Virtual zookeepers return to their computer screens, to care for exotic animals and the people who come to visit them, in Zoo Tycoon 2. With its "tycoon"-style business sim elements, its honest and detailed approach to real zoology, and some nice promotion from publishing giant Microsoft, Blue Fang's original Zoo Tycoon sold very well and remained on store shelves for an unusually long time, inspiring at least two expansion packs along the way. This sequel, from the same parties responsible for the original, aims to recapture that winning mix, and present it with full 3D graphics.
While players can still take an encompassing top-down view of their parks, they now can also zoom in, to follow behind individual patrons as they explore the zoo or give up-close and personal attention to an animal in need. As in earlier versions of Zoo Tycoon, creating good habitats to house the animals will be central to a zoo's success. Players can consult detailed, in-game information about each species they are considering adopting. Then, as in the first game, they can then modify the climate and elevation of land on their lot, to create ideal conditions for the new animals they plan to bring in.
Although most of us are probably too young to remember it, there was a time when most zoos were simply concrete and steel cages full of bored and depressed animals. Fortunately, zoo managers soon learned that their animals lived happier, healthier lives in exhibits simulating their natural habitats. And customers spent more money when the animals were happier. That's the driving mechanic behind Zoo Tycoon 2 (instead of, say, Cages Full of Bored Animals 2), a sequel to the best-selling tycoon strategy game that improves in almost every way on the original. Blue Fang Games and Microsoft have gone and created a tycoon game that looks good and plays well, even if it's not exactly a title for the serious strategy gamer.
The first major change in Zoo Tycoon 2 is the jump to full 3D, and the game looks fabulous as a result. You can modify the terrain to add mountains, hills, valleys, and more, all with simple modeling tools (and it doesn't cost you any money). The flora and fauna look terrific, with animals that move realistically and flowers and trees that look quite attractive up close. The customers are far less detailed, but they do come in a variety of ages, genders, and races. One nice touch is that whenever a customer has something from the park, such as an ice cream cone, you can see them carrying it. You can even see them with their gift shop purchases, so a customer who purchased a peacock backpack will be wearing it. There's a lot more detail this time around.
Another benefit to Zoo Tycoon 2's switch to 3D is that you can enter the park in a first-person view and walk around. You can even take over the roles of your employees, such as cleaning and feeding the animals and sweeping up trash, if you're so inclined. The first-person view also allows you to use the camera to take pictures. The only disappointment with the 3D camera is that the pitch is limited in overview mode. You can zoom, rotate, and move, but you can't tilt the camera to a position more to your liking. It's a minor annoyance, but it's odd that this game excluded that feature.
The sound is less impressive than the graphics. People speak in gibberish, cheer for the animals, and make other crowd-type sounds, and the animals make their appropriate noises, but the sound just doesn't register as interesting. Music doesn't exist at all in the game except in the menu system, unless you purchase a "music rock," an object that projects music to customers.
Zoo Tycoon 2 includes three types of play modes. You can select "freeform," to play with all objects already researched, no time limits, and no money issues. If all you want is to release your inner park planner, that's the game type for you. "Challenge" games offer limited money and limited objects. The better your zoo's fame score, the more objects you'll get. "Campaign" mode directs you through a series of themed scenarios. Both of the latter two scenarios unlock reward objects, including geographically themed objects.
In terms of difficultly, Zoo Tycoon 2 won't present much of a challenge to adults. It's a pretty simple matter to figure out how to make money, and as long as you follow that same formula each time you'll stay in the black almost all the time. The money-making strategies are slim. You can't set prices for food, drinks, and other purchases -- other than to set them as low, medium, or high -- and the animals require minimal care as long as you have enough zookeepers. Even some of the more challenging scenarios in campaign mode, such as ones that requires you to create a park with animals from nine different biomes, become merely an exercise in waiting for your money to build.
Which brings us to the game's other problem: it's not possible to speed up time in the game. A few scenarios require you to have certain exhibits created by a deadline. You can easily pause the game, lay down the exhibits, and then spend the rest of your time waiting. As long as you have a zookeeper to take care of your animals and a maintenance worker to clean up the messes of the customers you don't even have to be at the computer. One time while waiting for my money to recover I left the computer and stayed gone for about twenty minutes. When I returned, not only did I have the cash I needed, but nothing bad had happened to the zoo.
Overall, Zoo Tycoon 2 is a good game for the younger set and those with little experience with games. It's stable, almost bug-free, and has easy-to-use controls, which makes it a nice way to introduce kids to the genre. But anyone who has spent any significant time with tycoon strategy games will probably find it a little light on the strategy.
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