Version tested: Xbox One
"Create the zoo of your dreams," reads the back of the Zoo Tycoon box. This is an exciting prospect. In the zoo of my dreams, visitors ride around on kangaroos. The gift shop is run by talking bears. Over at the colosseum, monkey butlers serve cocktails while Olympic sprinters race giraffes. There are no animals in the cages, just a thousand Jeremy Kyles, dolefully picking at rotten banana skins while scratching themselves new sores.
Alas, these visions remain consigned to my imagination. (Apart from the Olympic sprinters thing, as per video below. Keep watching to see a zebra get accused of a false start.) Like the other games in the series, Zoo Tycoon for Xbox One is a pretty straightforward simulator that is rooted in realism. And for the most part, it's good fun.
The tutorial is a bit tedious so unless you're completely new to sims or six years old, it's best to get stuck in with Challenge Mode. This involves building a zoo from the ground up, caring for the animals, keeping the visitors happy and making sure the money keeps rolling in. There are optional side missions - you might be tasked with taking a photo for a magazine, for example, or nursing a sick animal adopted from another zoo.
There are status bars for everything from tapirs to toilets and the player's job is to keep these green. New species and facilities become available as you level up and there are endless things to research. It's only possible to research one thing at a time, however, and there are no refunds for cancelling. This leads to some frustrating waiting around even when there's money in the bank.
At any point you can switch between a top-down perspective - useful for construction and general admin - and exploring on foot as your zookeeper avatar. The avatar is customisable and customising is advised, as the default guy likes to walk around with his hands on his hips and his crotch thrust out, as if looking at his own zoo gives him a massive hard-on.
Zoo Tycoon works with Kinect and understands a limited range of voice commands. I had no problems with the vocal recognition. However, Kinect struggled to track my arm movements when I tried to interact with animals, to the point where feeding them by hand became more hassle than it was worth. Oddly, the camera is fine with facial features - I spent a whole 10 minutes exchanging winks with a lion. In short, the Kinect stuff is wonky gimmickry that is best ignored, unless your idea of a good time is flirting with Aslan.
Kinect nonsense aside, the mechanics of the game work fine, thanks to intuitive, well-designed menus and a user-friendly interface. There's no sense of this being a PC game shoehorned onto a console. There are some neat additional options, like a Campaign Mode featuring specific long-term goals, and Freeform Mode, which offers unlimited cash for those who just want to muck about and buy orangutans without worrying how much to charge for milkshakes.
Unless you're playing one of the harder Campaign missions, it's quite hard to screw up. As long as you adhere to some obvious principles (animals need to eat, people need to buy stuff), the process of zoo management is pleasant and undemanding.
After a while, though, it does get a bit dull. The gameplay is repetitive and the rewards are too similar. It's hard to get excited about unlocking the Lowland Bongo Antelope when you've already got nine other types of antelope knocking around, and you couldn't care less about antelopes anyway, because they're rubbish. (Yes, antelope fans, I went there. "Oh Daddy, when we get to the zoo, can we go straight to the antelopes?" said no one ever.)
The game thwarts any attempts to spice things up - you can't throw a tiger in with a bear and see what happens, for example, or train wolves to ride bikes, or make dolphins prove how intelligent they actually are by doing a sudoku, or give the elephants hats.
There are laughable attempts to make the mundane entertaining, but cleaning up poo that explodes in a shower of multicoloured sparkles is still cleaning up poo (as I discovered after that wedding where my two-year-old ate a box of confetti). It's hard to care that you've earned the right to install Level 2 Restrooms, even knowing you can switch to ground view, walk up to the new toilets and hear them flushing. Welcome to the next generation of gaming.
Things might have been more interesting if there was any attempt to address some of the real issues affecting modern zoos, like whether it's ethical to keep animals in captivity at all, or whether they do in fact protect species against extinction, or how to stop the bonobos wanking.
The closest Zoo Tycoon comes to this sort of thing is the Community feature. You vote for your favourite species - rhino, tiger or Komodo dragon - and when 1000 virtual animals have been released into the virtual wild, Microsoft will donate $10,000 real dollars towards the conservation of that species. At the time of writing, the tigers were in the lead. It seems a bit weird that the continuing survival of an endangered species may be partially dependent on the random button presses of Zoo Tycoon players. Is there not a fairer way to decide the winner? Why not get a tiger, a rhino and a Komodo dragon together and let them fight it out?
But this isn't that kind of game. It's a game that's been designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible - kids, grown-ups, antelope fans. And whatever your demographic, in the short term at least, Zoo Tycoon is a pleasure to play. Special mention has to go to the beautifully realistic animal animations, but the less glamorous menu system also deserves praise.
There's huge satisfaction to be had from building your zoo, observing the animals and watching all the graphs go up. It's just a shame that over time, as the novelties wear off, the lack of depth makes it hard to keep coming back. But who knows? Perhaps a future update will introduce monkey butlers.
7 / 10