While most gamers are now killing people, stealing cars or enjoying a
mixture of both; it’s best to remember that there’s a certain segment of the population that would prefer something more stimulating. This demographic is better known as the sim-crowd and instead of improving their skills by jacking cars and flying them off of the expressway amid a shower of bullets; they’d rather practice the fine art of resource management. Indeed, the sims would find more enjoyment in the intricacies of running the car factory, or the ammo dump, or even the highway maintenance department than then role of criminal. Ever since Sim City, the sim crowd has wanted to administer anything and everything that could be managed.
When Microsoft released Zoo Tycoon in 2001 the company made managing simulated manure mainstream and gave the sim-crowd another realm to control. Until recently Microsoft enjoyed a steady grip on the Zoo Simulation market. All that has changed thanks to Enlight’s new offering, Zoo Empire. The sim crowd now has a valid alternative to managing all the fun that comes out of a zoo – provided you’re young enough to enjoy it.
Not surprisingly Zoo Empire places you in charge of a zoo and offers two modes of game play. The first, a single-player campaign, places you at the bottom of the zookeeper’s career ladder and gives you 21 missions to become worthy of your own television show. It’s good for those who can’t be bothered to ? or just can’t ? read the instruction manual since it gently introduces the various aspects of running the zoo. What’s fun is that after you’ve learned the basics about the zoo life, the ladder splits into two specializations: animal care and financial care. Of course choosing one doesn’t limit your career; you’re free to swing from branch to branch and you will want to explore both routes. Campaign mode is the tutorial mode that teaches all you need to know about the other mode: Free Game.
Free Game mode is what Zoo Empire is all about. You’re given a hunk of land, a chunk of cash, and all of the zoo empire options at your finger tips. The initial selections are rather limited; with predetermined allotments of cash, land and other minor options, but of course the point of the game is to build, manage and repeat so the first choices are really only a small seed to get you started. After the initial plotting of the pathways, there’s the hiring (and firing) of your zoo personnel, the construction of habitats and customer amenities, and of course the purchasing/adoption of animals ? all to be done before you even open your doors to the public.
After the people pass through your gates the game becomes a juggling act to make sure the customers and the animals are happy at the same time. The longer you can keep up this balance, the more money you’ll make.
While it’s obvious that this is a children’s game – the welcome screen does has a polar bear hugging a penguin – this fact is made a little too obvious in the AI. Once you realize the tricks to keeping everybody happy, you can set a zoo that runs itself so well that it’s near impossible to lose money. Whether or not this was a conscious effect to reinforce a positive experience for the young player or not, it does reduce the game’s attraction to the more seasoned gamer. The only way left to generate new novelty was to force some carnage by placing various animals in the same pen. Instead of bloody messes I just received some frowny-face e-mails from the disgruntled animals. Unfortunately this is a threshold that all sims must define, that is; the time it takes for users to figure out the game logic. Once the player has mastered every cause and effect relationship ? much like learning how to juggle with one hand tied behind his back, blind-folded, and drinking a glass of water ? the game starts to lose its challenge. Since the game is aimed at a young demographic, having this threshold set low makes sense as the core audience will most likely out grow their clothes the same time they’ll out grow this game. That isn’t to say that this game lacks any concept of a challenge; there are challenges but they’re much like the challenges in a choose-your-own-adventure book: enjoyable if you’re at the right age-level or fun when not taken too seriously.
The humans and animals themselves are rendered as friendly 3D cartoon models taken right out of a pre-school television show. This means that the representations are not as detailed as they could be for a simulation game ? real fur always looks better than a textured skinning ? but really, nobody is going to care. This is a kids game where the audience is more interested in the polar bears playing with each other that a seeing a properly boned paw. The models aren’t necessarily brilliant but they’re perfect for the game. The thing that does stand out is the 3D environment. Every player wants to explore their zoo and the engine does a nice job of seamlessly translating, rotating and scaling the scenery to accommodate what ever view the player wants. Be it from a height akin to a blimp, the height of the garbage pail; both heights deliver enough detail in the environment that you can not only make out the difference between an elephant and a hot-dog stand, but also an elephant and a bear.
Sounds, like graphics, aren’t exceptional but aren’t disappointing either. It’s hard to mess up an elephant’s trumpet or a person’s grumbling and the game competently demonstrates it can match the sound to the correct animals. Likewise, the music could very well be passed off as elevator music ? each track seems like another arrangement of the same African-inspired instruments – playing a mellow tune that’s so non-intrusive that you hardly notice it. Again, the game doesn’t deliver an exceptional or a mediocre sound experience, merely an evenly-paced soundtrack.
Simply put, “friendly” is the best word to describe this game. From the welcome screen with the smiling hippos to the simple but enjoyable game play, Enlight has delivered a nice zoo simulation game that focuses more on a creation theme rather than a strict simulation of a zoo. The graphics and sounds make the game perfectly balanced and perfectly safe for younger game players while also maintaining some cute novelty for the older crowd. Even though serious sim-seekers should probably pass on this one, this game is a good choice if you’re looking for something that is the complete opposite of the latest offerings of shoot’em, smash’em, kill’em brand of games.