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12 Reviews

Review: Zoo Tycoon is a prohibitive playpen

By Chris Scullion on Monday 9th Dec 2013 at 11:36 AM UTC

Despite being a first-party launch title, there's a good chance you may have completely forgotten Zoo Tycoon even exists.

While Microsoft ushered in the next generation with its star quartet of Forza Motorsport 5, Dead Rising 3, Killer Instinct and Ryse, the fifth game from Microsoft Studios was always destined to hang in the margins.

It's a shame, because while it isn't exactly the game you'll use to show off the Xbox One's potential, Zoo Tycoon is nevertheless an entertaining sim that's worth your attention.

Loosely based on the series developed for Microsoft by Blue Fang Games in the early noughties, this reimagining is instead handled by longstanding UK studio Frontier Developments. The Cambridge based developer, headed up by David Braben, previously worked on the Xbox 360 Kinect titles Kinectimals and Kinect Disneyland Adventures, and Zoo Tycoon combines the best aspects of both.

As you would expect, at its core the game is a sim in which the player is in charge of their own zoo. Starting with a tiny attraction, the aim is to develop and grow your park until it's the sort of animal paradise people will come from miles to see. This in turn makes you more money, which can be invested back into the park.

As is always the case with games of this ilk, running your zoo isn't as simple as dropping down a load of zebras and monkeys and leaving them to it. Constant surveillance is necessary to ensure your herds remain happy - because nobody's going to pay to see a sad panda - and customers also have to be taken care of with well-maintained toilets, restaurants and other sideshows.

You can also descend from the typical birds-eye strategy game viewpoint and explore your zoo from a third-person perspective, interacting with the animals in a couple of Kinect mini-games (though these are purely optional and won't exactly blow your mind).

As it's a game aimed at all ages, with some players likely unfamiliar with this type of game, Zoo Tycoon's detailed tutorial missions are helpful. At times they can get a little fiddly though, so if you're buying the game for a youngster it might be worth taking the 40 minutes or so needed to sit through the tutorials with them.

The game is split into three main game modes. The first is Freeform mode, where the player is given infinite money. Although this is undoubtedly the mode that will appeal most to younger gamers, the lack of any real pressure means it's also the least appealing for those who want a challenge.

"Everything's plonked down in Duplo-sized shapes when you want Meccano-like levels of detail."

Then there's Campaign mode. This offers a number of short scenarios, of varying difficulty, with a checklist of tasks that need to be completed. These aren't too tricky and you should get through them all in a few hours.

The best of the bunch is Challenge mode, which takes a more traditional route. It starts you off with just a small expanse of land, a bit of cash and a dream. Along with the task of developing a zoo, you're also given various challenges to complete (level up your toilets, take a photo for an animal magazine, etc), which give you more cash and enhance your zoo's reputation.

Many aspects of your park can be tweaked and developed, from ticket prices to advertising campaigns, research centres and breeding grounds. As your park's 'fame' increases (as you level up, in other words), you'll also unlock new animal types, enclosures, park attractions and decorations.

To add a new attraction from scratch, you'll need to lay down an enclosure and adopt suitable animals to live in it, whilst at the same time decorate the enclosure with playthings to keep the animals happy. Meanwhile, you'll need to help maintain your attraction by adding in feeding and cleaning stations, and so forth. At first, the sheer number of tasks can seem a little daunting, but Frontier has done all it can to make the process relatively painless and before long it becomes second nature.

Kinecting on a primal level There are three optional Kinect activities that let you feed, wash and entertain some animals rather than simply leaving them to do it themselves. These are fairly throwaway, and getting an animal to come over is more of a chore than it should be, but younger kids will love it.

While Frontier has taken admirable steps to make zoo creation as simple as possible, it may have gone a little too far. Placing an attraction is as simple as dropping a massive shape on a spare area of grass, at which point the game will auto-generate any necessary paths to join it to the rest of your zoo.

Because of this, there's no option for more experienced gamers to really get stuck in and arrange the most granular aspects of their zoo. You can't lay down your own roads, or choose path types or place smaller decorations like bins or signs: everything's plonked down in big Duplo-sized shapes when sometimes you want a more Meccano-like level of detail.

Enclosure customisation is also limited to a handful of hotspot areas within each pen. That fantasy of laying out your monkey enclosure so the word "MONKEYS" is spelled out in climbing frames must remain unfulfilled.


However, these problems are minor in comparison with the 'zoo limit' meter. Every time you place something in your park - be it an enclosure, an animal, a decoration, etcetera - a meter slowly fills. Once this reaches the maximum, you can't add anything else.

The game does warn you at the start to build your zoo slowly, but a warning of bad times ahead is hardly the ideal solution. Put it this way: when our zoo was filled to its limit, we must have only covered about 20 per cent of the available land.

The result is a game with a clear goal - to build, develop and grow a zoo - that then says "right, that's enough of that" once you reach a certain point.

Accept its limitations and Zoo Tycoon is a charming sim that, while not exactly brimming with depth, still offers a more relaxing alternative to the stabby, gory, drivey next-gen offerings available so far. Just bear in mind that, if you're the sort of gamer who fondly remembers the days of Rollercoaster Tycoon, Theme Hospital and earlier SimCity titles, you won't be ploughing hundreds of hours into this one like you did with those.

The verdict

Frontier's debut Xbox One title is charming but lacks the depth for more committed gamers

  • Simple and straightforward
  • Charming animal animations
  • 'Zoo limit' restricts the fun
  • Customisation too basic
  • Lightweight Kinect features
Xbox One
Frontier Developments
Sim / Strategy