Not all simulators are created equal. While some let you dabble into the tiniest microcosmic detail like individual wages of specific levels of society, others are content to let you roam free in a zen garden-like state. The newest iteration of Zoo Tycoon is decidedly the latter, as there's nary a concept presented throughout the course of a game that a child couldn't eventually figure out.
Zoo Tycoon (Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: November 22, 2013
Far and away the best part of Zoo Tycoon is interacting with the animal kingdom. There are tons of creatures to choose from, all the way from the noble lion to the smallest lizard, and pretty much everything in between. Going a step above expectations, animals have individual names, personalities, and can be adopted and released. You'll have some idea of what to expect when bringing them in and you'll get updates when they're shipped out, so there's a connection there that's not usually found in simulation games.
It's expected that you'll take care of these animals mind you, with a number of different requirements for each exhibit. Throughout the course of the game you'll monitor your animal pens, and check to make sure they're enjoying their environment, that they're clean, and that they're fed. It's nothing major, really, and it can all be monitored very easily with the press of a button, with meters for each necessity and a few clicks to solve each problem.
But that's all you're going to be doing in terms of the simulation aspect, as there's very little you can influence beyond your animal's welfare. While it may seem like you can control the macro elements of the zoo at first, most of the changes are extremely bare-bones -- in other words there's no "exact percentage" sliders to speak of. For example, instead of upping your park tickets by "55%" to find that sweet spot, you're limited to "free, low, normal, and high" -- a concept that carries over to every other facet of the actual park.
Most of your fun is going to come out of wandering around your creation -- not navigating the game's (lack of) menus. While you can take a traditional overhead real-time strategy viewpoint to manage your whole park, you can just as easily take control of a customizable avatar to walk around your zoo in third person, as well as call upon a golf car to zip around. There actually is a point to the game as well, with various story missions with unique objectives. Goals usually center around earning more patrons or more cash, with the occasional twist. For instance, some missions might task you with taking a specific picture using the first-person camera function -- putting further emphasis on the exploration aspects of the game.
Kinect functionality is completely optional here, and it's mostly for feeding and interacting with animals. Family members will love this feature in particular, especially when they're holding out their hand to feed their favorite creature. There are a few other mini-games you can play with your furry residents (like making faces at them or hosing them down for a bath), and the result almost always ends in a smile.
You can enjoy all these features by way of three major modes -- campaign, challenge mode, and free play. Some of the challenges are puzzle-like in nature, like the ones that force you to build on certain pieces of land with limited resources. Since you can't just expand everywhere to brute force the mission, you'll have to figure out how to make the best of your real estate. There are also a number of social features, like the ability to take care of other player's animals -- but there's no full-on Minecraft-esque multiplayer mode.
Free play is just how it sounds, as the game provides you with unlimited funds to build the zoo of your dreams. It literally is an interactive zen garden, as there's no fear of reprisal for building one too many incorrect environments, and you can fill your park with as many cute animals as you like. I spent more than a few hours in this, and my wife would occasionally look in with an "awww" every now and then during a cute moment. In other words, this mode is perfect for handing off to your kids or non-gamers without a need to coach them at every turn.
Zoo Tycoon has a distinct lack of depth, but if you're capable of sitting down with this simplistic simulator, you'll smile more times than you can count. The simulator fan in me was a bit disappointed by the ease of it all, but the child in me couldn't help but enjoy myself.
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