It was at some point while we were playing peek-a-boo with a chimpanzee that we remembered we had a zoo to run and it was in rather desperate need of our attention. We got a little caught up in the fun. It’s all a part of the odd-couple alliance of Kinect mini-games and deep simulation gameplay that Zoo Tycoon has brought to this Xbox One exclusive. It’s a combination that shouldn’t work. It’s a combination that doesn’t always work. But it works more often than not.
Given that so much of the marketing attention around this game has been focused on the Kinect animal interactions, coupled with Frontier’s previous history in this area (the dirge of Kinectimals for instance), we came to Zoo Tycoon with some trepidation. Would it be rich enough and deep enough to satisfy our simulation cravings? Would all the ‘Kinect nonsense’, as we came to think of it, get in the way of an otherwise accomplished game? Actually it’s ended up complementing it all rather nicely.
Zoo Tycoon is a great proof of just how much better Kinect 2.0 is on Xbox One. It may not be the most demanding game in terms of gestures and time-pressure, but it’s often subtle enough to be impressive in its accuracy. The hand gestures for lifting and offering food to animals at feeding stations for instance are great. Even more impressive is the one-for-one minigame where you perform gestures and facial expressions that are copied by apes or big cats. The joy of watching a tiger scratch its ear or leap up on the glass at your command is something pure and undeniable. Even the most cynical gamers that gathered around us as we played couldn’t help but crack a smile.
It’s not perfect though. While the animations hide some of the jerkier aspects of how Zoo Tycoon picks up your movements, it still shows through on occasion. Feeding animals requires you to move around your hands to activate the next prompt and it can take a little while to get it. But perhaps its actually saying a lot about how things have developed and improved that it’s fourth wall breaking moments rather than glaring technical problems that stand out.
It’s also great to see that Frontier has had the confidence in the rest of its game to not make Kinect the be all and end all, or even absolutely essential to being a successful zoo owner. While challenges during campaign will tell you visitors want to see you interact with the animals, it’s not essential. It’s a cherry on the cake that brings the adorable, digital animals up close and personal for just a few moments.
Behind all that is a surprisingly deep simulation game that verges on the frantic at times in terms of its demands on the player. On lower difficulty you don’t need to worry about much more than your animals’ happiness, but as you ramp things up, the full economy of the zoo needs to be managed. From concession stand prices to advertising campaigns and from staff training to exhibit maintenance, there’s a lot to keep in mind. As you chase the fast and sometimes furious challenges and notices through it can be panic inducing, but in a fun, challenging way. It’s a lot to get your head around, but Zoo Tycoon does a good job of easing you through the process.
As you cycle through various measurements of success with the D-pad and Ping to bring up the icons showing how happy your visitors are or how hungry your animals are, there’s a thrill watching the board turn into a sea of green badges, proving your success. Small measures like this to keep you instantly informed of problem areas or shortcomings in your park design are fantastic.
That said, with this being a launch game on the Xbox One we can’t help but look for the factors that separate a game like this from what my have been possible in a previous generation and the fast transfer from controller to Kinect and back again leaps forward. It doesn’t feel intrusive or frustrating. If anything its delightful in a way few games are these days.
One small annoyance that is very particular to this generation and to the Xbox One is the use of the Impulse triggers for notifications. Not such a bad way to warn you of urgent announcements in the top left of you screen, but a bit much when it’s just to tell you an objective was passed. The incessant buzzing on the tip of your left forefinger starts to feel like fingers running down a chalkboard. We recommend you turn it off.
Small annoyances aside, this is a rather accomplished game. Some of the pitfalls of translating strategy games to console controls remain such as slow menu and world navigation, but the gigantic zoo maps, beautifully animated animals and sense of joy counter-balance them nicely. It’s a game well-worth trying.