Anna Gregoline | May 4, 2002
Here I am about to review the new sim game, Zoo Tycoon. I am not one who usually does reviews, but I’ve been playing this game incessantly, and while I think I like it overall, there are some things I have issue with as well, which should make for a good balanced review.

Zoo Tycoon is your basic building sim. You…build a zoo. The goal is to keep both your animals and your visitors happy, which can be quite demanding.

The main problem with the game is that Zoo Tycoon doesn’t give you quite enough tools to do this efficiently. There are tabs for the animals, which list which animals are hungry, angry (not liking something about their exhibit), sick, etc. These work ok, but the tab for the guests, which list which guests are hungry, thirsty, angry, tired, etc, don’t allow you to group the guests as neatly as RollerCoaster Tycoon allows you to. You also can’t pick guests up (bah!) so if they happen to get stuck in the lion enclosure you’re building….well, just watch the show (Guests don’t die, however. I guess Microsoft thought human death was too gruesome for children, but animals are allowed to fight and kill each other in a cartoon “fight” cloud).

As long as I’m comparing this game to RollerCoaster Tycoon (and why not, it’s one of the best sim games out there), Zoo Tycoon has a shitty landscape editor. There is a lift/lower terrain button, a level terrain button, and two buttons to make cliff edges, or moats. The problem with all of these is that even if you move land one block at a time, whatever you move tends to have an effect on many of the land squares directly around it – which is extremely frustrating when you’re trying to build a flat exhibit next to one with hills and ridges, and not disturb the paths the guests are walking on.

It’s hard to keep some of the animals happy too. Animals respond to the things you put into their exhibit by either a green happy face popping up over their head, or a red frowny face doing the same. Both are accompanied by a happy or sad noise. This makes it simple enough, along with a feature called “Zookeeper Recommendations” that helps you to figure things out. But some animals procreate out of control, therefore pressing the limits of their exhibit (my lions are out of control), and are unhappy if kept in all female or all male groups. Other animals won’t procreate at all and die quickly. This seems realistic enough, but there should be some sort of neuter/spay option so the player can exercise some breeding control.

Zoo keepers are expensive. It’s best to have them “double-team” exhibits, as I learned when I tried to have one keeper per exhibit and quickly ran out of cash. They are usually pretty efficient, but the more animals to an exhibit, the more keepers you will need. There are also maintenance workers, who are there to empty trash cans and fix the fences (which deteriorate over time and will let your animals escape!) You can also have tour guides, which make your guests happier.

There are other money-making opportunities in a zoo than just admission – like RCT, there are food stands and extras. But in the “Masterpiece Zoo” I tried to create, on the largest map, I found out that if you build too many exhibits, it’s practically impossible for the zoo to pay for itself, forcing me to use cheats to add money every month just to stay out of the red. There are also animals none of the guests seem to care about – I hope this changes from map to map, and isn’t a universal thing, because that doesn’t seem fair. What’s my incentive to have those animals if they just cost money?

Microsoft was smart about some things. Instead of just having scenarios (there are 13, and they are HARD), they included a quick start area, where you can choose between a large selection of maps, which vary in size and ground type, and you can even choose the amount of money you want to start with! Very handy, and perfect for me, who just wants to mess around and build more rather than try to beat the scenario clock.

Gameplay IS gorgeous. The animals are extremely realistic, going through several natural behaviors for each one (the wolves do play bows like dogs do, the giraffes preen each other, the polar bears rear up on their hind legs and look around, etc, etc), which makes for relaxing game play. All of the graphics are very detailed; I admit that it’s a very pretty game. There are a few things I don’t understand – the tops of the carousal and other buildings can be color changed, the same as RCT, but when you do so, most of the colors turn out terrible – they look like messed up .bmp drawings. This repulses me, so I usually stick with boring brown buildings.

The other thing is music – there is none actually in the game. This can be a good thing, as even the many tunes for the merry-go-round in RCT got on my nerves, but an option would be nice. The sound effects for the stationary all-in-one-exhibits (Reptile House, Aviary, etc) are repetitive and can be irritating, as there is no way to turn them off. I avoid building an Aviary altogether, to avoid having to listen to the same damn bird noise on a freaking loop for hours.

I was reluctant to buy this game, but I don’t regret it. It has some problems, but it has still amused me enough so far. I hope that Microsoft intends to release some objects and new animals for download, as The Sims has done – they keep a game fresh. The final deciding factor for buying the game for me was the release of “Dinosaur Digs” this month – an expansion pack that allows you to build a dinosaur park, complete with electric fencing, dino themed scenery, electric fencing, and of course, dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures. That did me in, it just sounds and looks way too cool.

So. Zoo Tycoon both intrigues me enough to keep me up past my bedtime, but has disappointed me as well. If Dinosaur Digs turns out to be good, and the website actually starts providing objects and animals for download, the game might be long-term playable. At least until RollerCoaster Tycoon II comes out. =)


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