Zoo Tycoon
Reviewed by Didi Cardoso
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2013-12-08 Xbox One Simulation E10 (Everyone 10+) Frontier Developments

I have a history of playing zoo-related games, specifically Zoo Tycoon and Zoo Vet titles. Seeing Zoo Tycoon return now on Xbox One was pretty exciting, since it implied new gameplay possibilities. I'm happy to report that I'm not disappointed by what I've experienced so far, and that means a whole lot of tycooning around my zoos!

I guess that the zoo appeal began by real trips to the zoo when I was little, and I'm not sure why I even enjoyed it because there were always mishaps. I remember being pecked on the elbow by an ostrich for no apparent reason, since I was just standing there. I remember an elephant snorting on my hand when we were feeding them fruit (ew... elephant boogers!). Most of all, I remember a curious giraffe that decided to taste my hair by licking my head. Oddly enough, many years later, a horse did the same. But what does this have anything to do with my review? Because now I can get close to the animals WITHOUT being pecked at, snorted on or most importantly, end up with my hair in a slobbering mess.

After going through a series of initially overwhelming tutorials, I was off to take care of my own zoo. I do recommend completing Training Mode, since there are a lot of little details to learn and it seems a bit strange at first to browse through all the menus and learn where everything can be found. Fortunately, Kinect makes it easier since you can just tell it what you want to do. Personally, I prefer using the controller and leaving the Kinect for animal interaction. More about that later.

Managing a zoo is fairly complex and goes beyond placing exhibits and adopting animals. At least with this installment of the franchise we don't need to worry about placing paths, since as soon as we place an exhibit, it will automatically connect to existing structures where possible.

Zoo Tycoon is best played in tycoon view (bird's eye) since you can get a great view of your zoo, facilities and exhibits, move around instantly, and see a bunch of pings that show you all kinds of useful information: animal needs and levels, visitors happiness, range of bathrooms, state of repair of structures and much more.

However, roaming around seeing your zoo from a guest's point of view is quite rewarding, and you can go around snapping photos and trying to unlock the hidden coins. There is also quite a bit of satisfaction from driving around in a buggy without fear or running people over, since they will get out of the way - this is not GTA, boys and girls, no bonus for running over grandma!

There are several kinds of exhibits (tundra, forest, alpine and so on), and they come in three different sizes, each housing a limited number of animals. Animals have social needs, and you need to pay attention to what each considers a social group. Some will be content to have just one partner, while others require at least three other companions to be happy. When you adopt an animal, keep an eye on the details to learn about social needs and specific habitat that it requires.

Animals require nourishment, entertainment and cleanliness to be happy, so when placing an exhibit you must also build these three add-ons. There are specific spots in the exhibit where you can build them, and there is also a limited number you can have per exhibit and in total. There are also interaction stations that you can place as one of these enrichment options: a hand-feeding station, a hose and a glass window.

The feeding station was my first "oooh ahhhh" moment. By using the gestures prompted on the screen, you can interact with the animals via Kinect. Extend your arm and move it around to target a food basket. Lower your arm while making a fist to pick up one of the available food items. Raise your arm, flip your wrist and open your hand to feed the animal. No elephant boogers on this hand!

The hose is ok but it has terrible controls. I tried controlling it via Kinect and most of the time it was impossible to get it going. With the controller, it's somewhat better, but still extremely frustrating since it keeps flopping all over the place. It is rather funny to see a bear roll around on the floor enjoying the water pressure though.

The glass window provides some moments of hilarity as we interact with silly chimpanzees. And I don't know who is sillier, me or the chimpanzee, since I found myself making all these faces and crazy gestures one after another. It's quite impressive how the Kinect can recognize your mouth and eye movements! And hell, I don't even like monkeys.

Soon enough, you will notice the task is way too much for one person to handle, so you should build facilities that allow you to hire and train staff. You can have more zookeepers to help with the animals, janitors to clean up and repair, and breeding specialists to give the animals some... let's call it romantic encouragement, I guess.

Breeding is a great way to create new species, but don't get carried away, there will be no monkey headed lions roaming around. You can cross species of the same type of animal (polar bear with grizzly bear, for example) to discover something new and exotic. Your guests will also love baby animals, giving you a popularity boost. With popularity comes increased funding, and we definitely want that to keep our zoos running in tip top condition.

Many of the items and animals won't be available at first, since they are unlocked by leveling up. Once they are unlocked, they must be researched first to become available, and this all costs money. Other things you may want to invest in are decorations, which help keep your guests happy, and concessions which will take care of their hunger needs.

Granted, Zoo Tycoon is a game of patience and attention to detail, but there are a few activities that help change the pace. Aside from the already mentioned animal interactions, the game will throw timed challenges at you at a fairly good pace. You'll be asked to breed a certain animal, release animals to the wild, take certain photos for magazines and newspapers, add something to your zoo, or keep happiness levels green for a given amount of time. Other tasks revolve around buggy checkpoint races to deliver vaccines or food to the animals. Complete the challenges for money and popularity rewards, fail them and you get fined.

For added features, you can build a zoo with up to three other players, record and share clips and build your own photo album. You can even contribute to real animal conservation causes just by achieving certain in-game goals related to preservation of endangered species and releasing animals into the wild. These specific community activities raise awareness to real world events, and Microsoft is committed to donate resources to the respective causes assisting with preservation of said animals.

Zoo Tycoon takes a big leap in terms of realism. It's an amazing sensory experience, from gesture to ambient noise, absolutely gorgeous to look at, to the point I'm content just going around snapping photos, watching how animals behave and interacting with them. But this is a tycoon game after all, and a very in-depth one at that, which means it is not for everyone. For what it is, I absolutely love it, everything from the the fantastic encyclopedia with all kinds of information on all animals to making faces at a monkey, race around on a buggy or watch clumsy baby animals trip all over themselves. And at least this way, I can get close to the giraffes without getting my hair slobbered on!