What sound does a giraffe make?
Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse thinks the magic ingredient is pork fat. "Bam! Pork fat rules!" he shouts as he fries up an arepa. In Emeril's world, seemingly anything can be made better with pork fat.
In the world of video games, though, the magic ingredient these days seems to be "3D." Making a sequel and don't know what to do? Make it 3D! Bam!
But much like my chocolate cake with pork fat icing, a heavy dose of 3D does not just magically make a game good. You still need substance and flavor behind those polygons if you want people to like it. Witness the mistakes that were Prince of Persia 3D, Dragon's Lair 3D, or the great tragedy that befell the Worms series with the arrival of Worms 3D.
Yes, you guessed it, Zoo Tycoon 2 has also gone for the pork fat'er"3D graphics, and it's not quite ready for it. While this popular zoo simulator should certainly be in full 3D sooner or later, due to some design flaws and hardware limitations, that time is not now.
In Zoo Tycoon 2, gamers are placed firmly in the managerial shoes of the Zoo director. And while you manage hiring and firing, construction of exhibits, the adoption of new animals, the placing of snack stands and other executive decisions, don't expect those shoes to remain unsoiled. The 3D nature of the game now lets you drop down into your own zoo where, if I may quote the game itself, "You can also take on the duties of a maintenance worker to sweep trash and empty trash cans." Ah, how I have longed for the life of a janitor.
Possibly even better, "You can feed and water animals, groom them, heal them and" of course, rake poop."
When I was a kid, many of my neighbors had horses, and I often had part-time jobs raking poop. Years later, computers have become so advanced that I can finally rake poop from the comfort of my own desk. Hooray for technology? As ridiculous as it seems, much like the fascination of watching a Sim clean a toilet, raking virtual animal poop isn't so bad after all.
Besides, most of the time you'll be using the overhead view to manage your park from afar and let your zookeepers deal with the excrement. Like RollerCoaster Tycoon and the original Zoo Tycoon, you'll need to balance a number of factors in order to have a successful zoo. You need happy animals and attractive exhibits, not to mention enough food and restrooms and trash-cans. Plan it right and tourists with heavy wallets will flock to your zoo, leaving a chunk of their cash behind. Plan poorly and you'll just be a lonely weirdo surrounded by animals.
Keeping the animals happy is a fairly simple matter thanks to the "Zookeeper" interface. Click an animal, and then click the zookeeper and he tells you exactly what to buy. In fact, much like the first Zoo Tycoon, the whole game is pretty easy. Zoo Tycoon 2 is a slow, casual experience designed to be simply played rather than won or lost.
Of course, there are goals in the game's Campaign and Challenge modes, like a zoo down on its luck that you must rescue or a particularly feisty animal that you must figure out how to breed. But these challenges never feel urgent, and like the Sim City series, the game seems more focused on its open-ended sandbox qualities.
Unfortunately, the graphics in this sandbox aren't going to bring your zoo any new visitors. Objects, people and animals are decidedly low-poly, blocky figures. Shadows, when they exist at all, are just gray circles, and animals often seem to float on the bland ground textures. Clipping errors abound; your zebras will think nothing of sticking their heads right into a tree or other zebras.
Even with the low poly counts, Zoo Tycoon 2 can start to chug and stutter when your zoo gets big and popular. Some oddly fascinating moments do occur, such as when you watch a baby hippo play with a large rubber ball, but for the most part it's not a very pretty or interesting show.
The sound is also a problem. There is no music, which is fine as it would probably be annoying carnival junk anyway, but zoo guests and animals have a very limited repertoire of sounds that repeat endlessly. Considering the nearly infinite number of different tapping noises heard in Myst IV, I know we can do better than this.
The A.I. could also use a tweak. Animals often get caught on objects and moonwalk against them, and your guests will inexplicably favor a full trash-can two exhibits over despite the fact that there's an empty one right next to them. Some guests will run screaming from an escaped lion, while others will continue to eat their hamburger right in front of the lion's nose.
However, the most egregious, unraked part of Zoo Tycoon 2 is the unintuitive control and interface. The designers seem to have forgotten that there's second mouse button because it does nothing, rotating objects you want to place is a major pain, and the menu structure is confusing. And despite 10 years of evolved 3D first-person controls, someone decided that clicking the mouse should be "move forward" instead of "action." Are you kidding me?
The one bright spot in the controls is the terrain engine, which is surprisingly simple to use and lets you paint different biomes for your animals right there on the ground. Making a cool wading pond or raising up an interesting hill is similarly easy.
It's very clear, however, that Zoo Tycoon 2 just wasn't ready to kick it up a notch. It should have waited for the next generation of 3D hardware before going 3D and should have been left in the development oven a bit longer to smooth out the control and gameplay issues. Next time, more pork fat. Bam!