Zoo Tycoon (Xbox One) review: Zoo Impossible

Have you ever watched Restaurant Impossible? The Food Network series has a chef walking into a failing restaurant screaming "what is wrong with you" and then attempts to fix it up. Zoo Tyccon for Xbox One is pretty much that game--but with zoos, of course. Kinectimals creator Frontier Developments caught my attention with a game that promised "Tycoon" style sim management and, yes, the ability to play with adorable animals. What I didn't expect was how deep and satisfying the sim would be.


Zoo Tycoon does an admirable job of easing you into the sim experience. The initial problems you'll deal with are rather easy to understand: Perhaps the animals are 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.

Smartly, the game does become much more complicated as you make your way through the various "scenarios" the game has to offer. Some zoos will have you scratching your head "how did this even happen?" as you move animals from habitat to habitat. "You've been feeding your giraffes fish? What's wrong with you?," you may say in one scenario.

All the while, you'll need to manage money, time, space, and visitor happiness. One challenge, for example, has you building on protected land which means you can't remove any of the annoying trees and mountains that may get in the way of an efficiently-designed zoo. The cost of operating the zoo are astronomical as well, meaning you'll have to figure out some way to stop the financial bleeding. Some challenges require you to save up a certain amount of money, but how can you cut costs while attracting new visitors? The "hard" difficulty challenges eventually become like puzzles, where you must figure not only how to do something, but when as well.

The systems behind the sim are satisfying to play with, although there could be room for more depth. For example, you cannot set the admission price beyond four gradients: free, low, normal, and high. It would've been an interesting challenge if the game let you tweak the price of concessions in a more granular way--although it would make the game less accessible. Perhaps crucially, there's no ability to fast-forward through time. It would've been a nice feature to have, especially when all you're doing is waiting for the research timer to end on one of your new acquisitions.

I initially admired the ability to switch to a traditional third-person perspective to explore the zoo. It's a nice feature to have for casual players, but it ends up being largely ignored as you make your way through the campaign. The Kinect-based mini-games that you can partake in with the animals are cute at first, but they grow stale very quickly--especially as there are only three game types to play through. You can also drive the buggy while on foot--but the handling and animation are terrible.

I would've been disappointed by the shortcomings of the "cute" half of Zoo Tycoon, if the sim aspect weren't so thoroughly enjoyable. For casual players, there is a mode that lets you build a zoo with no concern over money. This is the mode meant for players that really want to walk around, explore the zoo with their in-game camera, and play with animals.

However, the rest of us have some globe-trotting to do. These zoos aren't going to fix themselves, are they? Zoo Tycoon may have taken a best-of-both-worlds approach, but to my surprise and delight, ends up being more successful as a "game" than a mere family-friendly "experience." [7]

This review is based on early retail Xbox One code provided by the publisher. Zoo Tycoon will be available on Xbox One on November 22 as a downloadable title on Xbox Live. The game is also available on Xbox 360. The game is rated E.