In Zoo Tycoon you can hose down a baby elephant and pull faces at a chimpanzee. If you’re not all rushing to your favourite game retailer to buy it right now, you’re a stone-hearted, emotionless monster and Zoo Tycoon is definitely not the game for you.
The obvious charms of caring for a zoo full of animals aside, there’s plenty of room for improvement in this zoo-building sim. Zoo Tycoon suffers slightly from the oversimplification of menu navigation and systems that many console-bound management sims struggle with. Kinect can help with that but it can also have sporadic, frustrating moments of poor functionality that sour the experience.
The premise is fairly simple: you must build a popular, profitable zoo and care for all of the animals and visitors inside your gates. You do this by keeping enclosures of various kinds and stocking them with animals of different types. Then you must supply those animals with food and mental stimulation as they grow old and popular, hopefully levelling up enough that they can eventually be released to the wild.
There is a series of ten tutorials which take a bit of time to get through but give you a good grounding in the basics of building and maintaining your zoo. Once you’re done with those, it’s up to you to get building and entice the public in to gawp at your attractions.
You must choose your enclosure type carefully from a range of biomes, alpine to savannah and tropical to tundra, in order to make the best home for the animals you plan on housing there. It’s here that one of the game’s biggest issues arise – the menus can be a pain to navigate.
Menu navigation is not a glamorous aspect of game design but in a game that relies so heavily on diving into menus and making many selections, it is one of the most important. Zoo Tycoon buries some of the most essential objects several layers deep in menus and it forces you back to the top layer every time you make a selection. So if you’re placing trees around your zoo, for example, you have to navigate through the menus to the tree type for every single placement.
It slows the pace of the game right down and when you’ve developed a large zoo with plenty going on, the menu navigation feels like a waste of your precious time. Every route through a slalom of menu options feels like time wasted when you should be handing oranges to elephants before they get too hungry and the zoo authorities take them away from you.
There are various game modes to choose from but they simply approach the same raison d’être from slightly different angles. The challenges, in particular, play host to various scenarios but they all seem to involve basically running through a very similar series of tasks in a certain time limit. This can mean that you’re furiously trying to accomplish tasks and leaving yourself no time for the enjoyable aspects of the game – playing with monkeys.
You don’t get a lot of time to wander around your zoo and that’s a shame because there’s a nice third person view, in addition to the top-down tycoon view that’s quicker and more useful for planning layout and getting from place to place. You can drive animal-themed golf buggies around the walkways too, with visitors leaping out of your way as you veer towards them, tyres screeching.
There’s also an element of frustration in the research system. Everything from animal types to hot dog stands has to be researched before you can build it. Sometimes this research takes a few seconds to complete but sometimes it take a couple of minutes and there’s no indication of how long you will wait until you instigate it. You can only research one thing at a time too, so until you’re very familiar with the game, you’ll likely try to rush to build something and find yourself halted for a period of time watching a progress meter.
The game’s Challenge mode defines some parameters for success and gives you a limited budget with which to achieve them but it’s never particularly taxing and the rewards aren’t particularly inspiring either. The Freeform mode is perhaps the most enjoyable because it lifts so many of the restrictions and allows you to just build the zoo you want and have fun with it.
Each of the three game modes can be played cooperatively with up to two friends so managing your zoo doesn’t need to be a solo affair. That’s quite a nice touch as it allows people – let’s say children, to save our embarrassment – the chance to role play different responsibilities within the zoo, learning all the time.
That’s perhaps Zoo Tycoon’s most endearing quality – it teaches you about the animals you’re caring for. I had no idea there were so many different types of giraffe, for example. For younger players, this is a lovely, gentle introduction to natural history and the importance of conservation. It also highlights the importance of a zoo’s role in research and breeding programs, which will hopefully inspire some future zoologists.
Zoo Tycoon is a lovely, relaxing little game with a few fairly frustrating quirks. When the menus and Kinect get out of your way and you find a period without the need for repetitive tasks and chores, it’s a pleasant little world to explore and enjoy, but there are those moments of frustration and the slow pacing. This might put off some younger players, ending up as a pleasant game world without a compelling reason to keep coming back and with several reasons to put something else on.