Hey, I know what you're thinking: you're thinking that you've always wanted to run a zoo, aren't you? Aren't you? Okay me neither, but then, I never thought I'd want to be a guy who gets shot repeatedly and games have proved me wrong in this regard countless times. Anyway, Zoo Tycoon 2 has been released before on the PC, so watching it move onto the DS is interesting, as the result does replicate the experience, for better or for worse.
If you haven't already guessed from the title, you're the owner of a zoo. A lot of the time, as the campaign mode of the game seems to portray, you're the guy that people call in when a zoo is starting to circle the drain. In the campaign, you're given control of a zoo already in progress as well as a list of objectives to follow. Common ones include adding certain animals to your park or having a particular number of visitors.
Alternatively, you can just play through a freeform mode where you can set your starting funds, level of research, environment, and park rating (which dictates what you can build, who you can hire, and so forth). Or, if you want to challenge your friends, there are a couple multiplayer modes to go through, such as sending your park to them and letting them run it, or having a tycoon face-off to see who can be the better park manager with one park.
So, as with many tycoon games, you're given a top-down view of all that you own, namely your zoo and the people that frequent it (okay maybe you don't own them). The process of managing a zoo involves the obvious: lay down fences, adopt some animals, place them in said fences, and keep them happy. This means creating a biome that they like with ground-laying, tree-planting, and toy…putting.
This "placement" section feels pretty nebulous all in all, since you're never quite sure what effect you're having. Sure, you're given the things that the animal likes, and it's easy enough to place them (though it feels somewhat formulaic, like it could've all been automated), but there's no correlation between what you're placing and what effect it is having. Is it better to place a tree or a rock? More water, or more land? How about the ball? Should there be a ball here, or a ball there?
I must know where the ball should be placed!
Neuroticism aside, this feeling of nebulousness, of a lack of connection between what you're doing and what effect it's having permeates most of the game. Let's draw a relation between this and Theme Park, arguably the best tycoon game ever made (and if you disagree then I think you have no notion of nostalgia). In Theme Park, you can place entertainers around the park to keep your guests happy because, really, who isn't entertained by a man in a giant rhino suit? This is obvious by the people that approach them, watch them, and walk away with a happy face above their heads. In Zoo Tycoon 2 DS, you can place men that'll walk around and educate your park guests, but what does this do? Do they get happy, does your park rating rise? I have no idea.
Now, while you have a smattering of things to build, people to hire, and animals to place inside their happy little cages, there's more to do. In the Zoo Director screen, aside from the typical management duties like checking income, changing ticket prices, and reviewing your objectives, you can do some research. Areas of research involve getting new animals, more buildings, a higher employee cap, or even host a dolphin show! Each of these research topics - there are four levels of each - requires a certain zoo rating as well as a fair amount of cash, but they unlock things that will make the prosperity of your park rise, as well as its income. Again, though, does having a pack of lions bring in more guests than a pack of tigers? Darned if I know.
As far as taking care of your animals goes, you can hire a zookeeper for each pen, or you can take a more hands-on approach. This takes the form of a variety of mini-games designed to raise the attributes of the animal, like brushing away on-screen dirt to clean the pen or feeding it its favourite food. They're a decent enough distraction, and normally would be fine. It's a shame, though, that they're quite the hassle to get into. Mechanically speaking, all it takes it tapping the animal and then tapping its picture to bring up the games. This is not a problem. Doing it for each of your twenty-plus animals is a problem however, and becomes cumbersome quickly. It's the reason I stopped taking a more personal approach to my creatures.
The game does a pretty good job at being fun, but when it comes to a good tycoon experience, it falls short. Its more noticeable features are its lack of depth and its ease of entry for anyone playing it. It's very easy to play and understand, but this comes with a price. Sure, it may be fun to build a zoo, but the challenge doesn't feel like it's there; it feels more like you're guaranteed to make money as long as you have a couple animals in place. Additionally, when there is no discernable effect of various structures (especially things like benches and flowers), it makes a lot of the game feel like fluff and somewhat pointless. Again, though, it's a decent enough game to pick up and play - and one of few portable tycoon titles - just don't expect a deep and involved experience to come from its average gameplay.