How many launch exclusives did the Xbox One have? Enough that one of them could be a retailer exclusive. That’s right, Zoo Tycoon on the Xbox One is exclusive to Walmart, which is bewildering upon first hearing it, but then more sensible when you remember that the Xbox One had nearly ten exclusive games at launch. With Ryse, Dead Rising 3 and Forza 5 dominating the discussion, it made a little more sense that Microsoft could afford to lose a game about managing a zoo. The first entry in Microsoft’s cult classic Zoo management series since 2004, this marks not only its Xbox debut, but also a shift in developers with Frontier Developments taking over for the now-defunct Blue Fang Games. With the creators of Kinectimals now at the helm, it’s clear what Microsoft was trying to build with this incarnation — for better or worse.
Zoo Tycoon includes four modes: Training, Freeform, Challenge and Campaign. There’s an obvious progression, as diving in head first to any simulation game is a recipe for disaster. The training mode features ten levels that get you better acquainted with the game. Even though there’s a huge learning curve, those who complete every tutorial level will quickly get the hang of things. The tutorial is a bit too worried about this, however, with repetition far too common. It will take about two to three hours to fully complete, but had they had streamlined the process and not retaught information, that time could have been easily cut in half. Furthermore, there is a ton of text to read which may be difficult to process for young players. Having some sort of a narrator or guide character would have also made it easier to learn. Still, teaching something like this is no easy task and as most players will come out of it with a grasp on how to play, it remains a success.
After completing the tutorial, the campaign is the next objective to tackle. This boasts twenty scenario-based zoos in six categories to challenge your zoo keeping skills, while also further extending the tutorial and hoping you won’t notice. As each scenario has an entirely new environment, whatever occurs in the previous ones technically doesn’t matter, so you’ll frequently be speeding through the challenges with little care as to how the zoo is shaping up. Challenges include adding environmental objects to enclosures, taking the perfect picture, ensuring all of the animals are happy and more. Tasks like the latter are the most annoying, however, as it becomes obvious how to make them happy after doing it once. As a backdoor tutorial, it does help ease you into managing the many needs of a zoo, but perhaps combining it with the labeled tutorial would have been more effective. Completing each scenario earns an exclusive item, so unfortunately players won’t be able to quit if they tire of it and want to simply build their own zoo.
Freeform and Challenge Mode are the premier modes and allow players imaginations to run wild as they create their own zoos. Each mode can be played with up to three other players online and are practically the same besides one difference; Freeform gives you unlimited funds and Challenge limits them. Personally, I don’t see the fun in Freeform, but perhaps it will be preferable for younger players as they won’t have to worry as much about the management side of affairs.
For the first time ever in the series, it’s a bit of a hybrid between free roaming a zoo and building one. While the focus is still placed on the latter, quite a bit can be accomplished when in zoo view. Besides just wandering around (either on foot or in an embarrassing-looking buggy), you can manage the attractions by hand and have animal encounters. These include bathing, feeding and playing. Bathing simply allows for animals to be washed with a high pressure hose, feeding lets you grab fruits and vegetables and satiate the animal’s hunger, while playing lets you put the animals in a good mood by displaying fun gestures. All three can utilize the Kinect, but the only option that is easier than using a controller is playing. Taking a page (if not the whole book) from Kinectimals, players can do funny gestures with their body to the delight or sometimes even the mimicry of the animals. Playing with chimpanzees is the most rewarding as they not only imitate body movements, but even recognize facial movements with the help of the Kinect 2.0. Playing with animals adds a fun new dynamic to Zoo Tycoon and bolsters family appeal, as kids will have a blast playing with the virtual animals or seeing their parents scratch their armpits like a monkey.
Most of the zoo management will happen from Tycoon View, which gives an overhead view of the park. In this mode, you can highlight attractions and do things like repair, upgrade or add items to them. Animal enclosures are the most interesting to interact with as multiple objects like enrichments, interactions and animal care items must be added to keep them happy and healthy. Of course, animals themselves can also be added thanks to adoption (at a cost) from other zoos. Preventing players from becoming overwhelmed or having to keep an eye on everything are constant notifications that alert if anything needs tending to. With the help of zoo keepers, less micromanagement is required as zoos progress, allowing you to focus on the big picture with objectives like advertising, admission prices and expansion.
While there is a big learning curve and there’s always a lot to do, the game can become repetitive after successfully creating a few great zoos. There’s really not a whole lot of interesting things to do. Sure, building new enclosures and adding new animals is fun, but the excitement wears off after doing it a couple dozen times. The limited amount of enclosures and animals are probably the main catalyst for this. While there are over a hundred different animals, many are variations of the same creature. Some of my favorite animals to see at a zoo are the exotic ones like anteaters or capybaras, but all that’s offered here are standards like lions, elephants and bears.
Zoo Tycoon may be one of the lesser known Xbox One titles, but it’s not one of the lesser quality ones. With four modes, a deep interface and multiple activities, it’s clear that a lot of effort went into its development. Unfortunately, by combining classic Zoo Tycoon elements with those of Kinectimals, it lowers the challenge. Lasting appeal is strong simply because of how long it takes to get acquainted with its nuances, but the addictiveness may wear off upon mastering running a zoo. Still, it’s the best family choice for a next-gen launch title and quite an educational one at that. Any game that gives children both a primer on running a business and maintaining wildlife is a success, but that won’t prevent experienced simulation fans from balking at its limitations.
Version Reviewed: Xbox One