For gamers out there who are over thirty, or the kids who forced their parents to buy the god awful Kinectimals on the 360, Zoo Tycoon might actually be of interest to you and not just one of the most random new console launch titles to ever get greenlit. For those who have played neither and have no clue what to expect here, Zoo Tycoon on the Xbox One is basically a zoo owner’s simulator, mixed together with some gorgeous looking animal models and some always ropey Kinect features.
The ‘Tycoon’ game type found a home on the PC many many years ago, embraced by a generation who wanted to build and create, hunched over a massive PC running at slower speeds than most ten year old’s mobile phones do today. Railroad Tycoon, Zoo Tycoon, Airline Tycoon along with the amazing Rollercoaster Tycoon were firm PC favourites helping to create a genre full of other similar titles, Sim City being just one. These keyboard and mouse, graphically light games mixed the open ended creation of something with the management, upkeep and goals based gameplay that drove people to play more. Sadly however, aside from a new Sims game every few years and the critically and publicly slammed Sim City reboot earlier this year, the main games of this nature tend to live on Android or iOS these days and never, most certainly not ever, on a console. Enter Zoo Tycoon as an Xbox One launch title - weird.
Bringing the Zoo Tycoon series back for the launch of the Xbox One makes little sense - it likely made no sense when the execs at Microsoft greenlit the project and it makes even less now. Aimed clearly at a market that isn’t traditionally chock full of early console adopters it’s tough to see how a game of this nature would make any money, however that doesn’t mean it’s a terrible game in its own right and if you are looking for a peaceful, challenge free, kid friendly experience then you won’t go far wrong with Zoo Tycoon.
Zoo Tycoon to its credit is quite content heavy and you are walked through, literally at times, all of the mechanics within the game through a long and very tedious, campaign mode. Each zoo you take on contains a series of timed challenges along with a key overall goal which will see you complete the stage and present the ability to move onto the next. Such challenges can include things as adding attractions to specific parts of the zoo, ensuring happiness for all animals or running a such a tight ship that the nasty inspectors give you a gold star. It’s a soft, gentle introduction to the game and it has many mechanics but quickly becomes boring due to the simple nature of the tasks and the ease at which they are achievable.
Each zoo has an easy, hard and so on rating but pay no attention to this, if you fail at anytime on the game it will be because you left the room, there is literally no other logical explanation for failing anything the campaign throws at you. Sadly it is recommended that you endure at least the first third of the campaign to enable you to nail the mechanics, however once you feel confident that you have a reasonable grasp on proceedings, back out and go free form or challenge mode. Free form mode is pretty much the reason why this game will find an audience, all other modes only serve to do two things; unlock animals, attractions and so on for use in free form mode or to familiarise you with all the mechanics on offer so you can better enjoy free form mode.
Management of the zoo of your dreams can be done in one of two available ways, on the ground level, literally running around petting animals or driving a golf buggy from point to point, or you have the top down strategy like view which allows you to click into each attraction freely from the more traditional god-like view.
Naturally being from the team that brought us Kinectimals the animals themselves are fantastic with realistic movement and the overall general look being pretty much spot on. Best experienced on foot and up close, calling all manner of animals over and hand feeding them is a delight. You can of course use Kinect for this but honestly, why would you? Even with the enhanced Kinect it’s a chore despite the appeal being there for the little ones, naturally as the title comes from those who gave us Kinectimals. Hand gestures and some limited voice commands are available but sadly they are often hit and miss, annoying yes but when you stop to think about Kinect controls in the most laid back, casual gaming experience that next gen has to offer what’s it going to like when shoehorned into an intense first person shooter or third person adventure experience? Ignoring Kinect, which you are encouraged to do, the interface itself when utilising the new lovely Xbox One pad is perfectly serviceable. Quick, responsive and simple to navigate, hopping into the overhead view and zipping around tending to your entire zoo is simple, easy and feeds directly into the effortless feel of the game. Not only is it easy to beat, it’s easy to play and enjoy.
At its core the old school mechanics of Zoo Tycoon are these, albeit in a dumbed down casual gamer sort of way. Setup animal enclosures, pimp them, breed or adopt some animals and the people will flock. Add to this minor levels of complexity including advertising, zoo up-keep, inspections along with many other similarly trivial activities, not least of all you have to initially manually pick up the poo in each enclosure and you get a reasonable feel of what is on offer here. The ‘Tycoon’ elements are there and you can indeed create the zoo of your dreams, it’s getting you to want to bother that is Zoo Tycoon’s biggest problem. Sure it’s pretty, everything is really cute, the ‘tycoon’ mechanics are on the surface pretty cool but after a few hours it gets tedious. A light challenge in a game is perfectly fine but when a game completely and utterly relies on challenge e.g. a strategy title, a challenge is what makes or breaks it.
At first it’s a joy to build your ultimate zoo, populating it with wild and exotic animals you’ve taken time to research, zipping down to the first person mode, watching and interacting with the animals as well as your patrons - it’s lovely and colourful, there just isn’t enough there to warrant your attention for long periods, aside from checking in to see if the lion you gifted to a friend has mated yet, obviously.
Zoo Tycoon is challenge free but a fun, fuzzy, warm experience that could just be the change of pace that some gamers would welcome, particularly those with small children. Reasonably deep and utilising the Xbox One pad really well, Zoo Tycoon can be fun if severely limited in challenge. It remains one of the most random launch titles of all time but is well worth a purchase if you are looking for something that isn’t a first person twitch fest.