It may not be the most glamorous title, but Zoo Tycoon is one of the few platform-exclusive games available on either next-generation console at launch. The game does itself no favours by appearing on the surface to be a strange hybrid between Frontier’s previous Xbox effort, Kinectimals, and another Children’s Kinect title, Kinect Disneyland Adventures. These comparisons certainly won’t endear Zoo Tycoon to many hardcore gamers or long-standing fans of the series, but this isn’t simply a motion-controlled kids game.
The story goes that Frontier were working on a new version of your common or garden Zoo Tycoon several years ago, making use of some ultra-realistic animal models. It was then that Microsoft asked them to put that on hold in order to work on Kinectimals, using their already-built animals and animations for the Kinect game. Years later, Frontier finally had the chance to build the game that they wanted, combining elements of their original vision and the interactivity of Kinectimals.
Zoo Tycoon is something of a strange beast then, in terms of strategy games. It has a god mode overhead viewpoint, where you can build and manage your park from a general overview, which is all quite familiar to genre fans, though here it is slightly more streamlined and highly-polished. The real difference here, though, is that with one simple press of the Y button, you are immediately warped into the body of a zookeeper at ground level. You can still build and edit your park with all of the same customisation options, but you can also take part in activities and animal interactions, getting literally hands-on with the running of your park.
It should be noted that this is the extent of the Kinect features. Beside voice control across all modes, which is almost ubiquitous in Xbox One games, the motion-control in Zoo Tycoon goes no further than these interactions with animals – and even then it is optional and you can use the control pad instead if you wish. That isn’t to say the Kinect sections aren’t fun, but they are merely diversions, rather than integral to the game. These include picking up items of fruit and feeding giraffes by hand, using a hose to wash your elephants, or even engaging in some Simon Says action with the chimpanzees. They all integrate seamlessly into the game and the motion detection is very accurate. By being optional, they also provide something that will excite children playing the game, but which adults can choose to skip over if they prefer.
The bulk of the game is grounded in more traditional park building and management. There is a fairly deep and helpful tutorial mode to play through, which does a good job of showing you the ropes, but not forcing your hand. You can choose to play in Free Mode (no money, no restrictions, no objectives), simply to experiment and relax; Challenge Mode, which includes extra objectives to fulfill as you go along and you have to earn your own money; or Campaign Mode, which is in essence a series of scenarios that you must complete. There is also a co-op option across all game modes, which allows up to three friends to join your online game and help manage the park together. This isn’t a tremendous extra, but is a fun way to meet up with friends for a more relaxed gaming experience.
Management is all quite simple, and can be picked up in no time. Building, upgrading and maintaining attractions and the like is all straight-forward, but there are a lot of customisation options and variations to unlock as you progress and level up. In fact, in order to gain access to the full variety of animals, you have to play through and build up the popularity of your park, unlocking new creatures at each level. This gives you something to work towards, rather than just endlessly building up your park. All of these options, along with commercial decisions such as pricing and advertising, are clear, concise and easy to use – it’s not a strategy game where you will get lost in the menus, again proving a suitable title for gamers of all ages.
In Challenge Mode, the extra objectives also help to make things more hectic – adding timed missions into the mix. These could be as simple as building a toilet, or taking a photo of your newborn tiger cub, or as difficult as prepping the entire park for an inspection or levelling up an animal to level 15 and releasing it into the wild. There are even a few race-type challenges, where you zoom around your park in a ranger buggy – but these are possibly one of the weakest elements. The challenges are timed on the whole, which adds some much-needed impetus to a game that is naturally a pretty laid-back sedentary one. There are small punishments for failing the challenges too, and big rewards for success – so the game pushes you to try and complete them, rather than just ignoring them.
The scenarios add some spice into the mixture, too, and force you to play the game in an entirely different way. Now you are fixing problems and cleaning up messes, rather than building your own masterpiece. The only real issue is that even with the three different modes on offer, the core gameplay does tend to become quite repetitive, quite quickly. The variety in what you can build does become limited; everything is flat on one plane, you can’t create a safari-style park, there are no water exhibits – which all seems like a step backwards from the last full Zoo Tycoon game.
The customisation options are all rather cosmetic, too, and every park you build will end up looking and working in more or less exactly the same way. There are also a handful of technical niggles where your animals can become stuck or lost, but these seem to solve themselves after a quick save and restore. The most irritating issue is that there is a limit in how many items/buildings/animals your park can hold, meaning that you cannot endlessly expand your park. You reach an invisible brick wall, and have to start replacing and modifying what you have, rather than growing more and more.
The aspect that will really grab gamers, and probably the only real next-generation advancement that makes this game stand out above an Xbox 360 title, is the amazing graphical quality. The parks themselves look nice enough, but the animals are amazing. The level of detail and accuracy of the animations are truly astounding: as Frontier boasted in their pre-release blurb, they really have created the most realistic animals ever seen in a video game. You could sit and marvel for hours at their creatures, as if it were truly a zoo. This is only aided by realistic animal sounds and its jungle drums-style background music that is both evocative and strangely relaxing.
VERDICT: You can take a certain hypnotic bliss from simply working along calmly and peacefully, making sure that your park is running as smoothly as it can and improving the conditions for your ever-growing menagerie of creatures. This game was never going to be he bombastic launch title that blows the minds of gamers. Zoo Tycoon is a different pace of game for a different type of player. With the Xbox One Microsoft are looking to create a device that provides all forms of entertainment, for everyone, and a game like Zoo Tycoon certainly shows their commitment to creating a broad base. It may ultimately be a little shallow, but it has bags of charm and there is more than enough on offer here to provide hours of animal magic.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.
Review code provided by publisher.