Zoo Tycoon 2 DS (DS) review
"It's easy to get sidetracked, since there's so much to do. For example, you might be asked to build cages for animals that all come from Africa. Of course, some of those critters can be pretty expensive, so you have to build up revenue by first showing less costly beasts to your happy patrons. Then along the way, you might start going overboard with the placement of vending booths and benches. Suddenly, a year has gone by and you haven't made any progress on those primary objectives. Disaster looms."
There's a guy here on HonestGamers--we'll call him EmP--that recently issued a challenge to the site's contributors. He suggested that we all should review games starting with each letter of the alphabet, 'A' through 'Z' by the end of the year. It's the sort of thing that can leave a fellow scrambling to find the right titles. "Where am I going to find something starting with 'Z' that I haven't already written about?" I asked myself. Then THQ provided the answer in the form of Zoo Tycoon 2 DS, a pleasing experience I most likely would've missed if it had started with a different letter.
Originally a PC title, Zoo Tycoon 2 DS is the second in a series that places players squarely in the role of zoo director. For the single player, there are two primary modes. One is the 'freeform' map where you start with a certain budget and can build a zoo to your liking, while the other is campaign-based. The second option is likely to tie up most of your time, since it's the way to unlock special creatures. It's also a great way to learn the ropes, since it commences with a useful tutorial mode.
Zoo Tycoon 2 DS is the sort of game that needs such an option. Though the interface is quite intuitive once you get the hang of it, comfort with its complexities won't come immediately. More than the flimsy instruction manual, the interactive tutorial is the cure. It holds your hand as you learn to place cages and concession stands, then optimize environments (called 'biomes') and other such things. Every step in the tutorial is useful, plus you can replay it later if needed.
Once the introductory areas are out of the way, affairs grow more serious. Early assignments remain simple, but you'll quickly progress to a point where time and money both seem insufficient for the task at hand. There's so much to do in the game that unless you formulate some really sound strategies, you'll often have to restart a given episode to stand any sort of chance. It's easy to get sidetracked, since there's so much to do. For example, you might be asked to build cages for animals that all come from Africa. Of course, some of those critters can be pretty expensive, so you have to build up revenue by first showing less costly beasts to your happy patrons. Then along the way, you might start going overboard with the placement of vending booths and benches. Suddenly, a year has gone by and you haven't made any progress on those primary objectives. Disaster looms.
The sense of urgency makes the game so much more than it would have otherwise been. If you decide to retreat for the comfort of the freeform map, you'll find things there are laid back in comparison and not really as exciting. You'll mostly do the same sort of things, like research new species or employee skills, but now you don't face a threat anything worse than boredom if you plan your moves poorly and overextend your finances too early.
At least in those instances, you'll have a throughly relaxing soundtrack to keep you company. Somehow it doesn't really grate on the nerves no matter how many times you hear it play. Woodwind instruments seem to have that quality about them. The sound department also benefits from some nice audio effects that give the zoo an ambient feel. Every time animals give birth, there's the appropriate sound of junior entering the world, plus there are other sounds throughout. It's all quite effective.
Graphics, unfortunately, are a mixed bag. As your zoo becomes crowded, you'll watch visitors strolling the walkways you created and gawking at cages filled by numerous creatures of your choice. There may even be zoo staff you've hired, including trainers that socialize with the animals. Everywhere you look, things feel every bit as alive as they should (unless you're a total scrub when it comes to micro management). All of the on-screen activity is necessary for the game to work, and for the most part well-executed, but it can start to tax the system. A restroom stall might start wavering if you position your viewpoint nearby. The dolphins from one marine exhibit might appear to be swimming with polar bears one cage over. In fact, that latter occurrence is actually a game-ending glitch if you respond by tapping the screen with your stylus to try to fix it. Fortunately, you can pause the game and save to one of three slots on the cartridge.
Between the graphical oddities and the amount of activities and objectives, sometimes it can be easy to become overwhelmed, if only for a moment. Help is never far away, though. If you're stuck, just head into some of the menus to find a refresher on your current objectives. At times, your assignment can grow so daunting that it feels almost like homework. Just know that any grief you might encounter is balanced out by the more common situations where you're left deciding which of several fun activities you'll want to engage in first.
Finally, a note for the animal lovers among you: Zoo Tycoon 2 DS has you mostly covered. As you place new creatures throughout your zoo, you can tap on them to bring up mini-games that allow you to feed and water them, pet them, medicate them and clean them. These are all designed to use the stylus while reasonably solid animations depict the pleased animals on-screen. For some of you, this might be as close as you ever come to feeing a flamingo or grooming a gorilla. There also are cards you can unlock that include lots of information about the various animal breeds represented within the game, so it's very educational.
As Zoo Tycoon 2 DS handily proves, sometimes it's good to venture outside of your comfort zone. You never really know what you'll find. In this instance, I discovered an engaging simulation title that really appealed to my creative side while also rewarding methodical planning. It has its share of faults, but those who are ready to overlook them will experience one of the more pleasant DS titles to date. Whether you've always wanted to try a tycoon game or you're just looking for something a little different, my advice is to give this release a chance. Like me, you just might be surprised!
Staff review by Jason Venter (February 14, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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