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Preview: Zoo Tycoon (Xbox One)

Posted by Ken Barnes

Overlook this at your peril.

When Microsoft revealed the launch lineup for the Xbox One, a title that was kicking around at the bottom of the alphabetical list – followed only by…gulp…Zumba Fitness World Party…was Zoo Tycoon. In development with the team at Frontier, the game seemed to be a cutesy mix of one of their earlier titles – Kinectimals – with a little bit of The Sims-style gameplay thrown in for good measure. From the trailers, it looked like Kinectimals Now With Zoo Animals!

In short, it looked like a game that you could pretty much ignore, unless you’ve got children.

We presented that point to Johnny Watts, Chief Creative Officer at Frontier, and Jorg C. Neumann, Studio Manager at Microsoft Studios, during an Xbox One event at London’s swanky Marylebone One. They’d heard it all before. With a sage nod, Watts told us that we hadn’t seen anything like everything that the game had to offer, and showed us what the trailers didn’t cover.

To say that we were surprised would be an understatement. From the outset, it appears that the development team have had their hearts set on creating a full Tycoon-style game for the next generation. The entire game can be played from a top-down view, with the Xbox One controller performing admirably as you shape your zoo, adopt animals, appease the customers, and work as hard as you can in order to keep your exhibits happy. Some things have been simplified, such as pathway building. Rather than having to map out every little piece of tarmac, you simply drop an exhibit anywhere in your zoo, and the game links everything up to what you’ve already built. And those buildings can be numerous, and they have to be, in order to house the 101 different species that are available. From lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) through to lizards, sloths, hippos, and elephants, there should certainly be enough to be going on with. Add concession stands and other entertainments in order to keep your zoo’s visitors happy, and you’ve got the whole nine yards. And you can build things in any configuration. If you want a zoo full of giraffes, you can do that. A big cat zoo that just contains lions and tigers, maybe? Go for it.

A number of game modes are on offer, too, beyond the normal Tycoon-style infinite build mode. An unlimited sandbox mode allows you to build whatever you’d like, no matter what the cost. A campaign mode gives you 20 different challenges to complete – amounting to somewhere in the region of 12-20 hours of gameplay, depending on your skill level. But the most interesting thing comes in the form of the challenge mode. Here, the game starts you off with an empty space in which to build your fledgling zoo, and then infinitely drip-feeds intelligently-generated challenges your way, essentially meaning that you can play until you get bored.

On top of that, the previously discussed Community Challenges will be in full effect. Using Microsoft’s new dynamic achievements system, which allows game developers to add achievements to already-released titles over time, Frontier will set community goals. If you pick up the achievement by completing the challenge, you’ll be contributing to a worldwide total. Once that worldwide total gets to a set target, Microsoft will make a donation to a real-world conservation project, meaning that just by playing, you could be helping to make the world a better place for animals both big and small. You can even vote on which challenge the community should take on next.

We were assured that the game can be played entirely without Kinect, if you’re adverse to such things. However, a press of a button takes you into a third-person view, meaning that you can run around your zoo, take part in buggy races around the grounds (essentially meaning that you have a track creation system for a simple racing game on your hands, as well as a standard Tycoon game) against other players online, and go and interact with the exhibits. Johnny’s avatar wandered up to the chimp enclosure, and Johnny started pulling faces in front of the Kinect sensor, which the wonderfully-detailed chimps started to copy and react to. As he was doing this, his face appeared as a reflection to give the idea of the player looking through glass at the simians. It’s a little thing, but it worked wonderfully well, without a single missed step. And that can be said of many things that we saw with our time with Zoo Tycoon. While giving an elephant a bath with a hose, a baby elephant playing with a tree-hanger in the background slipped and fell, causing everybody watching in the room to let out a collective “Awwwwww!” It sounds silly and throwaway, but the sheer amount of detail present makes the whole thing somewhat more believable and charming than we can really put into words.

When you add the fact that Zoo Tycoon really does appear to be a fully-fledged Tycoon game with an easy-to-use interface and an absolute stack of gameplay to take on, we reckon that overlooking it could be something of a mistake. Of course, full judgement is reserved for our review but from what we’ve seen so far, this could be the real deal.

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