you'll be up until the wee hours of the night trying to tweak your zoo to gain that much more fame or an extra dollar or two of revenue.
The AI of Zoo Tycoon is interesting. The people themselves react to their environment is strikingly realistic ways. If you don't have a maintenance worker for your zoo, the place gets covered in litter and your gusts become unhappy. When you click a character or animal or object, a properties dialog opens up on the bottom left of the screen. This lets you see how happy the person is, how much money they have and their thoughts. Being able to "read" minds is very helpful as they'll give you info on what your zoo needs. Don't have enough bathrooms? The visitors will tell you. In addition, the emoticons above their heads give you and idea. From above, if you see a red mad face, you'll know something is wrong and needs your attention. All of these Ai qualities are tied together to make an extremely immersive game. Got unhappy animals? The visitors will know this and give you less money or leave. How to make the animals happy? Put them in the right Biome, give them food, something to play with companionship, shelter, etc. The true quality of the game is the intertwining of all the elements and their reactions to each other's moods. Truly a fantastic piece of work.
Finally, the Economy of the zoo is extremely important because if you fritter your money away on unimportant things too early, you won't have the cash to build what you need to make your animals happy. And if your animals are unhappy, so are your guests and they won't give you money or pay admission. This causes a downward spiral of zoo failure. Running out of cash? Switch into zookeeper mode and walk around the park and do the dirty work of cleaning poop and picking up trash yourself, thereby saving money. One of the wonderful things about this game is the prevalence of zoo income. At any time, you can see how many donations each donation box has earned and reposition it accordingly for maximum earnings. Each soda cart, gift cart, photo stand has monthly stats on how much it's earning. Each worker is paid a salary at the beginning of the month. Each bathroom has monthly upkeep. Plus you can view the economics of the zoo as a whole with graphs and charts. This may seem very mundane, but the presentation is flawless. All the info is available, but the player is never bogged down in numbers. You can even ignore them altogether if you want and merely concentrate on the total money you have. The choice is yours!
The graphics of Zoo Tycoon are as good as they can be. What that means is that up close, the visitors, animals and objects, look blocky. But this is a necessary tradeoff since after a while you will have hundreds and hundreds of objects. And since each object has its own AI, this would bog down even the fastest system. That said, the graphics are appropriate since most of them time you have a God's-eye view of your zoo. Even when you come in close for a walkthrough, the graphics are interesting and diverse. This walkthrough is on of the outstanding features. When in god-mode, it's tough to see how the zoo looks from a visitor perspective. Zoom down and your zoo really comes to life. It also shows you any realistic problems you have. Much care was given to the animations. You can actually watch a visitor take out money, hand it to the cashier and walk away with a newly purchased hot dog. This attention to detail and diversity of animations is far more important than the amount of polygons each character has. When you look at it from above, you want to see a plethora of movement and the realistic chaos of people on large groups. Zoo Tycoon 2 has this in spades.
It should be noted that this game does require a pretty beefy machine if you want to have better detail and higher resolutions. The minimum requirements are a 700mHz machine, but this is the bare minimum.
The audio this type of game is tough to judge because it isn't meant to stand out. It is all environmental background noise. However, the diversity of the game's audio stands out yet again. The low rumbling of crowd voices grows as more people are in the zoo. You can hear laughing and giggling, whoops of joy, surprised yelps etc from the visitors. The food carts make the appropriate food cooking sounds and the gift carts emanate cash register sounds. All of this combines to create a dynamic, very real cacophony of sounds. But it is never unpleasant.
One of the standout audio features is how the audio changes when you get close. Zoom down to visitor mode and people in your nearby vicinity are louder than other and their audio matches the animations. Up close, the animals make the appropriate grunts and calls. Each animal has the actual animals sound attached, not some guy in a booth mimicking it. Place music rocks around and the theme music plays as you get closer to a rock. Catchy little tune it is, too.
There is no multiplayer for Zoo Tycoon 2. However, there is in-game downloadable content supported and already there is a performance patch, some extra objects and a couple of theme packs to use. Fantastic!
Parents Should know...
Zoo Tycoon 2 is rated E for Everyone by the ESRB and that rating is well deserved. There is obviously no sex or language. The only thing that might warrant some guidance is the death of animals. While not graphic (they simply disappear), they can die of different things depending on how you play the game. If you don't care for them, they can die of disease, starvation or simply old age. The only indication of this is a small text message at the top. Also, if you "accidentally" place a lion outside its cage, it will incite panic, chase the visitors, grab one and shake it in its mouth. There is no blood and the visitor gets up and leaves saying "It's time for me to go home now". Given the accolade this game is getting from parenting magazine, education groups etc, I'd say it's safe for all ages.
Of note is the educational value. The game has an always-accessible zoopedia courtesy of Encarta Encyclopedia. So this is a rather educational game as well.
Zoo Tycoon 2 is a must-own for fans of sim games. Don't be fooled by the zoo theme, this game is not just for kids. The depth and complexity of the game makes it fall into the hard-core category sims. Extremely addictive gameplay, varied animation and themes make this a Highly Recommended title.
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