Ever dreamt of running a zoo, caring for 100 animals and doing all you can to get paying visitors through the gates? Nope, me neither. But if you do fancy playing a launch title on the Xbox One that doesn’t involve sports, shooting or steering, then Frontier Development’s Zoo Tycoon could be the perfect addition to your collection.
As the name suggests, the objective is to establish and run a successful park, complete with animals and a multitude of stalls and exhibits. It’s all about keeping the furry critters and the customers happy – ensuring a clean, healthy and happy zoo will help tempt people through the gates and boost your coffers.
The original Zoo Tycoon made its debut way back in 2001 and several sequels followed. This version is the first update for years and makes use of both the extra graphical grunt of Xbox One and its Kinect motion controller. What’s more, the Xbox One version allows you and a few friends to join forces and run your zoo together over Xbox Live.
Zoo Tycoon is the perfect game for all the family and is clearly aimed at a younger audience; it’s educational, absorbing and creative – giving kids the opportunity to care for and nurture animals as diverse as bears and giraffes to rhinos and lions. It’s almost nauseatingly cute, so smaller gamers will absolutely love it. Oh, and it’s fun too.
There’s plenty to learn and it can seem a little daunting at first but fortunately there are 10 handy tutorials to get you up to speed and it’s advisable to spend a little time working your way through these rather than diving straight into the game proper. These cover everything from the basic controls, adding exhibits to entertain and care for the animals, the guest attractions, zoo maintenance, research and budgeting, marketing and making a profit, managing staff and even capturing all your efforts on the in-game camera.
There’s a campaign mode, training, freeplay and numerous challenges to keep you busy. Freeplay is particularly fun, giving you an unlimited budget and quick access to all the animals, attractions and exhibits. You can even team up with three friends online to create your very own super zoo, attain global levels of fame and rank up. Challenge is the ultimate test for the budding zookeeper, as a limited budget and various hurdles will stand in your way to fame and fortune. The campaign, meanwhile, sees you pit your wits against 20 fiendishly tough scenarios.
One nice aspect of the game is the Community Achievement menu, which lets you and other like-minded gamers vote on a good cause that you’d like to see supported. As we wrote this review, the three options included rescuing rhinos, protecting Komodo Dragons or helping Sumatran Tigers (at time of writing, the tigers were winning it by a mile). It’s a nice touch that makes children think beyond the game, and about the well-being of real-life animals. Anyhow, back to creating a zoo.
Loads of menus and sub menus allow you to build new exhibits, decorations, concessions and facilities – but choose carefully because you always have to ensure your park’s income is climbing and paying guests are enjoying themselves. That means hiring sufficient staff and keeping the food and drink stalls suitably stocked, janitors to pick up litter and animal handlers to entertain the crowds. Get everything functioning perfectly and you’ll rank up, unlocking access to even more animals and attractions.
An overview menu (accessed via LT) lets you know everything from how clean, happy or hungry the animals are to how tidy the park is, whether there’s enough food, drink and entertainment available, and how content your visitors are. Head to the main gate and you can micromanage everything from the admission price to marketing, and even take a quick look at your accounts if you desire, checking out cash flow, profitability and zoo value.
There are two viewpoints and you can alternate between them at any time by pressing the Y button: Zoo View (a third person view where you control a customisable avatar) or Tycoon View (zooming you into the skies to oversee your work from above). The former is definitely the most fun, allowing you to run about the park and visit the animals in their various enclosures (although the bird’s eye view is far more practical). You can even summon an electric buggy to drive around – which is particularly useful as your park grows in size.
If there were ever any doubt about this being a game brimming with niceness and aimed at children, it’s proven by the fact that it’s impossible to run people over while racing about in your kart (believe me, I tried – but no matter how fast you drive at them, visitors always manage to shift out of the way). And any of you with a slightly malevolent sense of humour can forget about putting an antelope into an enclosure full of hungry lions for a laugh… A message pops up to tell you they’re apparently not “compatible” – so I’m afraid there will be no exciting feeding demonstrations! As I said, it’s a game devoid of any nastiness. The developers have even removed any threat of danger from the animals – with none of them even attempting to leap over the tiny walls to maul passers-by! Everything in this game is 100% cute and cuddly.
It’s certainly a good-looking game too; bright and colourful with plenty happening onscreen. The animals are well drawn and detailed, interacting nicely within their enclosures. They all look fantastic and appear very realistic – even leaving deposits of dung around the place that you’re expected to clear up unless you want some very unhappy creatures. Some exhibits you build also support Kinect and allow you to interact with them.
Select an animal and you can call up their names and a bit of background about their preferred habitats and so on, as well as their happiness, hunger and cleanliness rating. If they’re feeling a little peckish, the clever use of Kinect means you can simply reach out towards a nearby food stall, grab some fruit by clenching your fist and then open up your hand to offer them some nourishment. They’ll munch away and their rating will get a boost. You can always opt to use the conventional controller and tap a few buttons if you prefer but more often than not, the Kinect option works very well. Other Kinect-based mini games see you hosing down your beloved animals and giving them a good wash or pulling funny faces and seeing them copy you. It’s all very charming and kids will soak it up. The controls prove that a management game can work perfectly well on a console, the combination of controller and Kinect prove intuitive and easy to grasp.
I do wonder whether there will be enough to keep gamers coming back for more though; there are only so many times you’ll want to pull faces at a chimp or hose down a dirty hippo – and the micromanagement side of the game is not in-depth enough to keep sim-loving gamers playing longer term. In fact, there’s a little too much handholding in my view. Sure you can choose an enclosure or exhibit to construct but you don’t have a say in how the pathways link them all together, for example. As a result, you soon realise you’re not really in control of every aspect of your park or entirely responsible for your creation.
As the game progresses, notifications pop up at the top of the screen telling you that a chimp is unhappy or a lion is slightly perturbed, and it’s up to you to react quickly and cheer them up by making an improvement to their enclosure. You’ll have to juggle a lot of crises and when things start going bad, the condition of your zoo goes downhill kinda fast – before long, you’ll be losing cash and customers with aplomb. It can get tricky but it’s certainly not as complex or engrossing as Theme Park, Theme Hospital or The Movies, for example.
Nevertheless, Zoo Tycoon combines the management of the aforementioned Theme Park with the cuddliness of Kinectimals – and it does it admirably. This is a decent game that sadly will no doubt be overlooked given the glut of blockbuster titles launching to coincide the arrival of the next gen consoles. For animal lovers or anyone else – no matter the age – who fancies a break from the usual shooters and racing games, this is just the tonic. Now, please excuse me, I’m off to make funny faces at a chimp.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.