Zoo Tycoon Review

Dan Webb

Running a website like Xbox Achievements is a lot like actually being a zoo tycoon. For one, I employ monkeys, who I pay in peanuts; secondly, I have to make sure the punters are happy with the day to day running of the “zoo,” and lastly, I often get left to clean up everybody’s shit. It’s a thankless job, but one hell of a satisfying one.

There are a few differences it must be said. For one I can’t just employ everyone with the name Eric because I feel like it… actually, I probably could, but having them all be decent writers would be a long shot; and more unfortunately, I can’t import a troupe of lemurs to be my wily sidekicks and do my evil bidding for me. As you can imagine then, adjusting to the Xbox One’s version of Zoo Tycoon was a rather seamless transition.

Bananas: elephants love 'em. Apparently.

Hardcore PC sim fans will no doubt be aware of the Zoo Tycoon franchise from way back when, created by the now defunct Blue Fang Games. Enter Frontier Developments, the masterminds behind Kinect Disneyland Adventures and Kinectimals, and it shouldn’t surprise you one bit to say that the next era of Zoo Tycoon is a cross between all three franchises. That’s not to say that the zoo sim has been scaled back in favour of components from the other two franchises, but it does encompass some of the technology that was at their core.

If you were a fan of the original PC game, be aware that this is a very different prospect now, but no less deep. Streamlined is probably a good adjective. Gone are all the landscaping and terrain tools, and in come preset environments – like savannah and tropical forests to alpine woods and tundra. The preset animal enclosures – known as exhibits in the game – come in various shapes and sizes, allowing you to tend to your animals’ needs, whether it be food, social requirements, breeding or entertainment.

There’s more to running a zoo than that though, meaning you’ll also have to manage the staff, including hiring and firing, balance the books, sort out the advertising and even research new animal breeds, amenities and stores for your personal zoo. How the park looks is entirely up to you too and the customisation within the title is fairly deep, allowing you to personalise the aesthetics of the park from its decorations to the scenery, all the way through to the name of your animals and exhibits.

"Stop pulling my hair, you little shit!"

The game suffers from what I’m calling pseudo-depth, which is that, while on the surface the game may seem incredibly deep, it’s actually not quite as deep as you’d hope. There’s a lot to do, yes, but the game, probably due to its lack of unpredictability, actually becomes rather too predictable. D’uh… Once you nail down a strategy, it’ll work forever, pretty much nuking the replayability altogether.

For instance, we built the most complex zoo we could envision, with animals galore, had them breeding left right and centre, releasing them into the wild at regular intervals, and as a result all of our animals and guests were super happy. We did all of this in a few hours and had more money coming in than a Donald Trump and Sir Alan Sugar lovechild would have. There are loads of options and animals, sure, but it’s not quite as meaningful as it probably should have been.

The new streamlined aspects of the franchise may annoy fans of the original as the detailed park building aspects are nigh-on absent, being replaced with an auto-path creator between your attractions. Not having complete control over making your zoo look exactly how you want is likely to rub fans of the franchise up the wrong way. And then there’s the “zoo limit,” meaning you can only use a certain amount of objects within your whole zoo, even in free mode. I thought next-generation was limitless? Apparently not.

A busy zoo, is a good zoo.

Thanks to Frontier’s work on Kinect Disneyland Adventures, players don’t just have to settle for the traditional aerial view now and can actually jump into the zoo itself and navigate on foot – or in a buggy. Furthermore, the animals look stunning, thanks in no small part to their experience on Kinectimals. It’s just a shame that the actual animal interaction – which range from feeding animals, washing them and pulling funny faces at them - is obviously shoehorned in as a reason to use Kinect in the game. It’s clunky and unresponsive. Heck, you can’t even invert the third-person view camera and the Kinect operated aspects separately – why the hell would you want to invert Kinect and by extension have to perform natural motions and gestures in reverse!? “Xbox, Kinect Off.”

Quite who Zoo Tycoon is aimed at then is a bit of a mystery. It’s too deep for a child, and almost not deep enough for a sim fan. If anyone’s the target audience, it’s probably a parent who likes to play games with their children, which is hardly a huge market. For sim fans who do want to check it out, there are a good few modes, including the ‘Campaign’ mode, which has challenges to complete; the ‘Challenge’ mode, which has campaigns to complete; and ‘Freeform’ mode, which is an unlimited cash mode, although there’s still a zoo limit in place. Hmph. If you’re a social butterfly, then there is 4-player co-op too across all the modes if that’s your bag, but the limitations of the game itself might make that short-lived.

A pensive red panda, yesterday.

It’s not without its issues either. The frame rate can chug when you’ve got a packed zoo, while the animals suffer from path finding issues, canned animations and repetitive actions. The long load times can also be a tad frustrating. The game, despite having a lengthy tutorial, also suffers from some signposting issues, not really explaining the mechanics well enough to grasp, especially for a game that has a lot of features to absorb.

From an achievement standpoint, it’s new generation, same ol’ game here. It’s a solid list in truth, but it’s taken up by the usual completion and by-the-numbers achievements. The balance is pretty strong, albeit probably aimed at the more core gamers than anyone else. Is it an easy 1,000? No. Is it hard? Knowing the predictability of the game, that’d be a negatory. It might take you some time though.

While Zoo Tycoon might not be the ultimate management sim or even a worthy family game that either crowd was after, it’s a strong crossbreed. It’s an enjoyable, yet ultimately flawed game, and in truth, it’s hard to see the benefit of Microsoft’s next-generation console on this showing, aside from some nice bushes, and you can get that from any good strip club this side of the Thames.

Zoo Tycoon

Zoo Tycoon’s biggest crime is its lack of ambition. With all the power behind it and a renowned sim-orientated brand, it’s as if family specialists, Frontier, wasn’t sure which crowd to cater too. Despite that, the pseudo-deep sim game is feature-heavy and an ultimately enjoyable ride.

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There is nothing more to say than that it exists. At times it’s nice, other times, unnoticeable.


Some of the animals can look delightful up close, with their fur swaying in the wind, but at other times it’s disappointingly last-gen. The frame rate can struggle at times too.


Aside from Kinect it’s easy enough to control. Kinect is just a waste of your time and ours.


Not deep enough for management sim nuts, too deep to be a family game. Still, it’s fun, enjoyable, yet ultimately flawed.


A decent enough list that does nothing inherently wrong, but nothing marvellously right either.

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