Microsoft and Blue Fang Games teamed up to release Zoo Tycoon in October of 2001. It received lukewarm reviews, including mine (I gave it a 78%). But after I reviewed it, I ended up playing it some more, and, as I understood its inner machinations a little better, I liked it better. In fact, I liked it enough that I wrote a strategy guide for it as well as its two expansion packs. So it was with some anticipation that I got my hands on Zoo Tycoon 2.
If you never played Zoo Tycoon, it tasked you with running a zoo. You had to build animal exhibits and keep the animals happy, you have to create food stalls and bathrooms and keep the guests of the zoo happy, and you had to make money. Its objectives were pretty standard fare for tycoon games, and it owed more than a little to its more famous cousin, Rollercoaster Tycoon.
Zoo Tycoon 2 is essentially the same game, but in 3D. The good news is that, with the new engine, the game looks great, and because it’s in 3D you can zoom way in and get a close look at the animals (something you couldn’t do in Zoo Tycoon). And, unlike some games that allow you to zoom way in but then only reward you with blocky images, everything in Zoo Tycoon 2 looks good whether you’re in the clouds or on the ground. Plus, because of the 3D engine, you’re now allowed to walk around in the zoo in a first-person mode, and since that mode places you in the zoo, and since it’s your zoo, you’re allowed to take on some of the responsibilities of your employees, which means you can clean up trash or groom your animals if you want. There’s even a “photo safari” mode you can use so you can take snapshots of your zoo and share them with your friends.
All of the above sounds good, but you discerning readers out there might be wondering, “Sure the game looks better, and sure you can view it differently, but what about the game part of the game?” Here, sadly, is where things start to go downhill for Zoo Tycoon 2. Let’s start with animal exhibits. In Zoo Tycoon, creating an exhibit was sort of an involved process. Animals had very specific and picky needs, and it took a lot of trial and error and note-taking to figure out how to make them perfectly happy. In Zoo Tycoon 2, on the other hand, you’re given a “biome brush” which you can use to “paint” an exhibit. Do that and then maybe add in a shelter and a toy, and that’s it. Slapping together an exhibit takes about a minute, and you barely have to pay attention. In other words, keeping animals happy takes almost no effort now.
But what about guests? They’re always finicky, right? Wrong. In Zoo Tycoon 2, just like in Zoo Tycoon, making guests happy is largely a matter of showing them happy animals, and since it’s easy to make animals happy now, it’s also easy to make guests happy.
That leaves money. Surely there is some strategy left in the game, right? Wrong again. For some reason Blue Fang Games decided to make all terra-forming activities cost no money. That’s right, everything from creating lakes to flattening mountains to turning grassy plains into a winter wonderlands is free of charge now, and so exhibits only cost as much as the fencing it takes to surround them and the animals you want to place inside. Animals and fences aren’t cheap, but the result is that exhibits cost about half as much as they did before, and so it’s easier to put them up.
Of course, Blue Fang Games, perhaps in a fit of contrariness, made time in the game run more slowly (with no way to speed it up), and so despite the cheaper prices of exhibits, there’s still a lot of dead time in the game, when you have to wait for enough money to trickle in to do something. In Zoo Tycoon, you could take that time and use it to examine your finances or to study summary screens of your animals and guests to see what additions you should make, but in Zoo Tycoon 2, all such information panels automatically pause the game! That means Zoo Tycoon 2 has bad enough pacing that you need to have something else to do when you play it. Luckily for me, CBS broadcast its cheesy mini-series Day of Destruction when I was playing Zoo Tycoon 2, and so I wasn’t totally bored.
Should I keep dumping on Zoo Tycoon 2 (and then make a joke about compost heaps), or do you get the idea? There are more things I didn’t like about the game, but basically, once Blue Fang Games converted the franchise from a strategy game to a zoo construction set, that was it for me. There wasn’t any way I was going to like it. Of course, that doesn’t mean you won’t like it. I know there were a lot of people who played Zoo Tycoon just to design pretty zoos, and Zoo Tycoon 2 is excellent for that. Blue Fang Games even added a freeform mode where finances aren’t an issue, and so you can build and change things to your heart’s content.
So if you’re pondering Zoo Tycoon 2 as a Christmas gift for somebody, pay attention to the recipient. Novice gamers or gamers who don’t really like games where there are objectives (such as fans of The Sims or SimCity) might like Zoo Tycoon 2. Hardcore strategy fans will probably wonder what they did to make you mad at them, should you buy them the game.