Zoo Tycoon 2 for the Nintendo DS is a management sim that lacks the depth or difficulty to make it interesting for anyone other than its intended kiddie audience. But even so, parents looking at this title as a way to get their little tykes interested in the plight of some of the world's most endangered animal species may want to think again, as Zoo Tycoon 2 sends some decidedly mixed messages about animal welfare thanks to its ultrasimplistic gameplay.
Zoo Tycoon 2, like its predecessors, is all about creating great zoos with happy animals in healthy environments. So you can't do truly horrible things like get into the bear bile trade, stick kangaroos in aquariums, or make a beaver and a moose fight for your love. The happier your animals, the more people come to see them. The more people come, the more money you make, which you can then spend on improving your park and doing research to be able to house even more exotic creatures, and so on. It's a laudable premise, but the game's simplicity and options-light approach too often allow players to cut corners and place animals in some clearly overcrowded situations--a strange oversight for a game supposedly all about a greater appreciation for our animal brethren.
The biggest problem Zoo Tycoon 2 for the DS has is that its core gameplay--keeping your animals happy by creating the right environments for them, as well as monitoring their five basic needs--is so stripped of any complexity that you can literally use the same strategy for making all your critters happy regardless of their size, rarity, or temperament. There's simply no challenge to be found at all in the game's Campaign mode, a series of 15 scenarios split up into five difficulties. Each scenario tasks you with achieving certain objectives within a set time frame and budget, but they all amount to the same thing--start up your zoo with some basic animals, complete the research tree to unlock rarer ones, and watch the crowds roll in.
You must keep the game's animals in enclosures that match their respective natural habitats. You'll find this by selecting the animal once it's in your enclosure and finding out what its preferences are simply via tapping the animal favorites button. This will show its preferred ground surface, water type, foliage, and shelter, and will guide you directly to the purchase screen to buy, and then place, your selections.
If that sounds simple enough, it's because it is. Since exactly what's needed is clearly pointed out via a series of prompts, this process quickly becomes tedious as the ol' synapses never have to fire up at any stage to make any important decisions. Creating the perfect habitat for every animal--from otter to elephant--is as easy and quick as covering the ground with the appropriate surface, sticking some water in the corner, planting a tree here and there, putting down the occasional rock or shelter, and then placing a zookeeper in the enclosure to take care of all your animals.
Zoo Tycoon 2 does let you take a more hands-on role with the upkeep of your flock. The game's ZooKeeper mode lets you interact with any animal in the park, and is essentially a series of five minigames that directly impact an animal's happiness. All of these minigames are mind-numbingly straightforward, however, and will probably hold your interest for only a few rounds before you decide to ditch it completely and let a computer-controlled zookeeper do it for you. The feeding minigame, for example, presents you with four food options, but it's always easy to know which one to feed your chosen animal because the game highlights it for you.
The feeding minigame is but one example of Zoo Tycoon 2's almost fanatical dedication to remove anything remotely challenging from the game. Even at its highest difficulty, players can do the minimum amount of work and still come up with superhappy animals raring to procreate to continue their species. All of the nonanimal park options--such as food outlets, restrooms, gift shops, and more--seem to have little to no impact on how popular your zoo is with guests. We completed numerous campaigns with only basic hot dog shops and soft drink stands and had no problems earning the maximum star rating available. We even grouped together toilet blocks in just one corner of the zoo, and still our bladder-challenged patrons didn't complain.
To its credit, Zoo Tycoon 2 does include comprehensive details about all the animals featured on its roster for any curious kiddies. Information cards on each of the animals are collected as you progress through the game, and they contain plenty of information, such as its habitat, characteristics, and more.
Outside of the main campaign mode, Zoo Tycoon 2 for the DS features a freeform mode where you can set your own parameters such as starting cash, type of zoo, and more. There are also two multiplayer modes: Trade a Zoo, in which you simply swap a zoo you've already created with a friend, and Tycoon Showdown, in which two players compete to build a better zoo from the same starting base. When it comes to controls, almost everything can be done using the stylus and touch screen, although we found it preferable to navigate around the maps using the DS's D pad.
DS games can look much better than what Zoo Tycoon 2 presents. The animal models in the game are uniformly poor, particularly from the default overhead zoo view, where it's often hard to tell one animal from another (Nile crocodiles, for example, look like slow-moving green smudges onscreen). Zookeeper close-ups of the animals don't fare much better--there are models for male, female, and younguns, but most look bad and in some cases are anatomically incorrect. The music here is average at best, made up mostly of African-infused sounds with a lot of percussion. Animal sounds are dull as well, and are limited to one sound per animal.
With the challenge factor dropped all the way down to zero, all that's left of Zoo Tycoon 2 for the DS is repetitive gameplay and some questionable animal-care ethics. Even kids may find this game dull, and while this beast isn't quite bad enough to be put down, it certainly isn't something you'd want to spend much time with.