Zoo Tycoon 2 Hands-On Impressions

Zoo Tycoon 2 will feature more depth and better graphics than the original game, but it appears as kid friendly as ever.

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Get an up-close and personal look at the proper care of lions in Zoo Tycoon 2. Double-click on the video window for a full-screen view.

The original Zoo Tycoon clearly drew inspiration from the best-selling RollerCoaster Tycoon, but this actually worked in the game's favor. Though it wouldn't challenge older and experienced gamers, Zoo Tycoon was an enjoyable game, and one that parents could play with their children. After all, what child doesn't like going to the zoo? Microsoft and developer Blue Fang Games are now working on Zoo Tycoon 2, and we've had a chance to play around with the sequel a bit. We've learned that while Zoo Tycoon does introduce a lot of new features, the gameplay remains as kid friendly and as easy as ever.

Everything about Zoo Tycoon 2 strikes you as kid friendly right off the bat, from the happy, upbeat musical introduction to the colorful interface with big, almost Playskool-like buttons. The game offers a number of different modes, including a free-form game that gives you unlimited funds to create the zoo of your dreams; a challenge game that offers scenarios where you must accomplish a variety of objectives; and a campaign game, which links several scenarios together into an overriding theme. These themes can involve preventing animal abuse, fixing troubled zoos, and conservation projects. Pick any mode and you'll be dropped into the game, which has been upgraded to a full 3D engine from the original game, which sported a 2D look not unlike that of RollerCoaster Tycoon. Even with the new 3D engine, Zoo Tycoon 2 remains as colorful as ever, and while it doesn't veer toward photo-realism, it does feature a cartoon-style look, like in the environment and zoo visitors, that should appeal to younger players. The animals themselves are rendered in nice detail. For example, you can see all the wrinkles on a rhinoceros or the dirt building up on a zebra.

This zookeeper walks among a pride of lions, but they're all pussycats at heart.
This zookeeper walks among a pride of lions, but they're all pussycats at heart.

The new 3D engine allows for a couple of new features that will let you get closer to the animals than you've ever been before. You can switch to a first-person, ground-level view of the zoo and walk around, experiencing everything like one of your visitors would. As a visitor, you can snap pictures in a photo safari mode, and then store those pictures in your photo albums. It's close to actually being a tourist in a real zoo. You can also walk around in zookeeper mode, which allows you to enter the animals' habitat and care for each animal individually. You can call for the animal to come over, and you'll make the appropriate animal sound to calm the creature. Once up close, you can care for an animal by cleaning it, grooming it, and treating any of its ailments. You can tell the state of each animal by its appearance, as unhappy animals tend to be dirty and look sick, while happy ones prance about and look clean. It also helps that little icons appear over each animal's head, like the icons that pop up over a sim's head in The Sims, indicating whether the animal is happy, hungry, lonely, and more.

In addition to caring for animals, you'll also need to build and expand your zoo. You can lay down paths and fence off areas for future animal exhibits, and you can acquire new species to broaden the variety of your zoo. The more animals you have, the more paying visitors will come to your zoo, and the more money you'll have. One of the complaints from the original Zoo Tycoon was that it was difficult trying to create a biome, or environmental habitat, for each animal, because you needed to select a specific combination of plants and terrain to make the animal happy. This issue has been alleviated in Zoo Tycoon 2, thanks to the new Biome Brush. You can look up each species in the game's built-in zoo encyclopedia and learn lots of educational details about an animal. You'll also learn what biome the animal hails from. With the Biome Brush, all you have to do is fence off an area, choose the appropriate biome, and then "spray paint" the fenced-in area. The Biome Brush will automatically change the ground type (sand, hard dirt, and so on), and it can add the appropriate trees, planets, and other terrain features that the animal needs.

Mr. Hippo likes to pose for photographs.
Mr. Hippo likes to pose for photographs.

Zoo Tycoon 2 will offer a lot more depth than the original game, though not at the expense of difficulty. There will be more buildings and objects that you can place in your zoo, including guest attractions and toys. Zoo Tycoon 2 is looking pretty solid at this point, and it should definitely appeal to parents looking for an educational and fun game for their kids. Microsoft plans to release Zoo Tycoon 2 sometime this fall.

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