Combining the strategy of a PC game with the smiles of Kinect.
The customers want to see lions; Mrs Johnson is complaining about the lack of restrooms; a wildlife magazine somehow still in business wants a photo of a baby giraffe; but before all that, someone has to clean up the elephant enclosure — there’s shit everywhere.
It’s a hard life running a zoo.
Zoo Tycoon, a reboot of the 2001 PC game of the same name, is the thinking man’s Xbox One launch game, and also one of two disc-based exclusives appropriate for the whole family (and perhaps the only one they’ll all enjoy).
While a majority of Zoo Tycoon is controller-based, it has some clever Kinect functionality. Hold out your hand and watch a giraffe lean in to nibble an apple, and when you smile at a hippo, it looks you in the eye and smiles right back!
There are also voice commands to quickly navigate menus and interact with the animals.
As zoo keeper, you’re tasked with the everyday runnings of the animal house, keeping the residents happy, fed and watered, and the customers spending money on balloons and overpriced hot dogs. You’re also head honcho in-charge of expanding operations by adding more animals, increasing commercial ventures and ensuring enough keen-eyed onlookers are waltzing through the gates to make ends meet.
To admire your handy work, jump to a third person ground-level view and mingle with the crowd as they gaze at the ever so cute animals.
Most of the important decisions can be made through a Sims-esque colourful birds-eye-view, where animals can be adopted, traded to other zoos or released into the wild. Their happiness, health and vital stats are monitored on three-tier red, yellow or green bars prompting you to replenish food, invigorate social company or expand the habitat with something a little more exciting than a single tree.
Beyond maintaining the inhabitants’ wellbeing, challenges will appear to the right of screen in tiny text not really suited to a TV, offering XP bonuses and extra money for completing tasks like taking photos, expanding the zoo and performing animal shows within a strict deadline. As your XP increases, so does your reputation as a zoo master (I’m coining that as a job title), and more options to expand your zoo are unlooked.
To admire your handy work, jump to a third person ground-level view and mingle with the crowd as they gaze at the ever so cute animals. There’s even a number of animal-themed buggies to cruise around — no, people cannot be run over — and they pull off some mad skids with extreme handbrake turns. Establishing and managing your zoo from above is the crux of the experience, but exploring at ground level and interacting with the animals you’ve nurtured makes it all worthwhile.
While the zoo tycoon himself and average Joes roaming your creation are modelled closer to a cartoon than the real world, the animals blur the line and look absolutely stunning up close and personal. There are a couple of framerate stutters now and again, but Zoo Tycoon is a very pretty clean-cut game, sitting back and admiring one of the 100 or so difference species available going about its daily routine.
With challenges streaming to the right of screen, there are normally two or three active simultaneously, and an endless list of notifications to the left highlighting specific needs, there’s always something to keep you busy. The rewards for completing challenges far outweigh the minor punishments for ignoring them — I soon lost interest in cleaning elephants ASAP, and I’m not doing intern work like driving coffee all over the place.
Initially, I was doing absolutely everything. My monkeys were fed as soon as they were hungry, and every magazine on the planet seemed to want giraffe pictures. But as the zoo progressed, I was far more concerned with big picture success, like breeding and releasing healthy endangered animals back into the wild. I don’t have time to be cleaning everyone’s poop anymore.
The Zoo Tycoon experience can be taken to the cloud, as up to four players collaborate to run and enhance a zoo, but we haven’t been able to test that pre-launch. Alone, you can expand your reach by running several zoos at the same time, and even start one from scratch if you’re so inclined.
Zoo Tycoon does a great job of appealing to and catering its experience for the whole family, including little kids, but it is complicated at the beginning which might deter the casual audience it otherwise is targeting. Like most simulation games, the complete tutorial is a long grind and there is a lot of often tiny text to read. It’s mostly unavoidable, but you can tell Zoo Tycoon was originally envisioned to be played on a PC, and even with the Kinect additions, it doesn’t all translate to a TV screen.
Zoo Tycoon is a smart and charming simulator that looks pretty and is fun for the whole family. Some of the tasks quickly become annoyingly repetitive, but that’s the nature of the beast, and it’s mostly a well rounded package as one of the few Xbox One launch games that will actually be enjoyed by everyone from kids to parents and even the childless 20-somethings that will never admit to playing it for 15 hours.