Zoo Tycoon Review – Xbox One

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It’s rather ironic that one of the best Xbox One launch titles is a game that most people with an Xbox One will never even consider, let alone play.  Sure, games like Dead Rising 3 and Ryse: Son of Rome have that initial shock and awe factor, and Forza 5 is certainly addictive for those who like driving thousands of miles without ever going anywhere, but Zoo Tycoon not only delivers one of the most immersive and addictive strategy games I’ve played on any console (this gen or last), it has more “Aww…” moments per hour than any game ever made.   It’s also a functional proof of concept that Kinect (both voice and motion) can work when properly implemented.

If you have ever played any of those theme park or rollercoaster tycoon style games then you already have a head start on understanding the basics for Zoo Tycoon, but the lengthy and informative tutorial is the perfect place to start for newbies and veterans.  Once you have finished the multi-lesson training session you will be able to maintain your zoo as well as all the animals it contains, while catering to a diverse assortment of daily park visitors.

Zoo Tycoon lets you tackle a variety of pre-assembled scenarios or you can dive headfirst into the wonderfully intricate world of building and maintaining your own zoo from scratch.  Much of the work is handled from a functional aerial view that lets you quickly navigate your property, creating new attractions, repairing or upgrading existing ones, and giving you quick access to all the various animal habitats.  There is so much to do in Zoo Tycoon.  In addition to your own personal goals the animals are in constant need of attention, the visitors always want refreshments and clean restrooms or some guy in a costume to entertain them.  You’ll need to plant trees, place statues and water features, and basically landscape your entire park.  At times Zoo Tycoon can be as exhausting as a real job, but there are just as many endearing moments that make up for all the corporate gears spinning behind the scenes.

At any time you can drop down into the park and explore in a more personalized third-person view that allows you to interact with your various exhibits and care for your animals.  You can walk around the park or drive around using a personalized buggy.  The level of interaction is based entirely on what you have previously installed in the park.  There are feeding areas and washing stations, and all sorts of toys you can put into the various exhibits.  Naturally, you have a camera that will keep you continually obsessed with capturing the most adorable moment possible on virtual film then sharing it with your friends on Xbox Live.   The game also does a good job of saving its own set of “precious moments” video clips.

The depth of this simulation is incredible and you can pretty much do everything within the circle of life from breeding your own animals (with proper staff and facilities) to hopefully releasing them into the wild someday.  You can even try to help endangered species and all of your released animals are GPS tagged and viewable on a world map.  The game even addresses the issues of inbreeding, forcing you to either purchase new animals or possibly have one gifted to you by a friend who is also playing Zoo Tycoon.

The more you play the more animals and building types are unlocked which leads to bigger zoos, more complex duties, and more addictive gameplay.  You can eventually hire assistants to help you with the workload so you aren’t personally plunging clogged toilets or washing down a dirty rhino.  But even with some automated assistance you’ll always want to cycle through the various park icons that show happiness and health ratings for your critters and address any deficiencies as quickly as possible.  As you get deeper into the game your task list may seem to lighten up, but the importance of each task becomes increasingly more important; even the seemingly boring office work like setting ticket prices or creating ad campaigns to boost park attendance.

Such a complex sim would seem more at home on a PC than your console, and while there were a few issues with tiny text and an endless cascade of menus to get to where you want to go, many of these navigation issues were negated with some brilliant implementation of Kinect Voice where I could just speak the command to instantly go or do what needed to be done.  There is a learning curve as you learn the game’s vocabulary, but after a few hours you’ll be ordering this game around like a boss.   Kinect is also used to capture body motion and even subtle facial detection like a simple smile in what some will dismiss as a blatant attempt to show off the power of the new Kinect, but of all the games that currently use Kinect motion tracking (and there aren’t many), Zoo Tycoon is the only one that reliably works.  I spent way too much time feeding the giraffes using realistic gestures and making faces at the chimpanzees thanks to the wonderful Kinect integration.

Kids and adults will find hours of charming and addictive entertainment with Zoo Tycoon.  There is a great sandbox mode where you can just tinker with the game’s various interlinking mechanics or you can tackle the collection of 20 zoos-in-progress in the campaign mode and see if you can complete the required tasks for each mission.  There is even an online co-op mode so you can share your managerial duties with your friends.

The strategy-sim genre is one we don’t often see on consoles because quite frankly it seldom works, but Zoo Tycoon is the perfect mix of strategy and simulation that does work thanks to a great design, progressively addicting gameplay, and an amazing assortment of insufferably cute animals you can’t help but care for.    So kids; when your parents won’t buy you that pet tiger or baby elephant you’ve been wanting, just ask them for a copy of Zoo Tycoon instead.

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