It's truly a bizarre concept when you think of the "tycoon" genre as something people become addicted to and spend hours upon hours enjoying. It comprises a group of videogames whose sole purpose is to simulate the tedious tasks of a management job like accounting, regulating lines, and deciding the best place to put a restroom. Where tycoon games excel though is giving you the power and freedom to experiment while in this position and to do so with interesting scenarios. The concept of Zoo Tycoon might be familiar, but the Xbox One's take on the genre is certainly one of the freshest in years.
Zoo Tycoon on Xbox One drops players into the role of a zookeeper who just so happens to make all the decisions for running the attractions. The game comes in two parts, with the first being a top down overview of your available land and the second being a 3rd person view to experience what your patrons do in the zoo. You can technically do most tasks in either view, but being able to get down to the ground level and experience the zoo is definitely part of Zoo Tycoon's hook.
The game was developed by Frontier Developments, who worked on Kinectimals on the Xbox 360. It's easy to see where some of that technology has bled over, allowing players to interact with animals by feeding or making faces at them using the Kinect. Kids will love playing with chimpanzees and watching the animal mimic their faces - it appears to be pure magic, something evident by the smile on my five year old's face. But these simple mini games also serve a purpose. The interactions boost the value of your attractions or, if you were feeding an animal, actually solves their hunger.
In Zoo Tycoon you aren't just worried about whether or not your patrons are happy, but whether or not your animals are happy, too. This comes from the exhibits themselves and the ability to add things like food, bathing, and interactive toys and objects. It not only makes the animal's living area more attractive, it serves a purpose, too.
Zoo Tycoon claims to be loaded with over 100 animals, though the reality is there's only a few dozen types and then many variations of the breed. You've got lions, tigers, bears as well as giraffes, antelope, and monkeys. There are minor animal types too like iguanas, parrots, lemurs and a few others. It's within each of these that you have the various breeds - like Asiatic, West African, Transvaal, Masai, and Barbary. The more rare the breed the more the animal can cost, but the better the pay off. Oh, and you wanted a baby elephant? That'll really cost you because EVERYONE loves cute baby animals.
While a lot of tycoon games can drag you into the numbers behind them, Zoo Tycoon keeps things simple. Most attractions and financial decisions boil down to choosing free, low, medium, and high price tags. These decisions still bare an important factor into the overall running of your zoo, and you can easily view graphs and charts to track how your decisions affect the outcome. Money will be spent in various places - whether it's researching new animal breeds or attractions, or paying to actually adopt the animals or refill their food bowl.
I'm actually impressed with just how many layers there are in Zoo Tycoon. The game does a good job of being accessible for kids while at the same time providing some hardcore management options for fans of the genre. My only gripe in terms of accessibility for younger gamers is the lack of a narrator during the tutorial phases of the game. It's pretty text heavy so it might turn off kids before they get into the fray.
All that said Zoo Tycoon is a great co-op game, whether you're just playing pass the controller co-op on the couch (like I played with my kid), or you are taking advantage of the game's unique online co-op modes. Up to four people can contribute to a zoo both in realtime and asynchronously. In terms of playing with younger kids, Zoo Tycoon offers a "free" mode where you are given unlimited funds and can quickly level up your zoo keeper and see all the animals at your disposal. If you're looking for a greater challenge Zoo Tycoon extends into a Campaign mode and a challenge mode. All of the modes of play can be experience cooperatively. The challenge and campaign modes are similar though have different style of goals. For instances the challenges might consist of holding a certain happiness rating for your animals in a set time period while the campaign might just ask you to get your zoo to a certain level.
I took to the online play and built out a zoo with a friend both at the same time, and on different nights when we couldn't meet up to play together. It was really impressive to see the giant exhibits being placed by the co-zookeepers while in the third person perspective, though the zoo patrons paid no attention to the giant hovering savannahs. Co-Op allows players to split up duties too - one can concentrate on expansion while another worries about the animal welfare and happiness. It's here where the game shines and the simple act of talking through where to place certain items or deciding what will shape your zoo transcends "business meeting" and usually enters in to the realm of ridiculous.
Of course, the first thing we did in co-op was try to break the game, so we placed a janitor station (and an antelope exhibit) the furthest we could from the main zoo. The game stuttered for a second and then promptly filled in two giant LONG paths connecting everything. Entering third person mode and jumping into a buggy, I drove its full length. Needless to say the size your zoo can be is impressive, though you won't be able to fill up the landmass before hitting an exhibit limit.
There are other co-op options, too that are more subtle. Players can gift animals to friends to help breed rare types. Once you invite an online player to your zoo, at anytime you can load it up from the cloud and continue your adventures and save it back. The next time your friends log on they can continue from where you left off. You won't necessarily get the rewards from this if your friends complete challenges or levels, so you'll probably want to plan a meetup to actually complete some of the later levels.
Overall I really enjoyed the game though I didn't find myself addicted to it at long stretches. It seemed perfect to try to complete the challenges in an hour or two, but things got a bit boring. The co-op definitely helps spruce things up, but some of the menial tasks early on - like having to clean up poop or refill feeding bowls - just seemed excessive. Thankfully later on you can hire zookeepers and janitors to help with the daily maintenance.
Zoo Tycoon is impressive graphically, and while it's weird to talk about a next-gen zoo game, once you look at the animals in motion, it's hard not to be a little dazzled. There's just enough depth here to satisfy the hardcore while attracting newcomers as well. The flexibility in the game's co-op is fresh as well, allowing players to work together not just online but at different times. My five year old daughter really enjoyed the game, even if all she cared about was the animals and seeing what the next animal "did." Perhaps that's the best part about the tycoon games after all - the discovery.