Zoo Tycoon: style and substance, but little staying power

By Brenna Hillier, Tuesday, 19 November 2013 09:13 GMT

Zoo Tycoon wins points for letting you high five a lion cub, but what do you do next? Brenna puts the Xbox One to work with a little light simming, and comes away charmed but unsatisfied.

Xbox One – Zoo Tycoon

A Microsoft Studios effort developed by Frontier Developments, the team behind Elite, Kinect Disneyland Adventures and Coaster Crazy. Based on a PC-only sim series.

Blends a top-down management sim with a cheerful interactive zoo experience, backed up by optional Kinect controls. Includes social elements which may help save real animals as well as co-op play.

101 different animals, although this list includes multiple species of each kind. 13 bear enclosures, anyone?

Launch title for the Xbox One available in selected stores but mainly as a digital release.

Reviews.

I bet you’re holding you breath to hear me wax lyrical about the ultra-violence of Ryse, the slickness of Forza 5, or the sheer chaos of Dead Rising 3. Tough; nobody gave me any assignments, and the Xbox One launch title I’ve played the most is Zoo Tycoon. I didn’t mean for this to happen, but it did, and now you’re stuck with the consequences.

Zoo Tycoon is deeply charming. One of the first actions you take in its tutorial is to interact with a zoo keeper. Well, I say “interact”, but actually you press the A button and then your job is over. Nevertheless the results are quite splendid; a lemur is sent playfully scurrying over your avatar. It’s extremely well-animated and teeth-curlingly sweet. Your avatar, the zookeeper, the lemur and the sap holding the control pad are all thus rendered soft and gooey. You will probably go “aww”.

Going “aww” is the best bit of Zoo Tycoon, and you’ll do it a lot. Whether you’re letting an elephant vacuum a banana off your palm, giving a lion a high five through an interaction wall, popping out your first zoo-bred endangered animals, or just watching a bear amuse itself with a slide, there’s plenty to get soppy over. The graphics are spot on – just cartoony enough that you don’t get uncanny valley issues, but so carefully animated that you can forget you’re not watching real animals, sometimes.

From my experience, the sim at its heart is fairly solid; balancing your budget with the needs of your visitors involves plenty of thought. Unfortunately, there’s a quite strict limit to how large your zoo can be, which means that even in freeform mode by end game you have to give up all your dreams of packing in every type of animal (or even one type of every kind of animal) if you have any desire to make your park a happy, healthy place.

On the one hand, what admirable realism! How it forces you to think about the struggle of conservatism! How it channels you towards connecting your game socially! What awareness it raises! On the other: for goodness’ sake, Microsoft, I want to build a zoo the size of the moon, filled with eight types of lions, stuff their pens full of flamingoes, and possibly feed some visitors to them if we run out of endangered birds. I felt the same shade of disappointment that SimCity wrung from my hollow, charred breast; you have to set up multiple zoos and get friends in to get the most of Zoo Tycoon, and even then you’re just a cog in the larger machine. I just want to play on my own forever. I’m like that.

There are other parallels to SimCity. I felt strangely restricted by Zoo Tycoon, as if creativity – glorious, unprofitable creativity – had been sacrificed on the altar of balance and homogeneity. Everything is locked to your fame level, so you have to start off building a zoo you don’t like in order to get the one you want to. This means everybody’s zoos start off the same, with few variations, because in order to make money and get to the best stuff you’re going to have to min max the heck out of your operation.

Laying out your park is pleasantly simple because the engine generates paths for you, but that also makes it kind of soulless. It doesn’t matter in the slightest where you put anything, and although you can go in and change the colour of the floor tiles if you like, whether you’re in top down perspective or walking around the difference isn’t that noticeable; whatever assets you jam together take on a samey feel because there just isn’t that much variety. Even at later levels, your zoo and your friends’ zoos will look much the same. This really lowers the replay value, especially as there also don’t seem to be many different paths to success from a gameplay perspective.

Since this has turned into a litany of complaints, when you drive your buggy around the park the pedestrians teleport out of the way. I understand and accept all the reasons why this had to be the case but when I’ve just spent an hour trying to make a bunch of stupid monkeys happy so I can finally buy the tiger of my dreams this is the sort of thing that makes me throw up my hands and declare I do not have time for this.

It’s not entirely clear who this game is for, either. It is kind of bizarre that in 2013 – this, the year of Luigi – I am going to have a complain about tutorials but goodness me, who are these aimed at? They start off telling you how to walk around (it’s the left stick. Who knew?) and are packed with repetition, which makes me feel like they’re aimed at the more casual crowd the Kinect features and family-friendly sheen suggest. And yet there are dozens of the buggers, and the text prompts appear in a tiny corner, so you can skip through half of them dazedly mashing buttons as you wander the park even if you know what you’re doing with the button-packed device in your hands.

Speaking of dazed and confused casual gamers: the Kinect parts are adorable – when they work. Alright, yes, this is a launch title, and the new Kinect will take some getting used to, but Frontier Developments hasn’t managed it. It’s almost unbearably delightful when it does work – I had to squeeze my eyes shut and bit my lip to stop from giving an unmanly “squee” when a newborn tiger cub winked at me – but after a few minutes of perfect functioning it almost always suddenly goes haywire; the gestures stop working, then the animal starts responding to gestures you haven’t made in an endless loop, flicking in and out of face mode, before suddenly wandering off. Uncool, bro.

Technical issues aside, the zoo mode and its various interactions feel like an attempt to bridge a divide that nobody really wants to cross – on one side, the finicky details of a management and building sim, and beyond a gaping chasm, a casual, pick-up-and-play interactive experience with little depth or meaning. It’s like someone took Alpha Centauri and Eyepet, ignored the best bits of each, and mashed them together in the hopes of spawning some unholy blend of the two. Good luck to them! They’ll definitely need a level three Breeding Centre.

Zoo Tycoon has a lot going for it, but what it lacks is a reason to stick around. The social aspects, multiplayer, levelling system and Kinect stuff all seem designed to distract from the fact that it’s a fairly linear sim experience with little staying power. But maybe in this age of 200 hour open world epics a little light simming is all you need, and hey, maybe by the time you’ve finished your ultimate zoo the next wave of releases will have hit.

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