Zoo Tycoon (Xbox One) preview: playing with animals

It's been nearly a decade since the last proper Zoo Tycoon game came out. One has to wonder: why? There's something so satisfying about building a zoo and taking care of animals.

The new Zoo Tycoon for Xbox One comes from Kinectimals developer Frontier Developments. Their approach is to give players two kinds of experiences with the rebooted game: the macro game for sim purists, and an on-the-ground game for people that simply want to interact with cute animals. Offering both methods of play gives Zoo Tycoon the depth that Kinectimals never had, while giving the game the "isn't that so precious" moments that the original games could never realize.

As a zoo tycoon, you're tasked with hopping around the world to take care of various zoo problems. Once you enter a zoo, you're given a series of timed objectives. For example, you may need to make the hippos happy. Taking an overhead view of the zoo, you can move the cursor over to the hippos to find out exactly what's making them so sad. Perhaps they're too dirty? Maybe they're hungry? Perhaps there's too much poop that needs to be cleaned up? You'll need to construct the right equipment to progress through the objectives.

While you could stay in omnipresent God mode, looking down upon your zoo in overhead view. But, it's far more satisfying to go to ground level and explore the zoo as a person would. From this view, you can also interact with the animals. You could feed the animals via menu, but you can also go into first-person view, and use Kinect to grab fruit and extend it to the critters. It's a rather simplistic use of Kinect, but it's incredibly effective at making you feel more connected to the zoo.

New objectives will continue to pour in, even after you've completed all the main objectives of a stage. This gives builders a never-ending amount of things to do, especially if you feel particularly connected to a zoo that you've created. Expanding zoos is incredibly easy: you simply drop new buildings wherever there's room. The game will then automatically generate all the roads that connect the new facility. The amount of real estate you have is extraordinary, meaning the truly dedicated can make a Megazoo that matches the size of a city.

As zoos get bigger, you'll have more things to keep in mind. For example, you'll need to watch out for how happy customers are. Perhaps you forgot to put conveniently-located bathrooms? What about concession stands? And did you build enough ways to generate revenue so you can continue taking care of the animals? You'll also be able to hire staff, like janitors that clean up poop. (You'll have to manually check every animal cage if you don't.)

It's fun simply to get caught up in the busywork of maintaining a zoo, but it's important to enjoy spending time with the animals once in a while. For example, you can play "Monkey See, Monkey Do" once you add monkeys to your collection. Using Kinect, you'll be able to make facial gestures that are then copied by the in-game monkey. It's an impressive showcase for what the upgraded Kinect sensor can do.

With its best-of-both-worlds approach, Zoo Tycoon is easily one of my most-anticipated Xbox One launch games. With a launch lineup that largely consists of stabbing men in the neck or shooting them in the face, Zoo Tycoon is a fresh family-friendly addition to the console that offers some of the best Kinect functionality at launch. I can't wait to play more.