Animals for profit.
Unlike most kids I knew, working with animals never entered my list of dream jobs. Shelters and zoos make me feel guilty about locking animals up and euthanasia sounds like a dirty word, but those aren’t the reasons. It’s the clean-up. My old roommate worked at the Humane Society, and every day he came home smelling like a rotting barn and covered in mysterious fluids. It only gets worse as the animals get bigger. Have you ever seen what they do to constipated elephants?
[image1]Zoo Tycoon 2 never steps that far into the murky underbelly of animal care, nor is it as offensively naïve as some of the DS’s other pet “simulators”. In fact, you don’t care for the animals so much as you create their synthetic homes and manage the park while they eat, play, and mate. Don’t worry; there aren’t any awkward, springtime moments. Zoo Tycoon 2 deserves its E-rating, but it doesn’t shy away from the complexities of real life.
My first mistake was jumping right into Freeform mode and building a grandiose zoo. After ten minutes, I had four zebras dying on a cramped patch of grass and one disgruntled customer. Nobody wants to see a furry wonderland of starving, depressed animals, so going through the tutorials of Campaign mode is a necessity. Zoo Tycoon 2 has a clean layout with simple, touchscreen controls, but deciphering them unaided is a daunting task. Every animal has specific needs, and besides learning how to fulfill them, completing Campaign mode unlocks quite a few bonus items for future use.
Constructing icy penguin displays and miniature wetlands for flamingos is only a small fraction of the game, as none of them can exist without customers. People need walkways beneath their feet and food to appease their stomachs. They’ll also want to relieve themselves someplace more dignified than the bushes. Whether they walk on searing concrete or stylish brick, and eat at a splintered picnic table or under shady gazebos is up to you. It all depends upon how much you’re willing to spend for their approval.
Any Joe can string up some chicken-wire, dig a dirt path, and call it a zoo, but he won’t be raking in the funds for a lion exhibit anytime soon. Every feature of the zoo costs money, and every feature counts towards its star rating. Even a simple garbage bin can have a drastic impact on the zoo’s appeal. The classier options, like the Endangered Animal House and marine exhibits, can only be purchased when a particular rating has been reached. The only way to do that is to impress the guests through a constant balancing game of time vs. money.
[image2]The earliest objectives require little more than constructing a few exhibits, placing the animals, and waiting for them to achieve zen-like happiness. Later ones are timed, multi-tiered escapades requiring delicate planning. Building a zoo to house endangered rhinos and panthers sounds easy, until you realize you only have one of the four stars needed to purchase them. At first I tried taking the cheap route, but I didn’t obtain the stars in time. Next, I went for luxury and obtained the stars, but lacked the funds to buy the animals. Getting it right took six tries, and at about 25 minutes per try, the enjoyment wore very thin.
Repetition is the burden of Zoo Tycoon 2. Every new objective and every repeated attempt wipes the slate clean for a new zoo. I became quite skilled at laying the framework for the challenges ahead, but I got sick of building the same zoo dozens of times over. Once I figured out a basic layout that’s appealing and cost-effective, there’s never any reason to deviate. Much of this monotony could have been relieved if objectives were broken into smaller increments, or even better, if more objectives expanded upon what I already built. A more thorough explanation of the business tactics wouldn’t have hurt, either.
More guests equal more money, but it’s not all profit. Food stands and souvenir shops have overheads, advertising is costly, and getting the best facilities and animals requires expensive research. How these elements affect the zoo is not always clear. At $2 a pop, I lost money on bottled water every month, but kept customers happy. At $3 a bottle, I lost more money as customers protested through self-dehydration, despite the zoo’s lavish rating. It’s a balancing game, but I don’t fancy the idea of rebuilding the same zoo a dozen times before I find the answer through trial and error.
[image3]Once you get a handle on the mechanics, unlock some special exhibits, and grow tired of rebuilding, Freeform mode is the star of the show. You can set your own monetary limits and construct the zoo without restraint, so go ahead and put the lions next to the zebras, or use your omnipotent powers to trap the guests in an impossible hedge maze. Unfortunately, building space is limited and a properly staffed zoo is maintenance-free. Once you reach those borders and build the best exhibits, there’s not much else to do.
While the overhead view doesn’t impress with its crude blobs of color, Freeform mode gives you time to interact with the animals on a more personal level. You can clean, pet, and feed your favorite three-dimensional animal through stylus-based mini-games. They aren’t hard by any means and the appeal is very short-lived, but they are a nice diversion from building and managing. Sooner or later though, you’re going to have to raze the zoo and start over.
Call it sexist machismo if you will, but I originally had Zoo Tycoon 2 pegged as a game for housewives and little girls. Failing on my first try was an absolute shock to my ego. Underneath the bubbly aesthetics of frolicking animals, pan flute music, and dolphin-mask souvenirs lies an intricate strategy game of careful planning and decisive action. Of course, if you’re into lazy afternoons at the playground, Freeform mode has you covered. Just don’t expect the same enjoyable, endless experiences of The Sims or Nintendogs.