A Day At The Zoo
I'm not sure there are many Tycoons left to make. Ever since the enormous success of Rollercoaster Tycoon, many have jumped on the strategy management bandwagon with a paraphrased moniker in an attempt to get a piece of the action. Microsoft, never being one to miss an opportunity, has skipped on board with Zoo Tycoon. Everything about Zoo Tycoon is familiar. From its feature list down to the interface, this is cut-and-paste game development at its most heinous. If you've played Rollercoaster Tycoon, you will know what to expect in the way of park building and management here. Simply replace the thrill rides and awe-inspiring custom coasters with meandering animal sprites and piles of poop in your mind's eye and you'll get the idea in a flash. Freeform mode gives you a fresh plot of land and a whole wad of cash to do pretty much with as you please and construct your ideal manure-scented world. Construction and item placement are simple enough, and the chunky toy-town interface leaves the user with little doubt as to what they are doing. However, to learn the true nuances of keeping your animals and customers happy, you're better off going the scenario route.
The game's scenario mode kicks off with three tutorials to hold your hand through navigating the park, placing amenities, adopting animals, building paths and fences and so forth. Where the tutorial is genuinely helpful is in teaching you how to make the animals happy. The zoo will pretty much fail to function properly as a business if the animals are unhappy, as this effect tends to rub off on your customers and consequentially your reputation and profits. The game contains an impressive wealth of information on each of the animals so that you can customise their environments down to a tee, and this generally forms the majority of tasks in the game. Moving on from the tutorials you are given proper scenarios to take on. In order to move on to the more advanced tasks and subsequently unlock more animals, park amenities and tools for creating ideal animal habitats, you have a list of objectives to fulfil within a set time limit. The demands become increasingly steep, but rarely stray from the routine of "adopt animals, make nice enclosures, keep them happy". The early tasks are extremely easy to complete, and the pace is generally less frantic than in Zoo Tycoon's brethren. Unfortunately catering to the animals' tastes is usually a tiresome regime of trial-and-error. Upon adopting an animal you can consult a keeper on what the animal would like in its environment. From there it's simply a case of fulfilling the items on his checklist and balancing each of the items (such as more or less of certain types of flooring or shrubbery) until the animal in question is satisfied. This is fine to start with, but after a while the routine begins to grind, and there's nothing more to really grasp your interest. Constructing an awe-inspiring vista or stunning safari range for your animals to roam and crap in hardly compares to constructing your dream rollercoaster and grinning with demented glee as the hapless punters are flung from their seats.
Not So Magnificent Beasts
Zoo Tycoon is such an innocent little game, it's practically begging at me all doe-eyed to not say a bad word against it. However, there are a few annoyances that make this startlingly bland and simplistic experience a little more grating to play. The first and most obvious niggle is with the viewpoint; there are two zoom levels in the game, and both of them are really too far away from the action. This makes the sprites extremely hard to see at times, particularly at resolutions higher than the default. This is made worse by the bulky interface, which thinks nothing of filling up your screen with unmovable windows, and in low resolutions particularly you will run out of space far too quickly. You can't scroll the viewing window when the interface is active either, and a lot of time is wasted opening and closing the same windows over and over again to perform a simple task. Combine this with the trial-and-error nature of creating suitable habitats, and what should be a simple task becomes an unwelcome chore. I don't think you're going to need convincing that Zoo Tycoon looks extremely tired. Modern computer technology can obviously do better than the isometric sprite-based engine used here, and why Blue Fang decided to shoot themselves in the foot like this is anyones guess. Because of the distanced viewpoint and two-dimensional environment you never really feel like you care about the animals or want to watch them play, especially since you can't see them properly half the time.
The audio lends little to the atmosphere either. The main offering is a looping generic crowd noise which quickly becomes hypnotic, and this is interspersed with the odd flushing portaloo or breathless "Wow!" from a satisfied customer as he stands watching a polar bear swim about aimlessly. Once you're through with the scenarios, there's really very little reason for you to come back and play Zoo Tycoon. The free construction mode can wear thin extremely quickly once you run out of space - research into new toys for your captives to prod and staring at them crapping up a tree doesn't really appeal to the majority of gamers I should imagine. Not even the monkeys provide as much entertainment as they should, and I mean .. come on, they're monkeys! Updates via the web will provide new scenarios, animals and kit to drop into your zoos, but that is likely to offer limited appeal in the long-run. While initially charming, Zoo Tycoon finds it extremely hard to maintain your interest for more than a few hours, due to its unrelenting focus on micro-management and interface problems. It could well be a good Christmas diversion for your kids, but the average gamer expecting frantic Rollercoaster Tycoon-style management will be sorely disappointed.