Greetings, faithful viewers. To take a break from Testament for a moment, I figured I’d take a look at a game that has been on my mind a lot recently: Zoo Tycoon 2. Now, y’all know I don’t go into video game reviews that often, but I figured I’d at least give it a go nonetheless. A fair warning, though: this is less an in-depth review and more me enjoying hearing myself talk, so don’t expect any scoring or such from this post. If you want that, you may want to check Wikipedia’s page for animal lists and such. Sorry!
So, where better to start with Zoo Tycoon 2, than with the start? Put out in 2004, ZT2 was definitely different than its predecessor: it was 3D rather than an isometric perspective game, had set habitats/biomes (alpine, boreal forest, desert, grassland, savannah, scrub, temperate forest, tropical rainforest, tundra, and wetlands) to utilize in exhibits, and a bigger emphasis on animal interactivity. While hiring a zookeeper is entirely possible, it may be more cost-effective to feed, water, and clean up after animals and maintain exhibits on your own terms. With a collection of 30 popular zoo animals such as the Nile crocodile, hippopotamus, African elephant, Thompson’s gazelle, and giant panda, it provided a decent starting point for a new game series. Still, we aren’t here to talk about decency, now are we? So, let’s head deeper into the game through its expansion packs.
2005 brought us Endangered Species, the first expansion pack for the game. As its name implies, much of the 20 new animals in ES are threatened or endangered species such as the orangutan, Javan rhinoceros, Galapagos tortoise, and Florida panther; of course, it also had some animals that are popular zoo attractions, but simply weren’t cut out to make it into the main game, such as the always adorable Fennec fox, similarly adorable koala, and sturdy American bison (which is, unsurprisingly, common in American zoos). It also gave us several major innovations, such as a personal favorite of mine: animal variants. Obviously, in real life, you sometimes end up with a wild card. The variants system introduced this to ZT2, allowing for king cheetahs, white tigers, and other unusual animal color patterns to manifest in the game as they would in nature. The game also added some more advanced animal AI, such as preventing animal incest and letting herd and pack behavior manifest.
Of course, the guests weren’t left out either, especially in transportation department. If you’re a Louisianian like me, you’ll know that pretty much every zoo seems to have a prerequisite of at least one boardwalk above a crocodilian (almost always American alligator) exhibit; the elevated path system from ES added this to Zoo Tycoon 2, as well as providing a way for zoo guests in the game to see animals without making them feel too shy and stressed out. In addition to elevated paths, sky trams and Jeep tours were added in ES, allowing guests an even larger range of ways to see the animals besides peering at them through fencing from a pathway. The designers were even kind enough to throw in some tour enrichment pieces such as sequoia tree tunnels for Jeeps to drive through, fog machines, geysers, and volcanoes.
My, my, where to start with African Adventure… To be honest, while a lot of people apparently hated the expansion pack, I liked African Adventure. Sure, its only mechanical add-ons were a rehash of the Jeep tour and expanded herd animal and pack hunter behaviors, but it had 20 animals from all sorts of biomes, yet still all from Africa! To me, that’s a perfect example of just how diverse the natural world is. From a single continent, this expansion pack produced creatures from every habitat other than the tundra, such as the scrub-dwelling meerkat, wetlands-loving Nile monitor lizard, the enigmatic rainforest creature that is the pygmy hippopotamus, and the grasslands-roaming ratel (also known as the honey badger). And…well, really, that’s all I have to say about this expansion pack. It’s all about the animals in this XP.
Sooner or later, most zoo-themed games tend to want to do the aquarium gig. And why shouldn’t they? After all, plenty of zoos do have aquarium sections, such as the California sea lions at the Houston Zoo in Houston, Texas, or the American river otter exhibits in many zoos. For Zoo Tycoon 2, the aquarium craze kicked in late 2006 with Marine Mania. While that year had already produced African Adventure, I can only imagine that Microsoft wanted to put out something else to hedge their bets, and this is what we got. First off, it is worth noting that Marine Mania added four new biomes: benthic, coastal, pelagic, and reef. Sadly, this meant that out of the 20 animals included, most of them were in these habitats, save for four (the beluga whale, narwhal, Pacific walrus, and orca) that were in the tundra. Now, don’t get me wrong, this was a great add-on for the game… It’s just, well… You see… Guh, okay, out with it. I would have liked some freshwater fish too. Sure, you could say “hey, it’s Marine Mania”, but Endangered Species had non-endangered species, so hah.
In between the oohs and ahhs at housing goblin sharks, whale sharks, rockhopper penguins, blue marlin, and other denizens of the deep, Marine Mania also provided the potential for even more money pouring in from guests in the form of marine animal shows. Beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions, false killer whales, orcas, Pacific walrus, sea otters, and short-finned pilot whales can all be taught tricks to perform for awed crowds in specially organized shows, bringing both added fame and revenue to your marine-themed zoo. Of course, the main way of training them is…a minigame. A minigame that can vary from easy to teeth-grindingly annoying, depending on how good your hand-eye coordination and/or mouse workability. If you couldn’t guess my ability with a mouse in this case, I’ll simply state that I tend to pony-up the extra cash to buy a marine animal trainer to do the work for me.
In 2007, the Zoo Tycoon 2 games decided they’d go out with a bang. An expansion pack with not 20, not even 30, but a grand total of 35 animals (36 if you count the killer penguin, a joke animal that is only created in laboratory accidents), all of them extinct creatures that you could resurrect to have your very own Jurassic (or Cretaceous, or Pleistocene, or whatever) Park. This is another one of those more controversial expansions, and it would be a lie for me to not air my own statements on ZT2’s last official hurrah in this retrospective. The first thing I have to note is that somebody at Blue Fang R&D must have loved minigames, as there are plenty in this expansion. Want prehistoric animals without paying ridiculously expensive prices compared to non-extinct animals of similar zoo fame? Play the fossil finding mini-game, then the mini-game to put the fossils together, then the mini-game to clone the creatures! Dinosaur extremely upset? Better get out that dart gun for the rampage tranquilizing mini-game! A freakish prehistoric ailment plaguing your park? Better get your detective gear on to find the cure! Thankfully, as with the marine animal training mini-game, you can buy specialists to do the fossil finding and rampage tranquilizing..though you’re still on your own with the others.
Second off, it’s hard not to notice that some of the biome choices in this game seem odd, to say the least. While most of the more recent extinctions such as the dodo bird, thylacine, woolly rhino, and short-faced bear and even some of the deep past denizens have proper biome choices, others are less probable. Tyrannosaurus rex in the tropical rainforest? Not likely. Lastly, I can’t help but notice some odd gaps in the choices for extinct animals for the expansion. While I applaud the decision to have a good dose of recent human-caused extinctions such as the bluebuck and Falkland Islands wolf (also known as the warrah), the only creature we get from before the age of the dinosaurs is the old standby Dimetrodon, and there are no creatures from the Triassic, the oft-nicknamed “dawn of the dinosaurs”. Still, it would be foolish of me to write off the pack entirely. For every awkward biome choice or could-have-been, there were solid choices like a properly-sized and correctly-feathered Velociraptor, the ancient giant wombat Diprotodon, and the classy short-faced bear. For every palaeontologist you might buy to save your time on fossil finding, there are also costumed entertainers to keep your guests happy in new ways.
User Expansion Packs
Before I end this blog off, I have to take a moment to talk about the elephant in the room: the hefty user-created content community that has built up around this game. User expansion packs, or “UXPs”, as well as singular downloads, can be found in droves if you know where to look. With time and effort, these homebrew meshers and coders have been able to even create creatures with no real basis in the official ZT2 animal rosters, such as baleen whales, eels, and sauropod dinosaurs. In particular, I’d like to talk about two groups in this section.
First off, let’s take a moment to talk about Artifex. This group caught my eye by the fact that, while it hasn’t made a lot of material, the two UXPs it has created – Arabian Nights and Island Excursions –have gone above and beyond in trying to look as official as possible, right down to the classic “20’s the magic number” of the official expansion packs of old. The first of the two, the Middle East-focused Arabian Nights, definitely seems to have the feel of treading the waters for the first time. Many of its animals, such as the Baluchistan bear, mugger crocodile, and Blanford’s fox, seem to be selected as things that could be easily made out of existing material. Still, there are some signs of wild imagination even at these early stages: in particular, it is worthy of note that they managed to take existing ZT2 materials and mold out the supremely weird freshwater creatures that are the Indus river dolphin and the beluga sturgeon. Where they really broke the mold was in their second expansion pack, Island Excursions. Focusing on the often quite odd wildlife of the world’s islands, creatures such as the mahi-mahi, Southern minke whale, spotted eagle ray, and tamaraw pushed the envelope even farther than the Indus river dolphin and beluga sturgeon of Arabian Nights had. Plus, there are (amongst plenty other items) decorative Moai! Who can say no to Moai?
Second, I’d like to note the works of Northern Skies, in particular one DinosaurMan. The teams of Northern Skies just do all-around phenomenal work, especially in Aurora Designs’ “Radical Remake”, a series that is designed to reskin and remesh the official animals to more realistic 2011 standards. Still, as I said, I plan on talking about DinosaurMan’s packs. From various hoofed animals in his Artiodactyla pack to chameleons, geckos, cobras, and crocodiles of various shapes and sizes (not to mention marine iguanas and sea snakes) in his Reptilia pack, DinosaurMan’s work continues to shock and amaze. I’d particularly like to highlight his European Expeditions pack as an example of a good return to the African Adventure formula. In spite of only covering one continent, EE has a wide range of habitats covered (ironically enough, all but the tundra, just like in African Adventure), from thornback rays and white pelicans in the coastal biome to Northern pike and wels catfish in the wetlands. While, unlike Artifex items, you need to register on their forums to download, I’d say give DinosaurMan’s works on the Zoo Tycoon site Northern Skies a looksee if you own the Zoo Tycoon 2 series and want some fresh content.