Gotta catch 'em all
A title like Zoo Tycoon might not instantly spring to mind when thinking about the first tentative steps into the next-next-generation, buried deep under the weight of "mature" launch games and almost no marketing drive.Now we’re in the post-Christmas dry period and the Battlefield k/d ratios have settled however, Frontier Development’s colourful park management simulation could easily act as a palate cleanser for those of you yearning for something with fewer shades of brown and grey (or splashes of red) on your big screen.
This is a modern take on Theme Park’s top-down strategy gameplay, with a sumptuous array of animals and enclosures in place of the rides and roller coasters.
It’s the sort of PC-centric project that rarely gets retrofitted to a controller these days, which is much to the dismay of those of us weaned on Sim City for SNES.
In shoehorning Zoo Tycoon onto a console, Frontier have done a pretty great job in bridging that PC divide, developing a sensible interface that plays to the strengths of both Kinect and the new Xbox One controller.
And whilst their idealised vision of an average zoo might be a little too rose-tinted for some, there is at least a commendable smattering of real-world conscience in Zoo Tycoon's blueprint.
Several of the community achievements will, over time, unlock large real-world donations from Microsoft for animal protection projects around the globe, and you can vote for whichever one you fancy as you plan and build your empire.
A themed parkAt the core of its design, Zoo Tycoon essentially boils down to a nuts-and-bolts business simulation in which you’ll be plopping down buildings on a map and watching the results on a series of coloured bar graphs representing various facets of animal happiness and customer satisfaction. It’s also nowhere near as mind-numbingly dull as that might sound however, with colourful, infectiously peppy presentation and lovingly-designed animals that ensure those dry statistics never get in the way.
To generate the cash required to purchase the expansive list of exotic species and - in doing so - increase the desirability of your park, you’ll need to lay down a pattern of enclosures, administrative buildings and attractions that fulfil the basic hygiene and entertainment requirements of your customers (represented with handy heat maps). Taking care of little Johnny’s need to pee and eat ice cream is offset against the need to keep your finances firmly in the black with timely PR campaigns that generate necessary foot traffic, all the while making sure your animals are healthy, happy and procreating.
At its core, this is a nuts-and-bolts business simulation
Keeping your animals alive means providing them with sufficient sustenance, hygiene and entertainment, and in time-honoured sim tradition, basic tasks such as cleaning up poop and filling up food storage units can be carried out by hand at first. Once you have the administrative facilities however, your newly-hired staff quickly become proficient enough to carry out menial duties themselves, leaving you to concentrate solely on design, layout and customisation.
For those of you well-versed in the genre however, be warned that Zoo Tycoon’s customisation options are a little underwhelming over the long haul of a sandbox game. A few basic themes, objects and tile-sets allow the look and feel of each location to be altered, but any hint of terrain or path fine-tuning is kept firmly away from the controller and under the hood. Roads are auto-generated according to the location of each building you place down and the orientation of their neighbour, and while the resulting curved concrete maps are attractive to behold, they never quite feel like your own creations.
Dead space in-between roads and buildings can be decorated with rocks and trees to mitigate that lack of control over their placement, but there were more than a few times I ended up yearning for a sculpting tool to shave away those annoying corners and triangles.
Touch, playThe decision to keep fine-tuning under the hood is likely reflective of a design that needs to keep children in mind however, and it's understandable when considering the broad range of audience Frontier is pitching to. With that said, Zoo Tycoon is also painfully simple once your park is ticking over with a solid amount of profit rolling into the coffers. Progression in all three major gameplay modes is ultimately measured on a front-loaded “fame” rating that dictates animal and research unlocks, and although it’ll take a long time to reach the top of the tech tree and unlock everything there is to see, it’s a game that quickly becomes more of a grind than a varied challenge, no matter how gentle the slope that's presented.
Micro-level problems in your park usually have a blindingly obvious solution once you have the cash to buy whatever unit you require, and money is never really an issue outside of the first 30 minutes of each fledgling campaign. I never really had to sell any buildings or consider which upgrades to take before managing to hit the park limits in campaign mode, and whilst the scenario mode offers bite-sized goals with greater difficulty, even those are fairly light in scope, never really offering up the varied challenge that such a mode thrives on. The formula remains the same.
Zoo Tycoon is ultimately all about the animals
Regardless of that difficulty pitch and no matter what age you are however, Zoo Tycoon is ultimately all about its animals.
With a tap of the button you’re free to zoom down from sandbox view into third-person and hop onto a buggy or run around your park taking pictures and annoying the customers, with several dynamic gameplay tasks requiring the use of your camera to become a virtual wildlife photographer. Although it’s a mechanic that repeats throughout the length of the game, taking pictures of your captive species is ultimately a tremendously rewarding way to spend time in Zoo Tycoon. Each and every species is lovingly rendered and animated with believable authenticity, whilst the ability to adopt specific animals with weirdly appropriate names adds a dose of personality lacking elsewhere in the design.
Indeed, you may end up actually caring about a few of your earliest adoptees, and the ability of Kinect to mimic basic hand gestures for feeding, cleaning and interaction enhances the bond (when it works anyway, which is a little sketchy in application). The connection you can build with your animals makes deciding which of them to release into the wild slightly more painful than you might imagine, and it’s testament to Frontier’s talented artists that Zoo Tycoon’s varied species manage to carry so much charm, threat and amusement.
Sure, some of them will inevitably exist to be milked for park profit, but if you've any affinity for a specific species then it's likely to be well represented. There's a huge variety of different animal types to uncover, with enclosures broken down into themes such as Alpine and Savannah, and sizes from small to large that provide a suitable viewing enclosure for different sizes. Certain species need to be kept in specific numbered groups or away from other animals, and tailoring their enclosures with toys or combining different compatible species injects a little more of that crucial creative spark missing in the strategic view.
This is the heart of the experience.
- Fantastic animation
- Colourful, joyful presentation
- Good controller interface
- Huge variety of animals
- Automated road placement
- Little in the way of challenge
- Occasional slowdown
- Meta-game is a grind
Zoo Tycoon Xbox One ReviewZoo Tycoon is a little difficult to pin down as an overall experience. On one hand it’s an example of a genre that we don’t get to see much of on consoles these days, and if you missed out on simulation or management titles for years simply because you chose gamepad over a mouse and keyboard, this is a title that shouldn’t really pass you by; there’s really not much other opportunity out there.
It’s not a shining example of the genre by any means though. At times Zoo Tycoon is overly-simplistic and too much of a grind once the initial financial hump is conquered, and although everything is well-presented, the solutions to most of the problems you encounter in your park never really feel like something crafted from your own guile, but rather a matter of obtaining enough money to buy the specific unit required.
In the end, Zoo Tycoon is rescued by the Pokemon-like drive to see, photograph and interact with each of its animal species, and it's their lovingly hand-crafted animation and personality that steals the show. Arguably that's Frontier getting the core of its game absolutely correct, and as such (and this goes double for anybody reading that has children to consider) Zoo Tycoon is a project with enough passion in the areas that matter most.
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