When shown next to the likes of Dead Rising 3, Battlefield 4 and Killer Instinct, Zoo Tycoon seemed an odd addition to the Xbox One launch line-up. It's not a traditional kids' title or an in-depth strategy game. It doesn't showcase the Kinect sensor in any spectacular fashion, nor is it a well established franchise on the Xbox 360. It is, however, very endearing and peaceful, the perfect game for a chilled out Sunday afternoon, a good natured learning tool for children, and an altogether positive experience.
The most engaging and interesting parts of Zoo Tycoon revolve around the animals themselves. There are lots of species available to adopt and home in your zoo in large and small exhibits, and some species even allow you to interact using the Kinect sensor. It's unfortunate that it isn't possible to interact with all animals in this way as it's incredibly fun to pull faces at monkeys, wink at tigers, and roar at lions and watch them mimic your movements. The Kinect sensor starts to come into its own here but the limited interactions mean the novelty wears off pretty quickly. Young children in particular will delight in this feature which is reminiscent of Kinectimals. You can also feed or wash most animals which is insanely cute at times - the giraffes and bears are particularly adorable. In fact, many of the best experiences happen at ground level, since there is something deeply satisfying about getting up close and personal with the animals in the zoo, taking photos and enjoying your park as soothing music plays in the background. Interacting with the animals and keeping them happy will help them level up over time, too. Any animal that reaches level 15 can be released into the wild as part of your conservation efforts. The game will then regularly update you with the animal's welfare which is a really sweet addition. Knowing the elephant you released has integrated into a wild herd or given birth to babies of her own adds a sense of pride and achievement.
As you unlock new species and enclosures there is less chance to hang out with the animals, so it's best to hire some staff to take care of the day to day maintenance such as ensuring the exhibits are stocked with food and water and that someone is available to clean up all the poop, which will otherwise deter visitors from your park! It is also possible to unlock dozens of items for each enclosure but since the benefits of a fancier scratching post in your tiger enclosure are purely aesthetic, there doesn't seem much point at times. After a while you'll find yourself just dumping the same three starter items in each area and possibly switching it up a little by adding an interaction or two.
The goal here is simple - build the biggest and best zoo that you can, keep all your animals and visitors happy and make as much money as possible. All of this is achieved by building concessions, entertainments and exhibits, adopting animals and hiring staff to maintain your zoo. Pleasingly, the money rarely feels like the primary driving factor, only becoming a focus when attempting to adopt some of the rarer species for the delight of the visitors (and usually the player). There are three main modes - Freeform, Campaign and Challenge - all of which are available to be enjoyed as single player experiences or with up to three friends on Xbox LIVE.
Freeform mode allows players to build a zoo from scratch, unlocking new exhibits, animals and facilities as they play without any financial restraints. This is the perfect mode for young children as it strips away much of the strategy and simply allows gradual expansion and development.
Campaign mode is for the more experienced player. A series of 20 scenarios which will put your zookeeping abilities to the test. Each time you complete a campaign level you'll unlock new locations and items for your Freeform and Challenge zoos and, more importantly, you'll become a slightly better player. The campaign levels range from 15 minutes to a couple of hours in length and there's the option to keep playing your zoo once all objectives have been met. Throughout the levels you will be presented with challenges to complete in order to improve your zoo's reputation, earn more money or increase the happiness of your visitors and animals. This is where Zoo Tycoon lets itself down. None of the Campaign levels are particularly difficult and once you add time constraints to a game which is at its best when you are at ground level with the animals, you strip away the charm and reveal a somewhat mediocre simulation.
Challenge mode is the most entertaining of the modes available, though. It offers the tranquillity and freedom of Freeform, but with financial constraints and challenges to keep it interesting. This is where you can expand your zoo to your heart's content, breed animals, watch them grow and release them into the wild or just finally build that Meercat-only park you've always dreamed of.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that players will regularly be able to vote for a community achievement. Currently, the Tiger Survival Program is in the lead to become the first Zoo Tycoon community achievement and when the enough community members grab the achievement, they'll unlock a $10,000 donation from Microsoft and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. That can't be bad at all.
Lots of things are done very well in Zoo Tycoon. The animals have real character and the educational elements are delivered in perfect, bite size chunks. You can lose hours just walking around the zoo, taking photographs and enjoying the animal interactions. Initially there is genuine delight when a new species or enclosure type is unlocked but unfortunately, this wonder wears off all too quickly.
The simulation and zoo building feel too limited and unchallenging to hold the interest of adult gamers and may prove to be too uninteresting for the youngest players, which really limits the long term appeal of this title. Although Zoo Tycoon can be incredibly cute and charming, it lacks the depth and variety that would elevate it beyond being a temporary distraction.