Platform: Xbox One
Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Zoo Tycoon isn't your typical console launch title.
It's an oasis of calm and entry-level accountancy in a cacophony of tyre smoke and bullets, a sim designed for all the family. And a Kinectimals sequel. Frontier Developments have created an odd little title that seems to be at odds with itself, hectic micro-management one moment and making faces at chimpanzees with Kinect the next. As such, Zoo Tycoon attempts the impossible: finding common ground between fans of simulations and casual players who just want to make a fun little zoo and play with its inhabitants.
Whether that middle ground actually exists is up for debate, but Zoo Tycoon still manages to be a charming compromise that anyone with a love of animals - or just a playful spirit- will enjoy regardless of age or ability.
Zoo Tycoon presents a streamlined and entertaining take on day-to-day micro-management. From an overhead perspective, you'll plonk down exhibits, habitats and facilities to create your zoo's infrastructure, attending to both the happiness of your animals and guests. Visitors have to be entertained, while your all-important animals must be kept fed, clean and happy.
Fairly simple stuff with a high degree of automation, but there's a fair bit to consider once staffing concerns, entertainment venues, advertising, breeding and research come into play, making for plenty of options to bring in the punters and Dollars. As a pleasingly ethical game, Zoo Keeper also encourages players to think about releasing their animals back into the wild, whereupon you'll receive frequent reports on how they're faring.
When you get down to brass tacks, Zoo Tycoon is all about the animals. As your fame increases, you'll unlock an enormous variety of critters to populate your zoo, from numerous species of Lions, Tigers and Elephants to Red Pandas, birds and snakes. Each species has been meticulously brought to life with fluid animations and impressive fur shaders, meaning that much of the joy of Zoo Tycoon stems from simply stepping back and watching them play with each other, and enjoying entertainment items you provided (you did remember to build them, right?).
An optional third person mode lets you get closer to the animals and action, either running around the park and taking pictures of your animals, or haring about in an adorable golf buggy as guests leap out the way. It's nowhere near as practical as the birds-eye perspective, but rewards inquisitive exploration with some enjoyable little interactions.
Kinect lets you get closer still, and will be a huge hit with younger players. A small selection of interactive exhibits can be built in each habitat, all providing a selection of motion-controlled minigames that, while basic, are responsive and entertaining. You can feed bananas to an elephant with an outstretched hand. Hose down a polar bear. Chimpanzees go one step further by mimicing your actions and even your facial expressions, showing off the depth sensor to advantage.
'Hardcore gamers' might scoff at this functionality, but there's no denying that it's a fun diversion at worst and a great new way of connecting you with the animals at best. Plus, to be honest, this game isn't really for you. Frontier's other studio is working on Elite Dangerous, so they've got you covered.
Canny players will also rely on Kinect's voice commands to make sense of an annoyingly cumbersome interface. Too heavily inspired by Metro for its own good, Zoo Tycoon buries its commands in nested menus and inconvenient lines of tiles when radial wheels would have worked far more efficiently. Even the simplest tasks take roughly three more steps than they should and require an inconsiderate amount of repetition.
This might have been a dealbreaker, except that we can alternatively just say "Adopt animals," or "ping animal hygiene" to cut out several menus completely. I never thought I'd write this: but Kinect to the rescue.
Zoo Keeper makes a fairly mediocre first impression due to a seeming lack of depth and an excruciatingly dull set of tutorials (nearly an hour of poring over miniscule text in the top corner of the screen), but it's a grower, a game capable of quietly hoovering up any spare time you can throw at it. After finishing one of the early simple campaign missions and feeling somewhat underwhelmed, I continued playing to see what happens after the victory screen, and was suddenly challenged to complete various objectives while growing the business and keeping the animals happy.
A newspaper wanted a picture of my baby Bengal Tiger. My antelope fell ill. The zoo inspectors were on the way and my restrooms were over-capacity. The lemur poo! They won't like that! Hang on, one of my elephants is pregnant, and a financial benefactor wants me to release a grizzly bear into the wild... which means I'll need to adopt another one to keep his friend company... the burger stand is out of stock?! Quick, to the buggy!
Before I knew it, four hours had passed and the sun had set. All from just hanging out in a completed campaign level after the game suggested I moved on to the next one.
That's where Zoo Tycoon ultimately shines: growing a zoo not to somehow 'win' or 'beat the game,' but just for the fun of it, to experiment and play with different animals to see what happens. Younger players and parents alike will enjoy learning more about each species and conservation efforts in the robust Zoopedia (edutainment needn't be a dirty word), playing with their furry pals every so often, while the young at heart will just enjoy a charming and colourful take on an often dry genre.
There's no doubt that the game loses some of its lustre after a while, when you've got handle on the progression system and played with most of the animals, and arguably Frontier could have pushed several things much further. A fairly small asset limit sometimes leaves you incapable of expansion, while I personally find it odd that we can't ever go inside an enclosure to interact with the animals in more than just a few preset minigames. Worse, repetition inevitably sets in after a while, especially since you'll have to go through the same motions with the same selection of unlocks every time you start a new zoo in the freeform or scenario modes.
But before that happens, and even after it does, Zoo Tycoon proves to be both charming and surprisingly captivating.
As such, Zoo Tycoon is perfectly placed as an impulse purchase for families or gamers who fancy something a little different from racing, brutal murder and brutal zombie murder. At around the £30 mark, it would have been a steal. Unfortunately its full retail price is a bit of a big ask - so be sure to keep an eye on HotUKDeals or our front page for a smart bargain.
- Varied menagerie of brilliantly-realised animals
- Enjoyable management suitable for less experienced or younger players, but can be pleasingly stressful
- Surprisingly compelling, features numerous unlocks and challenges
- Fun Kinect interactions and superb voice commands
- Overlong, boring and dull (if functional) tutorials
- Inconvenient interface - learn those voice commands!
- Lacks advanced depth for genre fans, somewhat repetitive
The Short Version: Zoo Tycoon overcomes a weak first impression with effortless charm and hidden depths: a colourful blend of management and playful fun that puts its animals first and foremost. A surprisingly capable launch title for more relaxed players, animal lovers, youngsters or just the young at heart. Granted, that's a cheesy cliché, but it holds true here.
Be sure to look out for a reasonable deal, mind.