The original Zoo Tycoon and its add-on packs offered a new style of management gameplay to the PC audience, and it actually did quite well sale wise considering its somewhat niche approach - gamers were use to making profits off business in management games but keeping the product happy whilst doing that, in this case the animals, wasn't a common task. Unfortunately, the original did have its share of problems keeping it from becoming an instant classic, but MSGames are at it again with Zoo Tycoon 2, and with a completely new look and feel thanks to the new 3D engine, they may have just pulled it off this time around.
As far as I'm concerned, one of the most underrated features of a management or "tycoon" game is the tutorial; there is nothing worse than diving head first into the deep end having little clue about the game's mechanics and features. Luckily, Zoo Tycoon 2 features an easy, light weight, and yet satisfactorily comprehensive tutorial which will give you a fighting chance in any of the game modes. Some features could have probably used a little more attention, but following it through from start to finish should atleast provide enough of a stepping stone so that any vaguely covered feature is self explanatory, and it will only take 10 minutes or so. Some people never seem to go near in-game tutorials, and doing so in Zoo Tycoon 2 probably won't be a fatal mistake for one of your animals, but it will help make the game a much more hassle free enjoyable experience, that's for sure.
After the tutorial is out of the way, it is time to take your newly acquired zoo management skills into one of the game's main modes, which include Campaign mode, Challenge mode and Freeform mode. Although this isn't a whole lot on offer, the quality comes in the variation offered - Campaign mode will be the mode for gamers looking for increasingly difficult challenges and goals, whilst Challenge mode will allow more control while still providing tasks on the way. For the gamers looking for completely unrestricted gameplay, Freeform mode is for you. This gives you unlimited cash and all items unlocked with no set goals besides your own goal to build the best possible zoo you can where funding is not a factor. It is good to see a developer finally take this direction, sometimes it is nice to just sit down and play a hassle free game with no restrictions without resorting to cheats, and the Freeform mode does nicely for this purpose, although the game's best experience is certainly taking each step in doses as seen in the Campaign mode.
Available in Zoo Tycoon 2 are over 300 objects ranging from shops and shelters, to animals toys and donation boxes. You can also expect to see a total of 30 animals, ranging from the rainforest native 'Ring-tailed Lemur' to the common Antarctic Penguin. This is not much of an addition to the series but then again, the original did do a pretty good job in the variation of animals. Placements of objects is far more versatile this time around, not only can you switch most objects in all 4 basic directions, you can also face them in the 4 diagonal directions in between, which makes for some pretty unique designs when it comes to fencing and monument placement amongst other objects.
While in-game you can also view your park in the new "guest mode", which basically turns the game's camera and controls into a First Person Shooter game, without the "Shooter" part of course. This mode is pretty basic, but as an added bonus you can also act as an employee and clean the park up, which might give you something to do should hiring a maintenance worker be out of range for your budget. This mode also gives you a good view of how your visitors see your park, which does play a significant role in your success as a zoo manager this time around.
Sometimes, after you've crafted a working profitable model, it is a good idea to just sit back and soak in the success of your zoo, tending to minor details such as bin placements, seating etc and leaving the money making machine on autopilot. In fact, a lot of the game is not about building new attractions but rather keeping minor details inline, as new attractions require significant funding, particularly the larger animals. Unfortunately, there seems to be no game speed option so for any period you'd prefer to sit back and wait, you'll have to do it at the normal game speed. Most of the time this isn't a problem, as there is almost always something to do in your park, however it still would have been nice to see a game speed option included.
Another feature seemingly missing is the realtime on screen mini map. Whilst there is a full screen map which resembles that of your typical visitors map you'd expect to find at a zoo, this is a static map which does not quickly help you figure out where you are, and where you may need to go. Usually a small window in the bottom corner of your screen which updates in realtime depending on your camera movement is used in games like this, but none seems to be present here. This is one of those features you don't appreciate until it's gone as it is generally an expected feature for strategy/management games, and it certainly does feel weird not having it when you navigate in Zoo Tycoon 2.
Fortunately, that about wraps up the disappointments in the game, which in the most part don't have a significant negative affect on the gameplay. If you don't like the idea of zoo management then Zoo Tycoon 2 probably won't change that as it is quite a niche genre, but for the people that do, this title is far more rewarding and has far more replay value than the original. Whilst the original seemed to get more annoying as the time passed, Zoo Tycoon 2 seems to do the exact opposite - it grows on you as the time passes. The differences aren't really that obvious either, it just seems to have a bit more purpose and direction, probably thanks to the somewhat simplified feel. Just about everything from the menu design to the amount of attention required to satisfy any given animal seems to have been 'trimmed' so to speak, without necessarily making the game less challenging, although granted this sequel probably is aimed at a younger aged gamer than the original, or atleast, it has more success appealing to younger gamers than the original did, so it isn't going to necessarily challenge the Capitalism buffs out there. For example, in the Campaign mode, there will be tasks and goals beyond just making profits, which refocuses the game from a stock management sim to more of a management/strategy hybrid, something which has more appeal to the common gamer.
That's not to say the game doesn't have a good financial system in place though, because it most certainly does. Each shop will produce mini balance sheets showcasing their profits and costs, as well as a fully featured balance sheet for your zoo showing all total costs and revenue. You can also set the price of entry, drinks, food etc, so whilst the game does have somewhat of a new focus on 'gameplay' orientated goals and challenges, the fact remains you still have to bring in the mulla if you want the zoo to open each day.
Visually the game is a huge improvement over the original, particularly when zoomed in, and since an integral part of the game involves closely zoomed camera views now, this is a huge relief. Often when games move from 2D to 3D visuals in any given series, the initial attempt at 3D is lacking however this is not the case for Zoo Tycoon 2. Whilst the game doesn't have extremely detailed textures or models, they are detailed enough to achieve what the developers wanted, that is, a pleasant yet not necessarily impressive game to look at. One drawback with the transition to 3D, however, is that in an attempt to make the game operate smoothly, the overall look has taken on a much more "cartoony" nature than the original, which may not go down overly well with some fans. This, again, plays into the new "younger" target market of the game.
Zoo Tycoon was, in the most part, a buggy and tedious game that did a pretty good job of making the unique concept of virtual zoo management overwhelming and boring. However, Zoo Tycoon 2 is quite the improvement - not only does the 3D engine add far more versatility to the game, but you get the overall feeling far more attention to detail went into this sequel. The original and it's add on packs generally made virtual zoo management a gradually less and less appealing concept for a computer game, but Zoo Tycoon 2 does a good job reversing this, making it gradually more and more appealing thanks to the somewhat 'refined' (less tedious) gameplay and excellent replay value. Whilst it isn't perfect, for instance some fundamental features you'd expect to see for a game in this genre are missing, Zoo Tycoon 2 provides ample improvement over the original Zoo Tycoon while also adding enough to attract new gamers to the series - albeit probably gamers of the younger variety.