Zoo Tycoon is adorable.
You know how you start playing Pokémon, thinking you’re going to play for a half an hour or so, only to look at a clock and realise you’ve just sank two hours into gameplay? Prepare for that to happen with this game. Not only will you be striving to collect and care for real-world animals, you’ll be oohing and aahing at the same time.
Zoo Tycoon makes its debut Xbox performance on the Xbox One, and even though it’s largely going to be considered a niche game, it’s one of the strongest titles in the Xbox One launch lineup. You’re placed at the head of any number of zoos across the world, and not only are put in charge of zoo appearance, maintenance, animal collection and care, but your own appearance as well. Most things you see on the screen are able to be customised in some way, making the game a simulation fan’s wet dream.
Your ultimate goal is to make your animals as happy as the customers you’ve got rolling in, meaning you need to have not only top-rate attractions and concessions, but quality animal care facilities and procedures in place. Ultimately, I got the most enjoyment from simple interactions with the animals in my care; feeding elephants, washing rhinos or going up to the glass at the monkey enclosure and having a play. Best yet, any of those actions I’ve just described can be performed using the Xbox One controller or Kinectimals-style using Kinect.
At any point in the game, you’re able to switch from the over-the-shoulder view on your zookeeper, called “Zoo view”, to the top-down “Tycoon view”, meaning you’re able to closely monitor your zoo from a hands-on or a godlike approach. Either view has its merits, meaning you’re going to want to switch back and forth quite frequently. The left trigger is largely used to check on different elements of your zoo, seeing what’s needing some personal attention. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, the interface is relatively easy to use.
If you take good care of your zoo, you level up in zoo fame, unlocking new animals and attractions to use in your facility. Seemingly endless challenges are also thrown your way to help out, meaning you’ll never be searching for something to do within your zoo. To meet goals, you’ll also have to keep your research as up to date as your animal collection and facilities. One the solitary gripes we have with the game is that, as your zoo grows, it’s very hard to figure out what’s what using the overhead “Tycoon view”. It’s almost as if the map needs a mini-map so you can distriguish which enclosure is which.
You’re not only interacting with the zoo at face value, either; you can delve deep into the financial side of things, choosing to play in an environment where money means nothing, or everything. If you’re going to play the latter type of game, SmartGlass functionality will help you keep a close eye on your cash stream, though we weren’t able to directly interact with this launch day feature.
Multiplayer is another launch day feature, offering four gamers the chance to manage their zoos together with the aid of in-game chat. Again, we weren’t able to test the functionality, but we’re damn well looking forward to it.
Graphically, the game’s no slouch; animals look almost identical to their real-life equivalents, and for good reason, too; developer Frontier Developments worked closely with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and National Geographic to get movement and behaviour just right. I know I’ve referenced feeding the elephants already, but I dare you to try that and not be in awe. Light and shadow effects are also put to good use; you can easily tell what time of day it is in your park simply by looking at the screen and observing how shadows are being cast.
Another great, yet unseen feature is set to come to the game in quarterly community challenges. Zoo Tycoon will challenge its user base to release a certain number of rhinos into the wild, as an example, and if the challenge is met, Microsoft Studios will donate real-world cash to a charity organisation that works with rhinos. As great as Zoo Tycoon already is, there’s capacity for it to become even better.
Zoo Tycoon won’t be for everyone at the end of the day. It’s by no means a children’s game, but it is a great game to play with your children; if the adults take care of administration, the kids are freed up to get right in there and interact with the animals. There’s absolutely no denying the game’s charms at a micromanagement or a cuteness level. It makes a welcome addition to your Xbox One game collection if you’re looking for a family friendly game, a hardcore simulator or something to capture the cutesy levels that Kinectimals brought… only this time, with a Kinect that really works. Don’t believe us? Try waving at happy customers and see what they do back.