Another in the still-expanding genre of sims, as a Zoo Tycoon you build and maintain your own zoo, buying animals, constructing exhibits and managing your animals’ and guests’ needs.
Developed by the new Blue Fang (headed up by former developers at Sierra Online), this is their first game and the first zoo-related sim on the market.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
The interface is fairly intuitive for most sim-familiar players and, even if it isn’t, the well-designed tutorial and newbie scenarios give a good heads-up.
You can play either a freeform game or a scenario. For a freeform player, any of the basic grass maps are the best to start with. You then construct your exhibits, buy your animals, hire zookeepers and other staff, set up a few concessions and guest services, and away you go. The most challenging aspect is making sure that each animal has exactly the right environment that it wants and keeping up with guests’ demands for new exhibits and services, all while not going broke.
Scenarios are actually a little too simple and winning them should have been goal-based rather than timed. It took me only one month of in-game time to complete the objectives for the first gameplay scenario and then I had to sit around for the next five "months" waiting for it to realize I’d done so. In cases like this, having speed control instead of just a pause button would be really welcome. It would also be nice to have a better timeline, than just month to month.
Also on my wishlist for gameplay options is the ability to assign zoo workers to specific tasks. Assigning a zookeeper to an exhibit is good, but it would also be nice to be able to tell it to feed the animals or to heal a specific one.
Overall graphics are fairly decent- something along the lines of. However, like Age of Kings, even at a low resolution, many items are so small as to be very hard to see and click on. In full-screen mode, you only have two zoom levels and the closest zoom isn’t close enough. Even in windowed mode, the next level of zoom isn’t terribly useful because things get far too pixellated.
It’s nice to be able to rotate the screen and objects to get better angles at things (and great to be able to rotate object icons in their selector screen), but it would be even nicer to have different levels of view, such as many other sims have. When trying to find a single square of trampled terrain, for instance, it would be great to be able to turn gridlines on, and turn foliage and buildings off, to see exactly which square is the problem.
Object animation is pretty cool. Each animal roams around in its exhibit completely and has a very wide range of behaviors, including some very cute little dances by some, like chimps and penguins. There are also a few little easter-egg type features which appear from time to time.
They’ve added plenty more sounds since our preview. Almost too many, actually. Trying to put all of your exhibit houses in a small area, for instance, will result in the most annoying cacophony. Each animal also has realistic noises every time you click on it (I tend to click on my Okapi just for fun).
Windows 95, 98, 2000, Me or XP, 250MB hard drive space (600 MB recommended), 233 MHz processor (300 MHz recommended), 32MB RAM for Windows 95/98 and Windows ME, 64 MB RAM for Windows 2000, 128 MB RAM for Windows XP, 4MB graphics card (16MB recommended), 4X or higher CD-ROM drive, and a mouse.
Microsoft has switched to a new standardized booklet format for all their new games, and it’s a good thing. Specific instructions on gameplay are very well explained.
It’s really a great concept and has some very good bones in it, but I get the feeling that the game was rushed to market for Christmas before testing was fully complete. There are dozens of little, but easily fixable bugs (such as text bugs) and unfortunately several more serious ones. The system recommendations on the box, for instance, are woefully inadequate, as I was experiencing poor performance on even a very high-end machine, especially when placing a lot of very noisy objects close to each other. It’s impossible to completely fill a large map, for instance, before you start seeing hesitation in the on-screen movement. (It’s either system problems, or the game simply doesn’t like XP. In which case, a highly-deserved thwack to Microsoft.) Another bug is that attendance starts dwindling to nothing late in the game, even after adding new exhibits and features (it seems to top out around 1000 for some reason.)
Other annoying problems include a very short time to the quasi "endgame" for freeform players (the last of the high-end scenarios). Though the game is obviously aimed at children, even kids will get through everything the game has to offer in a fairly short time. By the time I reached year three on my most-successful map, there were no more new animals and objects being offered, and everything researchable had already been researched. I know that they’re intending to have new animals, objects and scenarios available for download periodically, but it still shouldn’t take only a week of gameplay to get through everything there is in it. Also, some very obvious animals weren’t included in the initial game (like cougars and most American desert animals) and there are dozens of useless foliage items, probably intended for use with animals that have yet to become available.
There are also some things that aren’t made clear in the tutorials or documentation, such as what things are available for research, and where those objects become available when they’re ready. I spent half an hour trying to figure out where my researched "Raptors of the World" ended up, when I stumbled across it in the Aviary. Endangered animals should also be highlighted somehow in the animal selector screen, so if you’re not quite paying attention when they’ve been researched, you can still pick one. I’d also appreciate some more-realistic basic maps. At the moment, the grass maps are the only ones that can be used for serious gameplay.
Having said all that, however, I do think the game is certainly worth a look -- perhaps especially in a month or so when they have some patches and new items available for download. Aside from the performance issues, most of the bugs are very easily fixable. Once they fix the problems, and I’m sure they will, the game will be a great diversion for kids and adults alike looking for a good, educational and more-or-less non-violent game. The technical problems also are equal to or, in many cases, far less than other sim games (some of which I never could get to run on some systems and OS’s) and the overall game design is definitely superior. This is the first zoo-related sim I’ve come across, and it’s about time. Here’s hoping they make the necessary improvements to make it a game really worth playing.