Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox 360
Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Ratings: E (ESRB), 3 (PEGI), G (ACB)

Xbox One Review copy provided by Microsoft

Some of my fondest childhood memories involve going to the Zoo with my parents. Last year I added to that memory by taking my son to the Zoo in Edmonton Alberta Canada. Based on the photos and the way he lights up whenever he hears mention of a Zoo, it’s no surprise he was excited when I brought Zoo Tycoon into my home. But is this game just for the casual player? Or can the hardcore simulation fans get in on the fun too?

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This little guy likes to think so

In Zoo Tycoon, players find themselves in charge of various scenarios involving Zoo’s where they must do everything they can to make the Zoo successful. In the main Career mode you are given timed scenarios where you must fix up a Zoo that is either in a state of disrepair or needs specific animals. Some situations involve working in areas such as South America where you cannot disturb the natural area, meaning that you cannot remove habitats, exhibits or landmarks (which are conveniently blocking the paths between exhibits). However in that scenario you still need to put the proper animals in the appropriate habitats and make sure to have 5 animals native to South America in your zoo. Did I mention you’ve got 3o minutes to do it? Plenty of scenarios in Zoo Tycoon look simple enough when you read the initial briefing, but turn out to be plenty challenge when you get to the level and see the layout of your Zoo and the budget you have to work with.

Zoo Tycoon is designed with a pretty good tutorial system in mind as well. It takes you step-by-step from the basics of moving around your park and managing animal habitats, to the more complicated stuff like advertising, finances and guest relations. I’m not usually very good at Tycoon style games or strategy in general, but I was able to easily grasp what was being shown in the tutorial and Zoo Tycoon makes sure to confirm that you understood every instruction before you move on to the next lesson. If there was a “For Dummies” tutorial system for Tycoon games, then Zoo Tycoon has nailed it. My only issue with the Tutorial levels is that I often found that many of them could have been covered in one level. There would be one level where you’d learn how to advertise and that was it. The scenario would complete and then you’d go to a new level to learn how to manage your money. Those tutorials could have easily been in the same level and would allow for faster completion of the tutorials so you can get to managing on your own.

Which brings me to my next issue, loading screens, and there’s a lot of them. When you start the game, when you load a map, when you finish a map, all involve loading screens. It’s not a huge issue aside from the fact that the loading times can be quite lengthy, especially when you are just going back to the main menu. Other issues in Zoo Tycoon are simple nitpicks, such as the way the menu is put together. I’ve found myself a few times having trouble navigating the menus. The designer, in an effort to make them all easily merge together have managed to make menus that can be counter-intuitive. On more times than I care to count I’d find myself trying to quickly modify an exhibit and then want to quickly back out and modify something else, just to find myself stuck in a bunch of other menus related to that first exhibit. Then there’s the Kinect commands. On a few occasions I’ve been working on an exhibit, when background noise in my livingroom would suddenly trigger the Kinect and I’d find myself in a menu I’d not intended to get into or find myself kicked out of another menu I’d been navigating. But, in the end, these are small annoyances that don’t detract much from the game.

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I don’t usually say this but SQUEE!!!!!

Let’s talk about animals, the main attraction of Zoo Tycoon, obviously. Yes, they are adorable, and yes they are fun to interact with. Every animal you adopt or breed for your Zoo comes with a list of needs which are broken down into a few categories. The first category is Food, this ones pretty obvious, you have to eat to survive. Your animals can be fed two ways, either by putting a food dish, specific to their dietary requirements in their habitat OR you can put an interactive feeding station which lets you get close to your herbivores (sorry but for obvious reasons handing lions, tigers and bears a steak might be hazardous to the health of your customers).

The next category is how clean your animals are. Every animal requires a shower in their habitat and someone to clean up it’s droppings so that it stays healthy, alternatively for Hippos, Rhinos and Elephants you can install an interactive cleaning station so you can hose off your animals manually.

Following the cleanliness of the animals is social needs. If your animals don’t have company they will get lonely and their happiness can drop into the red. This can be solved by adding socially compatible animals to the exhibit. They can be of the same species or they can be a species with the same environmental and dietary requirements. To supplement this need, you can install interactive stations which add a large window to the habitat. This one lets you use your Kinect to make faces and gestures at your animals, which they will then mimic. Warning: Doing this will make cuteness pour out of your TV in buckets and women and children in the room will squeal with delight, as was the experience in my household when using these interactions.

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Look at that face! What’s not to love?

The final category that your animals need in order to be happy in your Zoo is to be fitted with the proper animal enclosure. If you take a Rhino and put it in an Alpine exhibit that is best used for cold weather animals like bears, its habitat happiness will drop like a stone. Another thing that will drop the habitat happiness is the size of the habitat. If you stick a few Elephants in a small enclosure, you’ll find that they are very unhappy and would benefit from a larger enclosure. The previously mentioned categories can affect habitat happiness as well. When you put animals in a habitat with no food and no showers, they won’t be happy. They can also get very bored in their habitats so be sure to put plenty of enrichment toys in there to keep them busy. Wading pools can be put in for Rhinos and Hippos, scratching posts for bears and big cats, and climbing posts for Chimpanzees.

If your animals are completely happy and you have hired breeders, you can breed more animals. Baby animals add to the overall charm of Zoo Tycoon and will raise the quality of your parks by a substantial amount. Guests love baby animals and will flock to the exhibits to see them. You sometimes get bonuses if you breed endangered animals and especially if the offspring of those animals are born with different colored fur from their animals. I discovered this when I bred some of my Chimpanzees. I went away to work on other exhibits and when my guest numbers suddenly spiked, I came back to find I had an Albino baby Chimpanzee in my exhibit!

I almost forgot the graphics and sound. Zoo Tycoon is so much fun and immersive and that is due in no small part to the way the game looks and sounds. Graphics are very good for both on the ground and in Tycoon view. Animals are convincing, movements are believable and especially when you get close to the animals, you can see the level of detail put into the design of each one. There are a few minor episodes of texture and geometry delays when you first zoom in on animal enclosures but they are few and far between. Animals sounds are also very good, every sound is accurately reproduced to the point where I found myself wondering how close the sound designers got to the actual real life animals.

Zoo Tycoon is a fun filled and often charming game for the whole family. My son loves it so much that he stops whatever he is doing as soon as he sees it load up on the TV. It has taken someone like me, who isn’t a fan of Tycoon games into its world and I can confidently say that I’ve been converted. If you are shopping for that perfect last minute gift for your family to enjoy together on the Xbox One during this Holiday season (or anytime during the year), then Zoo Tycoon is just right for you.