There’s a very good chance that you’re already familiar with Zoo Tycoon. The franchise began on the PC back in 2001 and after receiving a couple of expansion packs in 2002, a full-fledged sequel was released in 2004. The next time gamers had the chance to become a virtual zoo owner was on the Nintendo DS, where both the original Zoo Tycoon and its sequel showed up. Five years have passed since then and now, for the first time ever, the franchise is appearing (in a rebooted version) on consoles as it storms onto the Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
For those who don’t know, Zoo Tycoon is a simulator that lets you run and build your own zoo, much in the style of the 500 other tycoon games that are on the market. Unfortunately, being an Xbox One launch title, the game has been largely ignored in the wake of AAA heavy-hitters like Ryse: Son of Rome and Forza Motorsport 5, and it’s easy to see why. This isn’t exactly what you’d pop in to show off your new console to family/friends, and I’ll be the first to admit that upon picking up my Xbox One, I wasn’t terribly eager to get my hands on it, especially with Dead Rising 3, Battlefield 4 and several other titles calling my name.
Nevertheless, I took the plunge and sunk a good deal of time into the latest effort from Frontier Developments over this past weekend. While I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t succumb to its undeniable charm, adorability and cute and cuddly animals, it’s important to note that Zoo Tycoon is very much a simulator aimed at families and young children. Its more simplistic, streamlined and unchallenging gameplay suits the game’s family-friendly angle quite well, and if you’re over the age of 10, you may find yourself with not much to do here after the first couple of hours.
Switching between an overhead “tycoon” view and a third-person “zoo” view, you take control of the titular tycoon, managing everything from exhibits to admission prices. It’s all pretty accessible and getting used to the controls and set-up is not at all a daunting task. The game makes it fairly easy for you to settle in, as it offers up 10 tutorials that cover everything you need to know to get your very own zoo up and running. Clearly aimed at the casual gamers out there, the tutorials will show you the ropes on setting up exhibits, building concession stands, hiring/firing staff, researching, breeding/taking care of animals, managing your finances, decorating your zoo, keeping your “fame” level up and everything else that you’ll need to know to turn your property into a world famous zoo.
It’s pretty easy to get the hang of everything and for the most part, the UI and navigation works well. In fact, my only complaint is with the menus, as they aren’t as streamlined as they should be. Some poor design choices lead to building and upgrading exhibits becoming a bit of a hassle due to over-complication within the menu system. Still, I’ve seen much worse in simulators and gamers of all ages should be able to pick up and play Zoo Tycoon in no time at all.
The game offers up three main modes to indulge in: Freeform, Campaign and Challenge. The first is what it sounds like, a mode where money is no object and research is a non-factor. You can simply just focus on building the biggest and most comprehensive zoo that you can. There’s no real objectives or challenges here either, you just keep building and tweaking to your heart’s content. It’s a nice way to test out the various mechanics of the game and have a bit of fun with them while you’re at it, but since there isn’t really a point or purpose to what you’re doing, it likely won’t hold your attention for very long. That being said, it’s a great mode to pass off onto children or as there are very few restrictions and you won’t really have to hold their hand.
Plus, as is the case in every mode, the star system is still intact here. As you grow your zoo and attract more fame, you’ll earn more stars, which grant you access to additional animals, exhibits etc. So I suppose there is some motivation to keep pressing on here. Besides, you may just want to build the most kick-ass zoo you can without having to worry about real-life issues like money. If that’s the case, then you’ll greatly enjoy Freeform mode.
The next mode, Campaign, presents you with 20 different scenarios to choose from. In each one you’ll be placed in an already established and up-and-running zoo, and will be tasked with completing several challenges before the timer runs out. While some of the objectives are certainly tougher than others (raising the happiness level of all of your animals is a bit harder than say, simply snapping photos of them for your website), most of these scenarios feel very similar to one another and require little brainpower to complete, thus, not really providing much of a challenge at all. Plus, even if you fail to complete a challenge on time, there’s no real punishment other than missing out on the reward it would provide.
Finally, we get Challenge mode, which is no doubt the toughest of the three. Here, you’re given a set budget and must keep your zoo running up to speed while managing its reputation, profitability and the needs and wants of both the visitors and animals. It’s perhaps the best mode to really test out your skills in and for me, at least, it provided the most fun. As you continue to build and progress your zoo, you’ll once again be tasked with challenges to complete that will earn you money and rewards. This is the closest thing that the game has to offer to a real Tycoon mode and it involves the least hand-holding of the three options. It also goes a lot slower as you’re given a small budget to start out with and can’t just go crazy from the get go. You need to plan, strategize and spend your money wisely if you hope to turn your property into a world famous attraction.
All that being said, the shallowness of the game means that after a couple hours spent in any of the three modes, you’ve done almost everything there is to do and experienced almost all of its features. Even the challenges that the game throws at you start to become repetitive as there are only a handful of different types, with the rest of them being variations on ones you’ve already seen before. How many times can I take a picture for my website? How often do I need to bring animal happiness levels up? And why do I need to keep driving my buggy from one end of the property to the other? After a while, you start to feel as if there’s no point anymore in building up your zoo and most gamers will find themselves not caring about their creations anymore once the sense of challenge and accomplishment wears out. And this sentiment applies to all three modes. You can only play for so long without there really being much of a point to continue on.
For those who prefer to be a bit more social, you can hop online with up to three other people and work together to manage your zoo. As expected, playing with other people makes things a bit more enjoyable but seeing as you can all contribute to completing objectives, the game is even easier here than it is in the single player modes. As far as co-operative play goes though, running a zoo with some friends does provide for some good, solid entertainment but once again, without the sense of challenge or purpose, I can’t see myself sinking too many hours into the online mode.
In terms of the gameplay itself, Zoo Tycoon plays much like any other simulator on the market, and while the options for customization are there, they only run so deep. A lot of what you can do in Zoo Tycoon is pre-determined and lacks the depth found in other titles in the genre. For instance, when you build a new location, instead of building a path for your visitors to get there, the game will do that itself. You also can’t set exact prices for your admission tickets, which I found a bit odd. Instead, you can choose between free, normal low or high. These kind of confines extend themselves to other areas of the game too and while I understand that things were set up this way so Zoo Tycoon could be more accessible to children, it does take away from some of the fun.
I mentioned the frustrating menu system before, and unfortunately, that’s not the only poor design choice that was made here. Loading times for starting up a new or existing save are unusually long and for some reason, you can only research one thing at a time. Making matters worse is that until you actually begin researching, you don’t know how long it’s going to take. There are a couple of other hiccups as well that if handled properly, could have streamlined the game a bit more. But what I’ve mentioned here are perhaps the most significant issues I had while playing.
Zoo Tycoon, of course, makes use of the Kinect. Most of the time you’ll be using it to issue voice commands to help you get around the zoo and build exhibits, but certain animals can be interacted with as well. Whether it’s feeding them, washing them with a hose or making faces through mirrors, you can get up close and personal with some of mother nature’s most treasured beasts. Though this aspect of the game will no doubt have the young ones giggling with glee, those above the age of 10 should be able to see it for the gimmick that it is and likely will opt out of the Kinect features once they’ve already engaged with them once or twice.
Now, I mentioned before that this game pales in comparison to some of the other launch titles when it comes to graphics, and this is true, but that’s not to say that Zoo Tycoon looks crummy, not at all actually. For the type of game it is, visuals are surprisingly strong, most noticeably on the animals themselves. The whole game has this kind of fun, cartoon-y look and feel to it but the actual animals are rendered very realistically, with facial expressions and animations coming across as quite believable. There’s a ton of detail to be found in these creatures and thanks to the power of the Xbox One, they all look fantastic. Ryse: Son of Rome this is not, but it is certainly no slouch in the graphics department either.
Zoo Tycoon is a game that knows its market, and knows it well. It’s also a nice breath of fresh air amidst some of the console’s heavier hitters and though it won’t make much of an impact in the hardcore market due to its shallowness, those with young children would be foolish to pass it up. There’s a certain charm to walking around your zoo and seeing/interacting with your animals, and even the most jaded of gamers will struggle not to have their hearts warmed by some of the creatures you’ll encounter here. But at the end of the day, this is a children’s game and those looking for a deep, engaging and challenging simulator will be out of luck, as Zoo Tycoon is definitely not that.
This review was based on the Xbox One version of the game.
Zoo Tycoon is a game that knows its target market and embraces it wholeheartedly. It may not be the deepest or most challenging simulator out there, but it's a great option for those with young children and its charm is simply undeniable.