"We had a goal - to make the prettiest animals in gaming"

Why Zoo Tycoon's an unlikely highlight of the Xbox One launch line-up.

Do you remember that moment around eight years ago when you'd realised the next-generation had arrived? Perhaps it was peeking out the side-window of a Ferrari Enzo in Project Gotham Racing 3 and seeing the city pass by in a slick blur of motion. Maybe you had to wait a little longer to see the rain streaming down Marcus Fenix's impossible shoulders before he slammed them into a hunk of black concrete.

At Microsoft's pre-launch Xbox One event in a dreary London, everyone's shuffling from demo pod to demo pod trying to find that moment again. They're looking for it within the sumptuous battlegrounds of Ryse, in the thunder, speed and precision of Forza Motorsport 5 or amidst the darkly comic chaos of Dead Rising 3. Upstairs, at a quieter booth, I think I've found what does it for me, though: winking at my newly adopted baby chimpanzee in Frontier's Zoo Tycoon, I'm amazed and delighted when he immediately winks back.

Zoo Tycoon's probably suffered a little in the build-up to the Xbox One release, and it's certainly been absent from the front-lines of Microsoft's campaign. Perhaps they'd already learnt that it's best not to work with children and animals on-stage, or more likely they've got bigger, brasher games to sell the vision.

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I tried to hurl an orange at a giraffe's head at feeding time, but the game wasn't having any of my nastiness.

Which is a shame, as it seems it's not the first time Zoo Tycoon's been forgotten about. Once a successful series under the stewardship of the now departed Blue Fang Games, it's been missing in action since 2007. Frontier had looked at a revival in 2009, but with Project Natal soaking up everyone's attention, the lions and tigers it had created for its virtual zoo got shipped out to what would become part of the first wave of games for Microsoft's motion controller, Kinectimals.

"We were busy, but we're finally back to where we were in 2009, and the Xbox One affords us to do things we couldn't have done," beams the wonderfully enthusiastic Jorg Neumann, a studio manager on Microsoft's side of the business, before dropping a bomb.

"We gave ourselves five goals - and the first was prettiest animals in gaming." The prettiest animals in gaming. It's that kind of ambition that sets Zoo Tycoon apart.

Frontier had other objectives, too. The best looking, biggest zoos was one, and native 1080p on Xbox One was another, as was a more approachable experience. "Let's make it easier to build," says Neumann. "I remember on the old PC one I had to take breaks because my fingers would hurt. Let's make it powerful, not painful."

"And we have Kinect, and the Kinect we have now makes it able for us to do things totally new. And we can do multiplayer. And we did that in multiple ways - we put our zoos up in the cloud, so they're communal zoos and all your friends can have access. With that, we did something that's important which is community engagement."

Zoos in the cloud and some fine-looking animals? Zoo Tycoon's my kind of game. It could well be yours too, if you give it a chance. The default view's a distant, overhead shot that gives you an overview of each of the park's enclosures, allowing you to build new enclosures and check in on the welfare of your animals. The ultimate goal's to keep the money coming in, but the best way to do that is making sure the animals are happy - there's no victory to be found in hosting the turd-slinging gorillas that sulk around London Zoo here.

There's a softness to Zoo Tycoon that's in stark contrast to the rest of the Xbox One launch line-up, in fact. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has been heavily consulted throughout the game's development, and the prime directives of any zoo - that being to educate and observe - are close to Zoo Tycoon's heart. A zoopedia lets you go in-depth as you scurry around managing the animals' hunger and happiness (that's busywork that can eventually be handled by janitors, incidentally, once you've researched and invested in the right facilities).

Switch down to a zoomed-in third-person view of the park and that soft edge is found in the little details as you explore it with your customisable avatar - educators are there to teach visitors a little more about the zoo's inhabitants, and you can walk up to paddocks to see the animals up close, or even zoom around in a buggy from point to point in what feels like a small, very polite GTA. The park construction itself is worth noting, in fact, and Frontier seems to have taken the detail which enriched the staggering reconstruction of a theme park in Kinect: Disneyland adventure.

And how pretty exactly are those animals? Getting up close and personal with Scotty, a depressed giraffe in need of a partner whose sullen demeanour shows in his expression, they're certainly a characterful bunch, their fur dense with detail. He cheers up a little when we adopt a companion for him, and elsewhere in the park there are other animals who react to you via mini-games that are optionally powered by Kinect. There's a baby elephant that chirrups with delight when you hose it down, or that monkey who comes close to the looking glass and mimics, thanks to the power of the new Kinect, your facial expressions.

It's a small moment of gimmicky connection that's still more powerful than any of the volleys of gunfire or clash of swords that's found elsewhere on the Xbox One's launch line-up. Zoo Tycoon might not be the most obvious choice of game to pick up on day one for your new console, but it's an unlikely treat - and it's one that could convince you better than anything else out there that you've done the right thing in investing in the next-generation.

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