Few console launch games truly appeal to the whole family. Instead games tend to be aimed squarely at the serious gamer, or to a much lesser extent, children. Very few appeal to both the parent gamer and their children as well. In that regard at least, Zoo Tycoon may be exceptional.
A zoo management sim, Zoo Tycoon includes three basic game modes, Free Form, Challenge and Campaign, as well as a comprehensive tutorial.
In Challenge mode, apsiring zoologists build a zoo from scratch, completing small challenges as they pop up, from opening the first attraction to adopting five different breeds of animals, or from repairing broken restrooms to nursing a sick animal back to health. Each one of these challenges has a set time limit depending on its difficulty, and how these tasks are managed and prioritised determines success or failure in this mode. Soon there will be four or five challenges on the go at once, and each of varying length and difficulty. As Challenges are completed the Zoo’s Fame level increases, opening up the ability to research more animals (of which there are over 100), 'enrichments', decorations, and concessions.
Campaign mode tasks players with completing a set number of objectives. These might be as simple as adopting a particular breed of animal, to taking over a zoo in need of a makeover and replacing the current roster with new animals. It sounds simple enough, but with a time limit, and the simple fact an animal can’t be in to the wild until it has matured to a certain level, things start to get interesting. As in Challenge mode, the Zoo also requires constant maintenance. When the required tasks are completed, the zoo reverts to the ‘never ending’ challenge mode.
Free Form is a sandbox mode where players are free to build their dream zoo with a bottomless supply of funds and none of the tasks found in the Challenge and Campaign modes. Needless to say, after completing a number of Challenge and Campaign zoos, what starts off as a refreshing change soon becomes flat-out boring. All three game modes have an arbitrary limit to the total amount of animals, exhibits, decorations, entertainments, and eateries a zoo can hold, and unless you go out of your way to use the space as inefficiently as possible, this limit will be reached within an eighth of the available landmass. In Challenge and Campaign mode it’s not a deal breaker. In Free Form mode, it defies belief that Frontier Developments would present a canvas this large, to then only provide enough paint for one player to fill in a single corner.
As Frontier was also responsible for Kinectimals, it should comes as no surprise that Microsoft's proprietary motion sensor is heavily supported. Nonetheless, everything in Zoo Tycoon that can be done on Kinect can still be completed using a gamepad, and for the most part a regular controller still works better. For example, the voice activated commands bring up the specified menu, but from there a regular controller is still required to navigate and make selections.
However, there are some Kinect features that demonstrate that the Xbox One version of the sensor is much improved over its Xbox 360 counterpart. Certain animals can be hand fed through gestures captured by Kinect; turn your palm down, close the palm to pick up the food, turn palm up and then open. Doing so allows the animal you are interacting with to eat the food out of your hand. Then there's the much-hyped ‘winking at a chimp’ feature. It works as it says on the packet, and doesn't t stop at Chimps – players can play with the big cats too.
Unfortunately, this mode doesn't exist anywhere in isolation. There's a zoo to be run, and while plenty of younger or more inexperienced gamers might get a kick out of playing with the animals, the mechanics of the game simply don't tolerate it.
There are a few other frustrations, too. For one, the load times are long. The process of researching also feels unnecessarily hamstrung by the inability to research more than one subject at a time, irrespective of the zoo's available funds. Kinect also registers far too much activity. If more than one person is within the sensor's range, it can fail to correctly register gestured commands. On time critical challenges, this can be a very real problem.
Zoo Tycoon has enough depth to keep adult gamers briefly engaged, but it also has real hand-me-down value for any children in the house. Young ones are sure to enjoy pulling faces and poking out their tongues all they want. A great family option.