reviews\ Oct 18, 2001 at 8:00 pm

Zoo Tycoon - PC - Review

The lion may be the king of the jungle, but in Zoo Tycoon you must be king of the zoo! Maybe it’s a bit too much Animal Planet, or the fact that I was a card carrying member of Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo for too many years – but I couldn’t resist the prospect of this game. A traditional sim at heart, Zoo Tycoon, published by Microsoft and developed by Blue Fang Games, takes the simulation genre to a new realm. With over 40 different animals and over 125 buildings and building materials to choose from, this game will easily appeal to those looking for something new and unique in the sim realm. It also has two modes of play – a freelance type mode where you can just start from the ground up with no rules, or a more rigorous "scenario" mode which increases in difficulty as you progress.

If you’re normally not a sim player and your interest has been lured by the concept of being a zoo mogul, have no fear! The tutorial for Zoo Tycoon is a work of art. You can choose to be tutored on gameplay as much or as little as you like - and you’re even given a head start with vibrant and easy-on-the-eyes basics in the installation process! What’s even better is a good serving of humor to go along with that education. After all, where else would a tutorial instruct you to remove a piece of the lion’s enclosure while the guests are in attendance, and then shortly after give you an amusing scolding for your blind obedience (all the while you’re hearing the screams of your fleeing visitors)? It’s fun from the very first minute you play and even with all the hectic activity that will be coming your way, the good feelings never really end.

Now – here’s the nitty gritty to building your zoo – the "bear" essentials, if you will (sorry for that!). First, of course, you need your animals and the cages to put them in. Then you have to keep them happy. This could be anything from trees and grasses from their native habitat, to rocks, and even toys! Social or anti-social? You need to know that about your choices or else you might have some disgruntled residents. Also, you can match-maker and give your guests the chance to see some young ‘uns amongst the bunch. And don’t forget the bait, I mean zookeeper, to take care of your zoo’s most prized possessions! Your zookeeper is actually a helpful little tool as well as an animal caretaker, as he/she will become essential in advising you what items will keep your critters happy. Do a good job, and eventually you will be awarded the chance for a wider selection of animals. As you go along, you can even win awards for being an excellent caretaker - adding more money to your projects. After that, you have to start providing for the care and feeding of the most dangerous creature of all: Your guests!

Okay, so now that we’ve got the human element included, it’s time to address the real name of the game: money. Hey, if it was only about making the animals happy, it wouldn’t be called Zoo Tycoon, would it? So, now you have to start buying stuff like paths to get to the exhibits, food booths, picnic tables, bathrooms and of course the ever popular and essential gift shop. There’s really much more to it than just setting up though. For instance, be careful where you place your sidewalks, if the guests can’t see your animals, they’re going tally a couple negative points against you in the approval department. Do things right and you will watch your crowds grow, allowing you to collect more than 40 different types of animals for your zoo! The same rules of expansion that applies to animals applies here - do well, and the number of buildings and amusements you can build expand. It's pretty easy to keep track of what your guests need - you can just check their status and see if they're thirsty, hungry, or anything else that might harm their experience. You must also watch the price of admission you charge, but you know you're being reasonable when you get the message: "Guests feel admission price is a good value." Right down to the marketing monies you allocate - it's all about business and keeping your zoo out of the red!

It's interesting to see the collection of different objects you can add to the zoo other than the typical food and drink stands. You must provide for resting places and trash cans (and the workers to pick up all the other garbage people drop). You also hire tour guides to make sure people have a pleasant experience. You have a multiple choice of paths to create for your guests, and a lot of non-living eye candy and entertainment as well. Statues, various fountains, carousels, "street lamps," it seems almost as if there is no end to the amount of little niceties you can add. There's also various sizes of gift shops, restaurants, and of course a petting zoo for the little ones. It's important to watch attendance for each little extra as well. Sometimes it just isn't worth the space you plotted it on.

The first several hours you play, you'll mostly be getting used to pleasing as many animals as possible without spending too much money and not sacrificing human needs. You'll need to assign your workers and get the caretakers on staff as early as possible to keep you informed and to keep everyone happy. Once you get the hang of it though, it's really fun, and it's especially interesting to see just how amorous these animals can be in the right conditions. 

And speaking of graphics, your animals don't just pace around aimlessly. Thompson's Gazelles have this wonderful little spring to their gaits when their frolicking about their grounds, while you'll also witness many of your more expressive animals at play. Animals will be found standing, sitting, running, walking and playing. All the buildings (and there are a ton of them!) have their own distinct look, and all of the animals are rendered true to scale and form. It's really hard to enjoy all the stuff going on as your monitoring the money and happiness factors - but if you do get a chance to stop and look, you'll be amazed the amount of detailed action going on by each and every living creature (both animal and human) on the screen at one time!

It must be said that Microsoft did not skimp when it came to providing information on the huge array of animals they have made available for gamers to display. When you consult your zookeeper/reference on each animal they give you vital statistics for the animal, it’s like and dislikes, and a great treasure trove of information on it’s natural habitat and other characteristics. Make a mistake, and you’re warned that a particular animal is unhappy. Sick animals must be tended to immediately - the other animals notice things like that. And it's up to you to place the right items (trees, grasses, toys) with the right animal – cleverly and clearly indication by either a green smiley or red angry face above the animals head with each decision you make. Yes, it can get overwhelming, but it is a sim after all, not just interactive Animal Planet! The great thing is, the difficulty levels actually mean something in this game so you can make it pleasurable for people who might not be as good at micromanagement as they are with animal behavior!

Overall, I really feel Zoo Tycoon will be an addictive experience for any animal and zoo lover who may or may not be accustomed to sim games. Unfortunately, experienced simmers may find the game lacking in complexity or motivation. From installation, it was evident that the makers of this game made it their first priority to make this game easy, enjoyable, and fun for any player to use. I’m thoroughly addicted to this game - If they could hear me right now, they’d hear me purring!

Install: Easy
The installation process of Zoo Tycoon is not only easy; it’s actually a form of tutorial (and entertainment) in itself. The presentation of facts and gameplay tidbits is exceptionally well presented and shows a real dedication to quality

Gameplay: 8
Zoo Tycoon is a romp in the sims genre like you’ve never had before. But Microsoft didn’t just take a sim formula and slap some animal crackers on it – they made the game easy to learn for all experience levels and made it fun to participate in. What might otherwise be a complex number of animals and items to manage is sorted into a wonderfully organized fashion for quick and easy access. Experienced simmers might not find the game as complex as they like, however, and unless they have a love for the animal kingdom they may become bored.

Graphics: 8
It’s hard to get into a lot of detail with the scope of such wide-spanning sims, but the graphics look great in Zoo Tycoon. The animals and buildings are rendered quite nicely and the menus are also easy to read, decipher, and use because of their clarity and design.

Sound: 8
All the sounds (and screams) of the zoo are brought to your own computer speakers. While there aren’t a whole lot of sounds or music, they are still the result of hard work and the "calls of the wild" are quite immersive.

Difficulty: 7.5
Microsoft probably anticipated the wide range of people who would be interested in play Zoo Tycoon and they managed what could have been a potential quandary extremely well. I can only imagine how many young "zookeepers" will want to play Zoo Tycoon and the game can be adjusted for the beginner. Obsessive simmers may not feel there's enough variety.

Concept: 7.5
As I mentioned earlier, Zoo Tycoon isn’t just your ordinary sim with some lion and tiger graphics slapped on. This game is beautiful to look at, spirited up with humor, and carefully and logically organized. In a world where sims sometimes all start to feel like clones of one another with different faces, Zoo Tycoon stands as an example to follow.

Overall: 8
Zoo Tycoon is the perfect gift for the zoo lover in your life who is looking for an enjoyable romp in the computer gaming world. It manages to keep the money in it for all you virtual "tycoons" and provides enough zoological information to keep the "Crocodile Hunter" in all of us entertained. While I would say this game is close to a 10 for the niche it was created for, long-time simmers will probably spend a lot of time comparing it to more intense sim titles.

Note:  10/25/01 - Some of the ratings above have been modified since the original posting of this review.


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