When you’re little, zoos are magical places: the very notion of them excites and inspires. As adults we see zoos in new and not always favourable lights, but Zoo Tycoon capitalises on that original childlike optimism and paints an altogether more endearing picture of how animal parks operate. Cynical eyes may spot the greasy, residual handprints on the lion enclosure’s glass and let out a sigh for the species, but Zoo Tycoon will soon disarm you.
This game simply wants you to play nice and have fun, you see. When you jump into the game’s thirdperson mode and try to run over smiling families with one of the park’s motorised carts – not that we did, of course – they’ll just jump genially out of your way. Shout “Beep beep!” at the Kinect, and you can forewarn them with a honk of you cart’s horn. Given that so much of Xbox One’s launch lineup is about unmitigated slaughter, these innocent, though gimmicky touches are undeniably refreshing.
The overall objective is to build an attractive park and keep your animals happy while providing human visitors with clean toilets and enough concessions on which to fritter away their disposable income. The top-down Tycoon mode is a barrage of onscreen meters representing everything from your park’s cleanliness to its entertainment value. Keeping everything in the green will increase your zoo’s fame; raising it grants you access to further research options, whereby you can spend some of your profit upgrading your facilities, adopting new species, or masterminding an online viral marketing campaign.
You can grow your profit margins by adding ice cream parlours, cuddly toy workshops, burger bars and coffee shops, and expand your zoo by adding and improving upon the animal enclosures. Animals require food, water, companionship and external stimulus in order to feel contented, and the happier they are, and the more diverse the number of species that you house, the more people will flock through the gates.
Once you choose the size and habitat type of a pre-set animal enclosure and set it down on the map, you can access one of the game’s many easily navigated, console-friendly menus to select a new animal species to adopt. All the child-friendly favourites are here, but strip away the numerous sub-species and there are really only nine animal types for your main enclosures – and very few of these can exist side by side, leading to a lot of very sparse-looking attractions. Mini-enclosures house animals like sloths, peafowl, parrots and red pandas, but you can’t interact with these as you can the larger critters.
It’s in those animal interactions that Frontier Developments’ work on 2010’s Kinectimals is put to good use. You can use Kinect to hose down dusty elephants and rhinos, play a game of Monkey See, Monkey Do with a great ape, and in a particularly sweet moment that’s sure to delight younger players, hold out your hand to feed an orange to a gentle giraffe.
Once you earn enough money through your park’s ticket sales, you can hire teams of janitors and zoo keepers to lighten the micromanagement load. In the later stages you’re set more advanced challenges, such as turning around a failing zoo, nursing a sick animal back to health or introducing a breeding program for an endangered species, but these are never enough to actually push you – usually, it’s a simple case of throwing money at a problem until it goes away.
For all Zoo Tycoon’s charms, it’s ultimately too shallow; there’s only so much cooing at identikit baby animals you can do before the inevitable fatigue sets in. The lack of any real challenge or, worse, variety means the initial novelty soon wears off. There are optional tasks that you can perform in addition to the day-to-day running of the zoo, but these become repetitive fast, as they’re all variations on the same few core principles. Take a picture of an animal for a publication; perform an interaction with a certain number of sub-species; courier spoiling stock from one side of the park to another; keep meters in the green for a five full minutes.
For kids, the limited possibilities of Zoo Tycoon will do little to spoil the wholesome magic, and the experience is delightful whilst it lasts; accessible and sweet, cute but never cloying. Adults, however, will soon see through the charade, just as they see those greasy handprints, and sigh.
Zoo Tycoon is out now on Xbox One.