Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa Review

Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa, developed and published by Pocketwatch Games.
The Good: Interesting and innovative gameplay elements, decent graphics
The Not So Good: Not enough explicit feedback, below average sound effects
What say you? A reasonably original ecosystem strategy game: 6/8

Mankind seems to be entranced by the things around us. From the dawn of time, we have tried to explain and appreciate all of nature’s gifts, and then capture them and put them in cages. Yes, zoos are a popular enterprise, and serve to be a prime destination for young and old alike. I have also been guilty of this, and even went so far as to have my wedding reception inside an aquarium. Computer games, obviously, would like to cash in on this enterprise, providing animal simulations for the people of the world. Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa is not really a zoo simulation along the lines of Zoo Tycoon, but rather an ecosystem strategy game, concerning itself with appropriate balancing of natural environments. This game concentrates more on the animals’ interactions rather than the cost of ice cream or souvenirs.

Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa has some fairly decent graphics, especially for a small developer (and by small I mean one person). The animal models, of utmost importance in this kind of game, are adequate. There are some low polygon counts, but all of the animals are easily identifiable from both long and short distances. They also have animal-specific animations that bring a more realistic tone to the game. You certainly will not confuse this game with upper-end games, but the models are actually on par with Microsoft’s title. The environments are devoid of a lot of variety, but do the job, since all of the environmental elements are important to the gameplay and not just there to look pretty or make a shallow screenshot. Of course, the game certainly looks better than most titles developed by a one-man operation. The sound is generic, with appropriate animal effects and fitting background music (the theme reminded me of Busch Gardens). I really didn’t notice the sound during most of the game experience, which attests to its generally forgettable nature.

Unlike most other tycoon games, especially those animal-oriented, Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa is not about building holding pens for various animals and making money. The goal in this game is to create a balanced ecosystem with a variety of animal inhabitants, all of which interact with each other on multiple levels. The game contains a 25 level story mode, where you unlock all the various creatures in the game. You can also unlock sandbox levels, where some of the restrictions (specifically the cost for reshuffling) are removed to allow for easier building of multiple animals and habitats. In either case, the object of the game is to maintain a population of a pre-determined number of several creatures; for example, you might be required to have 10 flamingoes and 15 baboons at the same time in order to complete the level. At any one time, you can choose to introduce any of four different animals by clicking on the corresponding card. The same animal can appear more than once, and if you have very few animals unlocked, you can end up having all four cards being the same creature you don’t need. Bringing a new animal into the ecosystem costs a set number of flowers, depending on how desirable the creature is. Flowers are regenerated by animals breeding (no, they don’t, sicko), and can also be used to reshuffle the deck if you have been dealt bad cards. There are only a handful of animals in the game (11), but with the method of animal availability that is used in the game, having a plethora of different fauna would just lead to frustration as the monkey card would never come up.

Environmental improvements, which are rain (for additional lakes), grass, shrubs, and trees, are made by earning jewels. Jewels are earned by maintaining a set number of a specific creature, usually not one of your overall goal animals and most likely a competitor. This encourages a balanced habitat with many different creatures. Of course, introducing an over population of one creature can and will lead to the downfall of another (and possibly one needed to complete the level), so the name of the game is preparation and balance. Each animal has different needs for both food and water, which they gain from lakes and the various foliage (or other animals, if carnivorous) around the landscape. Not fulfilling these needs leads to death, which can have drastic effects on the food chain. It is sometimes hard to gauge why or where your animals are dying, however. Of course, they are probably not getting enough food, but the only cue you have is a bloody/stinky cloud above their carcass, rather than hard numbers. As a person with a background in strategy games, I need tables, charts, and facts in order to hone my overall strategy. Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa does not have this, and the user must design the different areas of the map by feel. A good yardstick to use is the pack size (the maximum number of any one species that can live in a location), but this information is only available in the encyclopedia and not as mouse-over help during the game. It’s almost worth it to write down the pack sizes before you begin, and remember how many creatures you have living in each area. Since some of the animals are small and hard to see, you can lose track of exactly how many creatures are around the map, especially if they are not one of the current targets. I think some sort of colored overlay directly on the map (like in SimCity 4 with traffic density or population density) would work well in giving the player a better idea of what’s going on.

Coming into this, I figured Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa would just be another generic zoo strategy game where you watch animals run around and poop. I’m glad to say I was quite wrong. Don’t let the “tycoon” moniker fool you: this is an original and sophisticated strategy game. I was pleasantly surprised at the implicit workings of the game, allowing for some originality in a genre where too many games are clones of each other. Where some other games require the balancing of an economy, Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa concerns balancing of animals, which is more concrete. The entire game comes down to figuring out the correct numbers of inhabitants at each level of the biomass pyramid. For example, having too many zebras will result in a shortage of plants, killing off the zebras, and eventually the animals that eat the zebras, in a sort of demonic domino effect. It is difficult to figure out what the correct balance is, and I’d like to see some sort of hard numbers in the game, such as birth/death rate or population growth. Of course, this omission may be intentional, as providing that information may make the game too easy. Overall, though, I really like the gameplay in Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa: it has enough creative components to make it stand out against the crowd and provide quite a rewarding game experience. Probably most important, I just plain had fun playing the game. The slightly difficult nature of the game coupled with multiple strategies leads to a very satisfying game, and should not be discounted against lesser, more heavily marketed offerings.